More Lax

Sometimes I think I prefer Lax’s journals to his poetry; in that sense, he reminds me of Thoreau. Even though it was his sparse verse that originally drew me to his work, in the end I think I appreciate his philosophy more than I do his poetic style. Of course, reading his journals and secondary materials has also given me a greater appreciation and understanding of his poetry.

Like Merton, Lax seemed to become more open to Eastern religions later in his life, though they seemed to complement, rather than supplant, his Christian values. Considering his hermetic life, it’s not surprising to me that he found Chuang Tzu appealing, particularly since Merton’s translation of Chuang Tzu is considered a masterpiece in its own right. He obviously studied Merton’s Chuang Tzu translation extensively:

sometimes, i have conversations with an imaginary guru, naturally one who lives inside me. he used to be a psychiatrist: at least in the old days a lot of my conversations were started with, & a lot of my problems heard out or resolved by, an imaginary viennese who listened carefully, often accusingly, & showed me with a few apt technical phrases how far i had erred in my thinking, or behavior. the viennese fellow has disappeared; comes back if ever for very short visits; but has been replaced by chuang tzu (sometimes merton, or sometimes chuang tzu in merton translation) who tells me other wisdoms: usually the wisdoms of abstinence & avoidance; of retreat, prayer & preparation, of non-attachment, of “sitting quietly doing nothing,” of seeking smallness, not greatness, or of seeking nothing at all.

as i don’t think i really understood the “psychiatrist” half of the time, i’m not sure i really understand “chuang tzu.” i respect him though, don’t resent him, as i often did the psychiatrist; feel that he knows i don’t know but that little by little there’ll be things i can learn. i picture him with shaved head, a listener (& yet a practical man), a listener who appreciates, a listener with humor; a storehouse-—but very light storehouse—-of wisdom; made like modern electronic ears of light, light materials, but of great receiving strength.

what he promotes is wisdom, what he promises is grace. zen wisdom, perhaps; zen grace, but certainly wisdom & grace.

one feels that all philosophies, zen, & yoga are ways of approaching wisdom & “enlightenment”—they are ways of approaching an enlightened state in which one’s behavior is always or almost always “spontaneously” right.

to be “enlightened” is not to shine; nor to bring multitudes to the hill where one sits cross-legged, to listen.

it is rather to know what one is doing (& even, perhaps, to enjoy it).

I’ve occasionally had “discussions” with a parent or a long-time friend in my head, but I don’t think there’s a single author I know well enough that I could reconstruct them in my head. If I were going to learn someone that well, though, chuang tzu would be an excellent choice, though I’m more apt to hear Lao Tzu through the Tao Te Ching, probably as close as I come to having a “religion.” More importantly, this seems to indicate a shift from trying to understand why we do things (a Freudian approach) to understanding how we should act, or, equally important, not act. Taoism puts emphasis on accepting what has happened and not trying to understand why it has happened. That’s definitely something I’m still working on.

Lax also emphasizes being in the moment, and not the past, in his journal, another emphasis of Eastern religions:

seeing through two lenses: one lens with a hairline split (like german camera) for greater accuracy: not a split like a broken pane, a broken mirror: but not (yet) the single vision of mystic or hasid.

what could be fuller of life than this (every) moment: each moment regarded calmly is like a jungle (or aquarium) bursting with life.

as jungle is full of beasts, so any moment is full (of many lives).

to look intently at any one object, may seem to leave the others out of account. but the attempt to look at all leaves nothing seen. (nothing regarded closely or understood.)

Of course, it’s hard to imagine any good poet not having this kind of awareness. It’s that kind of attention to detail that allows the poet to convey his vision to his reader.

Much of the later poetry seems to leave out any reference to religious beliefs, to focus, instead, on the immediacy of the setting. The last poem in Love Had a Compass, manages to include both, though it’s certainly not a typical “Christian” poem:

I praise the Lord
for the beauty
of the sun

the beauty
of the sun

I praise the Lord
for the sound
of the wind

the sound
of the wind

the sound
of the wind

the beauty
of the sun

the beauty
of the sun

the sound
of the wind

the sound
of the wind

I praise the Lord

for the movement
of the trees

the movement
of the trees

the movement
of the trees

I praise the Lord

for the movement
of the trees

the sound
of the wind
the dancing
of the sun

I’ll have to admit, though, that I don’t like these later poems as much as I do Lax’s poems in Circus Days & Nights. Surprisingly, they are too minimalist for me, often lacking even the concrete images that I find so appealing in William Carlos Williams poetry and Japanese haikus. Taken to this degree, the poems almost seem abstract rather than concrete. [Apparently I’m not the first to make this observation; see this article.“Beauty of the sun” strikes me as abstract, not an accurate description of sunshine as it strikes (the water, the raindrop, etc.).

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not meditative. My favorite form of meditation isn’t one focused on awareness or on a single object, but, rather, one focused on pure darkness, totally shutting out everything but the darkness. Listening to Lax read his later poems comes as close to Gregorian chant as anything I’ve ever heard read (though I seem to have lost/misplaced the link to the site where he read them in yet another senior moment).

Lax’s “Circus of the Sun”

I suspect it would be difficult to immerse myself in Robert Lax’s spiritual milieu as I’ve done recently and not find more spiritual references in his poetry than I found the first time I read it, or, at the very least, not to pay more attention to those elements than I did the first time. In rereading his poems, I didn’t find too many religious references that I hadn’t noted the first time I read them, but the references did seem much more significant to me than they did on a first reading.

The most Christian of his poems ,“The Circus of the Sun,” is often described as his “masterpiece.” I must admit that the more I read it, the more I like it. I might even go so far as to argue that it was the next generation’s answer to the Lost Generations’ dystopic view of the world, the view that dominated much of 29th century literature. In The Seven Storey Mountain Merton said that Joyce’ s The Portrait of an Artist convinced him to join a monastery. Like Merton, Lax’s poetry stands directly opposed to the views of The Lost Generation. “Circus of the Sun” seems to imply that Eden is constantly reinvented and that we can even manage to live there if we maintain the proper balance.

Unlike Merton, Lax joined a circus, not a monastery. You might have to be as old as I am to understand the appeal of the Circus. Even though circuses were on the way out even when I was a child, I do remember the excitement of watching an old-fashioned circus come to town, watching the elephants set up the tents, playing the carnival games and then attending a bigtop show in the evening. As a child I read stories of unhappy children running away from home to join the circus and having experienced the magic of a bigtop I could identify with that desire.

There was something magical about watching an empty field suddenly be transformed into a thriving carnival, and Lax identifies this transformation with an earlier act of creation:


In the beginning (in the beginning of time to say
the least) there were the compasses:
whirling in
void their feet traced out beginnings and endings,
beginning and end in a single line. Wisdom danced
also in circles for these were her kingdom: the sun
spun, worlds whirled, the seasons came round, and
all things went their rounds: but in the beginning,
beginning and end were in one.

And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere:
all things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed
beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love
had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a
sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof
 rose a fountain.

The concept of circles and spheres is inherent in almost all the earliest religions but also seem central to Lax’s philosophy, particularly spheres. Since Love is also central to his vision, it’s not surprising to see him to see him tie the two together in the phrase “Love made a sphere.” In The Way of the Dreamcatcher when Georgiou asks “And how do we nurture and sustain?” Lax replies, “Through unconditional love. That’s the bottom line, son. Everything is here because of love. That’s why we were created — to love, and creation was set up to make love possible. Love keeps things going, not just for now, but for forever. Love gives life and makes sure what’s around today will be around tomorrow. It’s about compassion, it’s what the cosmos best responds to…” It’s probably not entirely coincidental that “compass” and “compassion” have the same etymological root.

After watching the tents set up, the poet remarks:

We have seen all the days of creation in one day: this is
the day of the waking dawn and all over the field the
people are moving, they are coming to praise the Lord:
and it is now the first day of creation. We were there on
that day and we heard Him say: Let there be light. And
we heard Him say: Let the firmament be; and water, and
dry land, herbs, creeping things, cattle and men. We were
there in the beginning for we were there in the morning
and we saw the rising of the tent and we have known how
it was in the beginning. We have known the creation of
the firmament: and of the water, and of the dry land, and
of the creatures that moved in the deep, and of the crea-
tures that moved on the land, and of the creation of men:
the waking of acrobats. We have known these things from
the beginning of the morning, for we woke early. We rose
and came to the field.

The key metaphor here is contained in the lines: “We were/there in the beginning for we were there in the morning/ and we saw the rising of the tent and we have known how/ it was in the beginning.” The lines that originally surprised me, though, were: “of the creation of men:/ the waking of acrobats.” Why did Lax identify just the acrobats with the “creation of men?” Was it just that they are the stars of the bigtop, or was it something else that defined them as “men?”

Two later poems help us sense why Lax thinks the acrobats are “His chosen people.”

They lie in slumber late, the acrobats;
They sleep and do not know the sun is up.
Nor does the Lord wake them,
Nor do the sun’s rays touch them.
And the Lord, who has chosen them
The Lord, who created them,
Leaves them in slumber until it is time.
Slowly, slowly, His hand is upon the morning’s lyre,
Makes a music in their sleeping.
And they turn, and turning wonder
Eyes awake to light of morning.
They rise, dismounting from their beds,
They rise and hear the light airs playing
Songs of praise unto the Lord.
The circus is a song of praise,
A song of praise unto the Lord.
The acrobats, His chosen people,
Rejoice forever in His love.

One thing that seems to set the acrobats apart is that they awake to a “song of praise,/ A song of praise unto the Lord.” And, of course, knowing that they are “His chosen people,” they “Rejoice forever in His love.”

The greatest acrobat of all is Mogador and Lax makes it clear what makes him so special:

Mogador comes down the field.
“There he is!”
He walks the earth like a turning ball: knowing
and rejoicing in his sense of balance:
he delights in the fulcrums
and levers, teeter-boards, trampolines, high-wires,
swings, the nets, ropes and ring-curbs of the natural

Beneath his feet the world is buoyant,
thin and alive as a bounding rope.
He stands on it poised,
a gyroscope on the rim of a glass,
sustained by the whirling of an inner wheel.

He steps through the drum of light and air, his
hand held forth.
The moment is a sphere moving with Mogador.

“He walks the earth like a turning ball.” A turning ball makes a “sphere,” the same kind of sphere that love made. Naturally the greatest acrobat of all must have the best sense of “balance,” the same kind of dynamic balance that a “gyroscope on the rim of a glass” sustains. Equally important, like all acrobats, “the moment is sphere moving with Mogador.” Three hundred feet up in the air you either focus on the moment or you fall. “Be here, be now” is more than just a cliche′ to an acrobat; it is the essence of life.

A Catch of Anti-Letters

After finishing The Way of the Dreamcatcher I was looking for additional books about Robert Lax and discovered A Catch of Anti-letters by Thomas Merton and Lax. I finally finished reading it today. In retrospect, I don’t think I would buy it, or read it, again, though I did gain some new insights into both Lax and Merton, though there were certainly hints of the same traits in The Way of the Dreamcatcher.

Unfortunately, I also reminded myself why I never pursued a PHD. Although I love reading primary sources, i.e. poetry books or novels, I have no great love for secondary works, and I would certainly consider Anti-letters a secondary source. The book is not as boring as most secondary sources or critical essays for there were some entertaining moments in the book, but I suspect much of what’s here would mainly interest serious scholars or literary critics, and I ain’t one of them.

What the book did confirm was that Lax and Merton had a real sense of humor, that they were fond of puns and “inside jokes.” The book begins with a letter from Lax informing Merton that he was applying for a Guggenheim grant and had used Merton as a reference:

Here is a short note from the Insuls of Greichland to say that I have applied for a yo-ho-ho-erie from the Guggenhaus—that I have named you as my luckiest staretz and have given them right to ask you a frank appraisal of my staves.

Be frank, it is the only thing to be with the googenhows. (If you are not allowed to write, then leave it to Bro. Hilarion and if he not, to Brother Cellarer and if he not, Brother Barnabus, or anyone you like among the tigers.)

I don’t think I ever noticed any humor in Lax’s poetry, though he used phrases like “yo-ho-ho-erie” in his conversations with Georgiou. It’s not quite the attitude I would have expected from someone who had applied for a Guggenheim grant. I’m not sure what he means by “staretz” or “staves,” but unfortunatelyI didn’t feel motivated enough to hunt down their meaning, either.

Merton’s reply was perhaps even more surprising to me.

And so, my Dear Waldo,

lt turns out that you are among the Greeks. This is clearly educational, especially as you refer to your Guggenhappy fellowspot, which is of an educational nature. And education is, I feel, what most interests the Googenspit. What then shall l tell them in my frank appraisals? Shall l not conceal how you hoot at the educations? Fifty dollars. Shall I not make hidden your scorn of the university? Fifty dollars. Shall I not bury in oblivion your contempt for the Greed’s eppig Hornware, Suffoelits, Europates, Askils? All you have contemned and spurned. Fifty dollars. Apart from that I will make light of Goggenball and fling reservation to the winds. How do you send me the sheets, the pencils, the carbons, the erasers and the microcards with which I am to inform of your spirits? Hath a high spirit, is indomitable, kicked over the traces at Columbia U., flouted Dean Hawkes, thumbed nose at Prexy Butler, a man of indomitable energies and corruscating Russian humors, burned all the books of the Greeks, smiled only at ]ohn O Hara.

No. This was only a joke: I will indite a long homework of praises for you bei dem Guggenfellow, a veritable epic in itself, substance and accident, category and isagoge, Porphyry and Isocrates shall spring into the gap with a pithy quip at the wrong instant, spoiling all, upsetting Guggy from his swivelchair. And you shall have millions wherever you go, principally in the lnsels.

Let it suffice to say that the typewriter shall creak with your happy praises and the fellowships will be edified. Signed Staretz Nikodim.

At first it’s almost as hard to imagine Lax a college rebel as it is to believe Merton would even joke about bribes, but considering the lifestyle Lax finally chose and how radically different his poetry is, it’s seems plausible he was a radical. I’ll readily admit, again, that I didn’t understand most of the references here and at least a third of the words seem to be invented-words but I still felt no compunction to discover their meaning. Still, it’s refreshing to discover this down-to-earth, humorous side of their nature, even if I don’t exactly share the same sense of humor. Their constant punning and word play also helped me to understand why Lax told Georgiou that Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake was one of the greatest contemporary novels, a novel I looked at and immediately refused to read.

Although this sense of humor dominates their correspondence, more serious moments appear, too, as one might expect. This short note from Lax helps to explain Lax’s retreat to a Greek island:

dear friends in the outer circle of the john stuart mill society:

i address you once agin in my new listless style feeling it to be the most appropriate to our times, filled as they are with utterly meaningless bustle. bustles says the machine; filled as they are with utterly meaningless bustles.

While some critics might consider his minimalist poetry “listeless,” and perhaps this choice of words actually refers to such criticism, it’s clear he sees his meditative poetry as a rebuttal of the machine age’s demand for a hectic lifestyle.

Merton commonly mentioned his health issues in his letters to Lax, and though Lax’s sympathy is clear in his replies, he almost invariably tempers that sympathy with humor:

Bien cher Feuerbach,

i am prized with sorrow when i see that while i was off at the shootings in athens you were at that time fed by science in the hospital & forced to eat the ground-up innocuous foods. i am laffs again when i see that you are only a stumble across the hall from the co’colas & the milky ways, & that you are visited in your splatz by the tray-dropping jailbaits. this should not put you off in your thoughts. dropping a tray is only a way of asking for counsel. i know this because i had a great whale of a nurse once who dropped a tray, & i know she was asking for counsel.

the gut tangle, as you’ve rightly supposed, comes from thinking too much & living in the wrong country. i used to get it everytime i’d set foot on the island of new york. this would often end up in the hospital, the clickity-click down the hall & the wavery appearance of your friends in the recovery room.

it is good if they only feed you the mashes. you must be obedient to the mashes & the milky ways. always swallowing down the one & not neglecting the other. & you must act benignly, like a benign 50-year old author, toward the small trembling girls & you will not be sorry. very small girls, like 8 & 10, stand outside the door & call my name all day. they do not invite me to their parties yet, but i know they will.

i too am full of hostility, even on kalymnos, but most of the time it does not make knots in my stomach. a good thing, too, because the only hospital they have around here is for fish. if a fish looks bad, they take it off to the hospital & make it look good. but there is no such thing as a greek looking bad. if a greek looks bad, he’s dead.

what i mean is that there is no such thing as a greek either looking or being tired. getting tired is something that seems to happen to strangers. sometimes they get tired of greeks. greeks never get tired of anything.

I like the way Lax sneaks in his diagnosis of the cause of Merton’s ailments: thinking too much and living in the wrong country. Of course, the letters were written in the midst of the Vietnam War and I’m sure there was enough hostility in the air to drive pacifists like Lax and Merton to despair.

Although I resisted the temptation to look up most of the references I didn’t understand on the internet, I couldn’t resist the temptation to look up “Miss Velma” because she was referred to so often in the later letters.

Here’s an early reference by Merton:

Hoy: While you sleep, while all Athens sleeps, Miss Velma [F] does not sleep. She is awake and fathoming the teen age mind. She is packing them into the pews next to the giraffe and the ape. I leave you to judge for yourself about the teen age giraffe. It works.

Lax’s reply to this letter was much longer,

Dear Dr. Klaventook,

Miss Velma keeps me awake night & day with her questions. I’d have written long before but it is always Miss Velma with a question: what am I made for? Where is we all going? You are going to Fukuoji-cho, Kyoto. You are going there tomorrow. Never mind the other questions & never mind about the giraffe. You are going to Kyoto on the morning train tomorrow.

And everything else l have is going to Kyoto, too. One thing at a time. One verse at a time. Kyoto is the place. The Japanese are harbingers of good.

It’s been a long, hard couple of seasons, I’ll tell you. First the films, as l told you, then the visitors, later the krankenhaus ‘(auf Athen). The stomach pump, the rheumatic pains in every conceivable joint. They are drifting away. I’ll be well again soon, with the help of St. Dominic Savio.

Miss Velma was first all answers & then in a sudden turn-about, all questions. Why am I dressed as a clown? Why am I leading a giraffe? How do I come to appear on Radio Kiev? (There was no way at all of apprising her of the facts.)

The fact is, she wanted to dress as a clown, she wanted to ride a giraffe, she wanted to call her sermon that day: “The Circus of Youth”—and all the rest. Well, there she is on her way to Kyoto, & I hope she finds it rewarding.

and his description drove me to finally look Velma up on the internet. It was surprisingly easy to find because Miss Velma was apparently quite popular.
Here’s a good starting point if you’d like to read more. Don’t miss the YouTube link at the bottom. At least on this point I actually shared their sense of humor.

Lax’s Views on His Art

My favorite part of Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher was the discussion of his poetry. There’s obviously a strong religious element in Lax’s poetry, but I don’t think I would see him as a religious poet and I don’t think that’s the way he sees himself, either.

So how would you feel if you were defined as a major spiritual poet of the twentieth century?

(Laughter) Oh, for heaven’s sake, that would be absolute nonsense, that’s all!

Is something wrong with that title? Don’t you consider yourself to be spiritually gifted — a creative mystic?

Well, I’m very happy if someone simply considers me a poet.

I didn’t think of Lax as a “spiritual poet” when I read his poetry in 2005, though I did note at least one poem that seemed quite spiritual. I certainly wouldn’t have known he was Catholic if I hadn’t read biographical details, though.

I was attracted by the style of his poetry and his way of seeing the world. In particular, I was intrigued by his “minimalist” style, though I’d never heard the term until recently. Part of its appeal was that it did seem original, even unique, especially when contrasted with many modern poets who seem wrapped up in “thought.”

But aren’t your minimalist poems springboards to something else? Chuang-Tzu said that the purpose of the fish trap is to catch fish; when the fish are caught, the trap is put away. So when the words have conveyed their meaning, are the words discarded? In your reductionist script, are you intimating wordlessness? Can language be a veil that obscures primal, intuitive meaning?

Sure, l think there’s something to that. Language isn’t an end in itself, but may suggest the presence of a greater reality in which all things are participating. But at the same time, sometimes you need the words to remind you of where you are headed, where you are going. If you lose your bearings, words can function like a compass and put you back on course. You stay on track.

I grow less and less enamored with words as a I age. I’ve always been more interested in what words stand for than I in the words themselves, which may explain why I have long favored Imagists like William Carlos Williams to poets like Wallace Stevens. Any ambivalence toward Lax is due to his tendency to even go further than the Imagists by eliminating even imagery from some of his poems.

I’ll have to admit that one of the reasons I’m fond of Georgiou’s book is that he raises questions about Lax’s poetry that never occurred to me, but do seem important in retrospect.

Do you write to make the world a better place?

First of all, l write to better understand myself and my relationship with everything else. If my writing does indeed influence the world in a positive way, either now or in some future time, l’m all for it. And if for some reason it doesn’t, l’m OK with that too. But before any greater analysis is made, it’s important to keep in mind that my work helps me to understand who I am. What happens after simply happens.

So when you write, you don’t consciously try to enlighten the reader?

I think I’ve always hated didactic poetry, but, like Lax, I try to use my reading and writing to “better understand myself and my relationship with everything else.” “In a Dark Time” is, first of all, an exploration of my world. Anyone who’s visited for long realizes that it probably doesn’t have an agenda. What began as an anti-war protest slowly transformed into a poetry discussion. Though I’ve never really abandoned either of those topics, I’ve certainly veered into related topics to the point where later visitors probably see this as a birding blog. I think I still see it as a journal where I can explore all of my interests and share them with anyone who may be interested.

Like Lax, I’m more interested in saying something “true” than convincing others that they should agree with me


I ’m remembering now a line from one of your journals: “Don ‘t try to say something convincing; try to say something true. ”

That’s right. Communication simply is — there’s no reason to force anything. lt’s authentic. There’s no need for persuasion.

When somebody starts to persuade, inflection and projection may twist meaning. That kind of thing makes me narrow my eyes a bit. I prefer to communicate rather than persuade. l think it is enough to say, “He who has ears let him hear.” But if you are a talented persuader, if that’s your gift, pray heaven you’ll be persuading people to do the right thing.

I tend to agree with that, too. Although I often get the idea I would be “preaching to the choir” on my site since most visitors seem of a like mind, I really don’t like writing opinionated articles. I discovered that several years ago when I was asked to write environmental articles for a group trying to defeat Bush’s re-election. I didn’t like slanting my articles, thinking the facts already made it clear that the Bush administration was much more concerned with promoting business than preserving the environment. I was always of the opinion that distorting the facts would come back to bite you later. Even if that didn’t happen, I felt better knowing I had presented the “truth” as clearly as I could.

I’m not sure if I’d even read enough about Buddhism when I first read Lax to know the significance of “awakening” to the moment, but I think that’s really the goal of all artists.

You know, the Buddha made the statement “I am awake, ” and you often- times state, “I write to hear myself think ” Is there a link here?

Well, I do believe there’s something related there. Writing has so much to do with listening to yourself, with being awake to the present moment. And l can much more identify with the word “awake” than, say, the word “alert,” because “alert” seems to hint at impending burnout. lt’s not flowing – it’s too immediate.

Art and poetry help us to see the world more clearly, more vividly. Even more for the artist or poet himself because he must see objects clearly before he can employ them in his art. Taking hundreds of photos of hummingbirds can’t help but teach the photographer much about the nature of hummingbirds. And the more the photographer learns about hummingbirds, the better shots he can capture.

Lax expands on this idea a little later when Georgiou asks him,

What do you think is the function and purpose of art?

Art has to do with the transformation of consciousness. And I see art as a harmonic enterprise because it has the capability to make the world a better place. As you know, l particularly appreciate the search for peace through art. The artist who is peace-loving seeks not to direct attention to himself and is not interested in becoming a guru-like figure – he simply creates from the heart, doing the best he can as he gives expression to his soul. ln the process, both darkness and light are unveiled and explored. Essentially, the artist feels for balance. Ultimately, this intuitive quest can offer something valuable to the world.

Perhaps it is my attempts to find balance and harmony in a world that too often seems rendered by greed and violence that fuels my love of poetry and art in general. There is something strangely comforting even in art that portrays those things clearly and accurately, though I prefer to seek comfort in seeing the beauty that survives in the Natural world despite man’s pollution and predation.

I was a little surprised how much I enjoyed reading The Way of the Dreamcatcher. I half-suspect I actually prefer Lax as a thinker to Lax as a poet. I’ve only touched on a few of his ideas. I was inspired enough to buy A Catch of Anti-letters, correspondence between Thomas Merton and Lax and Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain which apparently mentions Lax quite often.