Robert Lax

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Robert Lax
Born(1915-11-30)November 30, 1915
DiedSeptember 26, 2000(2000-09-26) (aged 84)
  • Clown
  • professor
  • writer

Robert Lax (November 30, 1915 in Olean, New York – September 26, 2000 in Olean, New York) was an American poet, known in particular for his association with famed Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. Another friend of his youth was the painter Ad Reinhardt. After a long period of drifting from job to job about the world, Lax settled on the island of Patmos during the latter part of his life. Considered by some to be a self-exiled hermit, he nonetheless welcomed visitors to his home, but did nothing to court publicity or expand his literary career or reputation.[1]


Lax was born in Olean, New York on November 30, 1915, to Sigmund and Rebecca Lax. His father had immigrated to the United States from Austria at the age of sixteen. When Robert was in eighth grade, the family moved to Elmhurst, Queens. He first met the future painter Ad Reinhardt at Elmhurst's Newtown High School.[2]

Lax attended Columbia University in New York City, where he studied with the poet and critic Mark Van Doren. As a student there in the late 1930s, he worked on the college humor magazine, Jester with a classmate who became a close lifetime friend, Thomas Merton. Others on the Jester staff were Ed Rice, founder and editor of Jubilee magazine (to which all three men contributed in the 1950s and ¹60s) and Ad Reinhardt.[3] In his biography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes Lax at a meeting with other Jester staff: "Taller than them all, and more serious, with a long face, like a horse, and a great mane of black hair on top of it, Bob Lax meditated on some incomprehensible woe."[4] Mark Van Doren has commented that "The woe, I now believe, was that Lax could not state his bliss; his love of the world and all things, all persons in it".[5]

After graduating in 1938, Lax joined the staff of The New Yorker, working his way up from assistant poetry editor; he was also poetry editor of Time magazine, wrote screenplays in Hollywood, and taught at both the University of North Carolina and Connecticut College for Women.[3] Around 1941 he and Merton volunteered for a couple of weeks at Catherine Doherty's Friendship House in Harlem.[6] Lax converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1943, five years after Thomas Merton, and Rice was godfather to both men. But Lax desired a simple life, so he wandered, working in circuses in Canada as a clown and expert juggler. It was travelling with the Cristiani Brothers circus in 1949 that enabled him to generate material for his collection The Circus of the Sun, although that was not published until 1959.

Meanwhile, Lax had helped Rice start Jubilee, a lay Catholic magazine, in 1952 and became its roving editor. In 1953 he was in Paris, writing for a small literary magazine, New Story. By 1962 he found his way to the Greek islands, initially settling in Kalymnos, then moving on to Patmos, where he spent his last years. Seeking relative solitude, Lax said it was important to “put yourself in a place where Grace can flow.”[6] The 1962-7 correspondence of Lax and Merton, written in a kind of comic argot, covered his early years in Greece and was first published as A Catch of Anti-Letters in 1978.[7] Later their correspondence over the years 1938-68 was published as When Prophecy Still Had a Voice.[8]

In 1969, Lax received the National Council of the Arts Award. In 1990 he received an honorary doctorate from St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan institution near Olean, and became its first Reginald A. Lenna Visiting Professor of English, spending three weeks giving readings on campus.[9] The university now houses the main Robert Lax archives. Additional collections of his papers are at Columbia and Georgetown University.

During his final years on Patmos, Lax was the subject of Nicolas Hubert and Werner Penzel's 1999 film Why Should I Buy a Bed When All I Want Is Sleep?[10] He moved back to Olean in 2000, leaving Europe by ship from Southampton, accompanied by his niece and her husband, as he would not travel by air.[11] Shortly after, on September 26, 2000, he died in his sleep at age 84.


Lax wrote hundreds of poems and dozens of books in his long career,[12] but never reached the level of recognition that some of his peers say he deserves. Jack Kerouac, whom he knew in New York, called Lax "one of the great original voices of our times ...a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence".[11] Circus of the Sun, a collection of poems metaphorically comparing the circus to Creation, was one of his most acclaimed works. On its publication in 1959, The New York Times hailed it as "perhaps the greatest English-language poem of this century."[13] An excerpt was later distributed to those attending Lax's funeral at St. Bonaventure University on 29 September 29, 2000.

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.[14]

Over the years following the composition of Circus of the Sun, Lax's poetry became more and more stripped down to essentials, concentrating on simplicity and making the most out of the fewest components, a technique common to artistic minimalism. Sometimes these pieces consisted of single words, even single syllables, running page after page. As a consequence his work was perceived as sharing the characteristics of Concrete poetry and was included in Stephen Bann’s defining Poetry: An International Anthology (1967) and mentioned in Mary Ellen Solt’s study, Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968).[15] Lax certainly shared an interest in artistic procedures with his friend Ad Reinhardt and reflected that artist’s series of black paintings in his own "Homage to Reinhardt":


Specialist presses supported such gestures and brought out limited editions, such as the series of hand-written color poems that appeared as silkscreens from Edizioni Francesco Conz.[17] Even words were dispensed with in some of the 1971 publications from Journeyman Press. Mostly Blue consists of graph paper filled in with colored squares,[18] while Another Red Red Blue Poem is composed of thin bars of those colors. In an interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg, Lax later commented on his adoption of minimalist abstraction that "conversations with Reinhardt, and his directions in painting, certainly had an influence on my writing. Sometimes not specifically, but the general direction that he was working in certainly did—towards reducing the number of colours, reducing the form, and repeating the theme."[19]

On another occasion he explained the creation of thin vertical columns of a few numbers or a single capital letter[20] as arising from the wish to adopt the methods of abstract painters, "trying to find what the essence for me of a traditional poem is, and getting it down to that. . . . I wanted to see what it would be. I wanted to do it with the simplest elements."[21] In other instances, Lax used repetition of a few words either as a device for instilling a sense of serenity or to create a sense of surprise in the reader when a change in the pattern occurs. Despite the limited vocabulary of his poems, some create narratives, while others seem more like examples for use in meditative practice or even spiritual discipline. This can be experienced in the tape made of a 1974 performance of Lax's poems given by himself and Robert Wolf in 1974, resembling an uninflected incantation.[22] When Mark Van Doren expressed his doubt about Lax's change in direction, the poet suggested that he might appreciate them more by reading them aloud in this way.[23]

Karen Alexander comments on Lax's 1985 "Dark Earth Bright Sky", in which just those four words are repeated in different permutations: "We could not be more familiar with the simple contrasting elements in this poem, but we often allow the clutter of our lives to obscure our awareness of them. Lax meditates upon them and presents them anew… This is truly essential poetry, poetry with its roots deep in the universal foundation of the human consciousness".[24] And Ryo Yamaguchi, in drawing a parallel between Lax's poetry and the minimalist procedures in the art of Donald Judd and in the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, also acknowledges the overlap into spirituality characteristic of the latter two.[25]


In the blurb for 33 Poems, William Maxwell, who had worked on The New Yorker with the poet, is quoted as commenting on Lax, "To the best of my knowledge, a saint is simply all the things that he is. If you placed him among the Old Testament figures above the south portal of Chartres, he wouldn't look odd." But although his output embodies a spiritual outlook, Lax was not a doctrinaire writer. He owed as much to eastern as to western systems of spirituality.

For several years, Lax practiced the method of meditation developed by Eknath Easwaran,[26]:273[27] and near the end of his life, Lax's only reading each day was from Easwaran.[26]:272,281[28]


Lax composed a 35-minute Black/White Oratorio using only nine colour-words and ‘and’. This, as it was later arranged by John Beer, was to be performed by a chorus of nine to fifteen people.[29] Since 2014 there have been performances by the Los Angeles-based Readers Chorus.[30]

Between 2011-15 there have also been four visual interpretations of Lax poems by German animator Susanne Wiegner, three of them based on readings by Lax and another interpreting the printed text.[31]

In 2018 Kile Smith composed The Arc in the Sky on nine texts of Robert Lax, described as a 65-minute pilgrimage for unaccompanied choir.[32][33] The following year it was released commercially by Navona Records.[34]

Principal poetical works[edit]

  • The Circus of the Sun (1959)
  • New Poems (1962)
  • Sea & Sky (1965)
  • 33 Poems (1988)
  • Rooster (1991)
  • A Thing That Is (1997)
  • Circus Days and Nights (2000)

Poems online[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Karen Alexander, "The Abstract Minimalist Poetry of Robert Lax", Interval(le)s – I, 1 (Automne 2004), pp.110-124
  • Sigrid Hauff: A Line in Three Circles. The Inner Biography of Robert Lax & A Comprehensive Catalog of His Works, BoD, Norderstedt, 2007 ISBN 978-3-8334-8480-3
  • Michael N. McGregor: Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, Oxford University Press, 2017 ISBN 9780823276820

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ”Robert Lax, Enigmatic Hermit”, Hermitary, 2004]
  2. ^ McGregor 2017, p.10
  3. ^ a b McGregor 2017
  4. ^ Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, New York 1998, p.197
  5. ^ The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren, Harcourt Brace, p.212]
  6. ^ a b Whittaker, Richard. "Remembering Robert Lax—A Conversation with Steve Georgiou", Conversations, May 11, 2017
  7. ^ Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, A Catch of Anti-Letters, Rowman & Littlefield, republished 1994]
  8. ^ When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax, University Press of Kentucky, 2001
  9. ^ "Award-winning teacher, Lax biographer to visit #Bonas to talk about iconic Olean poet", St. Bonaventure University, February 28, 2017
  10. ^ Why Should I Buy a Bed When All I Want Is Sleep? You Tube
  11. ^ a b Hirschfield, Robert. "Robert Lax: A Life slowly Lived", Beshara Magazine, issue 12, 2019
  12. ^ Lax bibliography
  13. ^ Timothy J. Keiderling, "Bard of God’s Circus: in search of Robert Lax", Plough Quarterly #7, Winter 2016
  14. ^ From towards the end of the "Morning" section
  15. ^ Chapter 18, "United States", Ubu Web
  16. ^ Jack Kalmitz,Views, Seawall Press 2012, pp.70-71
  17. ^ Silkscreen on cloth, 1991
  18. ^ A flick-through view at Abe Books
  19. ^ The ABCs of Robert Lax, Stride Publications 1999, p.28
  20. ^ See Alexander 2004, p.118
  21. ^ Speaking Into Silence, Stride, 2001, p.42
  22. ^ A reading from Sea & Sky, Black & White at SoundCloud
  23. ^ Alexander 2004, p.116
  24. ^ Alexander 2017, p.214]
  25. ^ Ryo Yamaguchi, Michigan Quarterly Review,June 2015
  26. ^ a b Harford, James J. (2006). Merton and friends: A joint biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax and Edward Rice. New York: Continuum. ISBN 9780826418692. OCLC 69020975. ISBN 0826418694
  27. ^ Harford (2006) quoted Lax as stating that he engaged in "Formal meditation, yes, every day, for a half an hour.... the book I'm trying to follow.... I've been doing it now for three or four years.... It's called Meditation.... Author is Eknath Easwaran.... I've done it now for three years whether I'm traveling on trains or wherever. I do it for half an hour anyway..." (p. 273).
  28. ^ Harford (2006) stated that "In his last year on Patmos, in late 1999 and early 2000.... He [Lax] did no reading except for one quote per day from the Easwaran book" (p. 281).
  29. ^ "David Bellingham Curates Robert Lax", The Hatchery
  30. ^ A 2015 Readers Chorus rendition of Robert Lax's "Black White Oratorio" on SoundCloud
  31. ^ Moving Poems
  32. ^ Smith’s commentary
  33. ^ A choral setting of “Jerusalem” from The Arc in the Sky “Jerusalem” on SoundCloud
  34. ^ Short excerpts

External links[edit]