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Robert Lax (November 30, 1915 – September 26, 2000) was an American poet, known in particular for his association with famed 20th century Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. A third friend of his youth, whose work sheds light on both Lax and Merton, was Ad Reinhardt. During the latter period of his life, Lax resided on the island of Patmos, Greece. Considered by some to be a self-exiled hermit, he nonetheless welcomed visitors to his home on the island, but did nothing to court publicity or expand his literary career or reputation.
Born in Olean, New York November 30, 1915, to Sigmund and Rebecca Lax, he returned to that town only weeks before he died there in his sleep, September 26, 2000, at age 84.
Lax attended Columbia University in New York City, where he studied with the poet and critic Mark Van Doren. Lax graduated in 1938. On leaving school, he worked for several mainstream magazines, including The New Yorker and Time before he began his process of moving into a simple life. An expert juggler, he worked in a circus for some time during his initial years of wandering.
He lived the last 35 years of his life in the Greek islands, most recently on Patmos.
Lax wrote hundreds of poems and dozens of books in his long career, but never reached the level of recognition that some of his peers say he deserves. Jack Kerouac called Lax "one of the great original voices of our times ... a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence".
One of his most acclaimed works was Circus of the Sun, a book of poems metaphorically comparing the circus to Creation. Called by a critic in The New York Times Book Review "perhaps the greatest English language poem of this century", an excerpt was handed out to those attending Lax's funeral at St. Bonaventure University Sept. 29:
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.
As a student at Columbia University in the late 1930s, Lax worked on the college humor magazine, Jester, with a classmate who became a close lifetime friend, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author of many spiritual books. 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, the painter.
The correspondence of Lax and Merton, written in a kind of comic argot, was published in 1978. 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."
Mark Van Doren, one of his Columbia professors, wrote 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."
Lax attempted to embody a sense of bliss in his writing.
Some of his poems, however, were whimsical:
"are you a visitor?" asked the dog, "yes," i answered. "only a visitor?" asked the dog. "yes," i answered. "take me with you," said the dog.
Over the years the poems became more and more minimalist, sometimes consisting of single words, even single syllables, running down page after page, often in varying colors.
Much of his output, while not outright spiritual, evoked religious thoughts. Many Western visitors to his tiny house in Patmos had their spirits recharged in the presence of his peaceful mien. Maxwell Portlow even likened him to a saint.
"To the best of my knowledge," wrote William Maxwell, "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."
Lax converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1943, five years after his friend Thomas Merton, and Rice was godfather to both men. In the 1940s, Lax worked on the staff of The New Yorker, was poetry editor of Time magazine, wrote screenplays in Hollywood, and taught at both the University of North Carolina and Connecticut College for Women.
He traveled with the Cristiani Brothers circus in 1949, which enabled him to generate material for Circus of the Sun. He helped start Jubilee, a lay Catholic magazine, under its founder, Edward Rice, in 1952 and became its roving editor before moving to the Greek Islands in 1962.
Lax moved back to Olean in 2000 after living abroad for more than 30 years. He died in his hometown at age 84.
In his later poetry, Lax concentrated on simplicity and on making the most out of the fewest components. This makes him one of the patron saints of literary minimalism. Some of his poems can go on for several pages using no more than four words and a punctuation mark. In some instances, Lax uses 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.
- 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
- 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).
- 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).
- 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, Fordham University Press, 2015
- Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University
- Works by or about Robert Lax in libraries (WorldCat catalog)