Everything that exists
can turn to prayer;
even the water,
even the air.
– Robert Lax
A Song For Our Lady
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“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.”
– Robert Lax
from his renown poem, Circus in the Sun (about the circus of creation), it was read at Lax’s funeral in New York
“I think it’s a metaphysical concept
starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas
that God is pure act and that there is no potentía in him
…. Almost everything else in the universe is potentía,
it’s on its way to being pure act”
Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) was an American poet who converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He has been called “saint,” “mystic, “one of the great enigmas of American poetry, “a pilgrim” and “a prophet.” His poems where innocent, ecstatic and even whimsical. Over time they became more and more minimalist … one simple word or strings of sounds stretched into long narrow word-cascades that sometimes stopped here and there to puddle.
“Robert Lax’s poems [prove] yet again that the gift to be simple is the gift to be free, that less is more, and that least may sometimes be most.”—John Ashbery
In addition to his poetry, Robert Lax is know for his friendship with the writer, poet and Trapist monk, Thomas Merton, also a convert to Catholicism.
Lax went to school with John Berryman and was mentor to Jack Kerouac. He was friends with and appreciated by the Beats and one of my fave writers, James Agee (A Death in the Family and – with photographer Walker Evens – Let Us Now Praise Men). Denise Levertove and e.e. commings numbered among Lax’s friends as well. He was also friends with the artist Ad Reinhart.
In 1962 Lax began his travels in Greece, settling into life as a hermit on the island of Patmos, seen by many as a sacred space. Patmos is the alleged site of the vision of and writing of the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation. Because of that connection, the island is a destination for Christian pilgrimage.
Although Robert Lax lived quietly in Patmos and did nothing to promote his poetry or himself, people – including the Beats and other poets – came to visit him. He always welcomed his visitors and purposeful or accidental students. He was mentor to more than a few.
If poetry as prayer is a topic of interest, you could do worse than to explore Lax’s life and work. A light read and good introduction to this poet is The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax. It was written by San Francisco writer, S.T. Georgiou (Greek Orthodox), who went to Patmos in search of some spiritual answers. As good fortune would have it, he met Robert Lax, became friends with him and visited often with him on several trips back to Patmos. Subsequently, after Lax’s death, Georgiou wrote The Way of the Dreamcatcher, a book about this adventure in friendship, mentoring, the sacred and poetry.
Robert Lax received the National Council of the Arts Award in 1969.
Books by Robert Lax include:
- A Hermit’s Guide to Home Economics (a pamphlet, three poems)
- Dear Jack [ Kerouac ]: Heart Not Head
- In the Beginning Was Love: Contemplative Poems by Robert Lax
“because yes – he likes to ‘write’ – but to ‘do’ – to do a particular thing – perhaps on paper (perhaps on canvas – perhaps in stone – perhaps, perhaps in a musical score) – a thing that will stand, a thing that will bear (that will sustain) repeated contemplation: a thing that will sustain long contemplation, and that will (in a ‘deep’ enough way) reward the beholder.” Robert Lax, Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry
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