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Robert Lax loved the world

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Robert Lax, a poet whom Jack Kerouac called “one of the great original voices of our times ... a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence” died in his sleep Sept. 26 in Olean, N.Y. He was 84.

Born in 1915 in Olean, he had returned to that town only weeks before he died, after having lived for more than 35 years on various 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. 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 Edward Rice, founder of Jubilee magazine, to which all three men contributed in the 1950s and ’60s, 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.”

In fact, he did indeed state his bliss in beautiful 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 minimilist, 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. William Maxwell even likened him to a saint. “To the best of my knowledge,” wrote 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 to Catholicism from Judaism in 1943, five years after Merton did, and Rice was godfather to both men. In the ’40s, Lax worked on the staff of The New Yorker, was poetry editor of Time, 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.

James Harford, a friend of Robert Lax for 48 years, is the emeritus executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He lives in Princeton and is writing a book on the long friendship of Lax, Merton and Rice.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000