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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.1 (2001) 98-113
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Robert Lax: Poet, Pilgrim, Prophet
Robert Lax died at the age of eighty-four in his hometown of Olean, New York, on September 26, 2000. A funeral mass was celebrated at St. Bonaventure University Chapel, and a memorial mass was held at Corpus Christi Church in New York City.
In The Seven-Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton characterizes the contemporary American poet Robert Lax as a "potential prophet, but without rage." Jack Kerouac describes Robert Lax as "simply a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence, writing lovingly, finding it, simply, in his own way." 1 It has been stated that Lax's Circus of the Sun "is, in all probability, the finest volume of poems published by an English-speaking poet of the generation which comes in T. S. Eliot's wake." 2 A sparse amount of literary criticism has been done on Lax. He is regarded "as among America's greatest experimental poets, a true minimalist. . . . Lax remains the last unacknowledged and, alas, uncollected major poet of his post-60s generation." 3 Part of this neglect was arguably self-imposed, as he lived in Greece from the 1960s until just weeks before his death in [End Page 98] September 2000. He has more of a following throughout Europe than in the United States. However, Thomas Merton, as well as some literary critics, find that Lax is unappreciated because his verse lacks "angst"--a common criteria for poetic greatness throughout the twentieth century. Lax chose to maintain a contemplative lifestyle as an alternative to the fast-paced, success-oriented, and economically driven culture of New York City, where he once worked for both The New Yorker and Time.
Throughout his poetry, Lax is highly affirmative of humanity, life, and the divine. Lax's entire body of work reflects his Jewish roots and his conversion to Catholicism in young adulthood. In an [End Page 99] age of skepticism, in an era where doubt is privileged over faith, and in a world where humanity has become more violent and destructive to humankind and nature than in any other era in history, poetry that is unceasing in its celebration, affirmation, and praise of humanity, life, and the divine is likely to be shunned. This leaves Lax open to criticism that presumes that his poetry neglects the atrocities, poverty, and violence in the world. Contemporary American poet Denise Levertov praises Lax's Circus of the Sun, as she acknowledges: "One might feel Lax's book too much ignores the world's anguish, if it were not full of a gentleness, a tenderness, that is not smug." Levertov insists that the significant "neglect" of Lax's work is "undeserved"; she continues, "but it is easy to ignore work of such lucidity because by its very nature it is not controversial; nor can one bracket it with any 'movement.'" 4 A 1999 collection of criticism printed by a British press, The ABC's of Robert Lax, takes a significant step toward making reparations regarding the neglect of literary criticism on Lax; it includes commentary by such well-known writers as American language poet Susan Howe and American poet Mark Van Doren. 5
This recent anthology of criticism (which includes references to Lax's readers as varied and acclaimed as Allen Ginsberg, e.e. cummings, and Sun Ra) is only one of several events in the world of scholarship that may well spark a renewal of interest in Lax's work. Lax's Circus of the Sun, accompanied with previously unpublished material, was published by Overlook Press in 2000. Moreover, criticism by scholars such as myself can draw attention to his minimalist, experimental technique; to his poetry that values silence, contemplation, meditation, and prayer as embodied in monastic life; and to his voice that explores a spirituality that maintains ties to the religious traditions of Catholicism. As a result of all of this work, Lax the poet, the pilgrim, and the prophet will come to the foreground and be appreciated for generations...