Writings About, By or Inspired by Robert Lax
Finding Lax in a Simone Weil Quote
I found the quote below in The Saint and the Scholar, Jon M. Sweeney’s short, fascinating new book about how the split between faith and reason got started back in the 12th century. The book is the story of the different approaches to faith and learning followed by Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard (of Heloise affair fame) and how their conflict has echoed down through the ages.
The quote, from Simone Weil, is a good description of how Robert Lax lived:
“There is no entry into the transcendent until the human faculties–intelligence, will, human love–have come up against a limit, and the human being waits at this threshold, which he can make no move to cross, without turning away and without knowing what he wants, in fixed, unwavering attention.”
A PURE ACT Reading in Boston
If you live in or near Boston, I hope you’ll come out to 279 Harvard St. in Brookline this coming Thursday, May 18, for a 7 p.m. reading at Brookline Booksmith bookstore. The new paperback version of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax will be for sale at the reading.
Patmos Poet–a poem by Chris McDonnell
The following poem came in the mail the other day. According to its author, Chris McDonnell, a retired headteacher in the UK, a slightly different version of it was published in the Merton Journal in the UK shortly after Robert Lax’s death in 2000. It’s language and rhythms capture the feeling of the “anti-letters” Lax and Merton sent to each other over several decades. (Chauncey was one of the playful names they used to address each other.)
Decoding the Anti-Letters Between Lax and Merton
At the International Thomas Merton Society conference at Sacred Heart University in 2013, I gave a talk on the lifelong correspondence between Robert Lax and Thomas Merton titled “Decoding the Anti-Letters: A Whirling Dance of Wisdom and Wit.” Last spring, that talk was published in The Merton Journal in Great Britain. And now the Journal has made it available as a PDF online. You can read it here.
I’ll be talking about the friendship between Lax and Merton again as a keynote speaker at this year’s ITMS conference, to be held at St. Bonaventure University in Lax’s hometown of Olean, NY, June 15-18. My talk this time will be titled “Harpo and the Clown of God: the Seven-Storied Friendship of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax.” You’ll find full conference details here. I hope to see you in Olean in June!
A Lax Exhibit at St. Bonaventure University Features Harry Jackson’s Life-Size Portrait
A couple of months ago, I made a post about the life-size painting of Lax done by Harry Jackson back in 1962 (see the original post). I said in my post that I didn’t know where the painting is now. Well, at this moment, it is in an exhibit of Lax’s writings and photographs at the Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University, thanks to the generosity of Lax’s niece Marcia Kelly and her husband Jack. You can read about the exhibit here. Normally, it hangs in the Harry Jackson Institute in Cody, Wyoming. Here’s the title card:
For those of you going to the International Thomas Merton Society conference at St. Bonaventure this June, be sure to stop by the Center for a look. The exhibit just opened this month, so I’m sure it will still be around then. Here are a couple more looks:
Looking for Online Examples of Robert Lax’s Poetry?
Garrison Keillor has featured Robert Lax’s poetry on his “The Writer’s Almanac” radio show several times and the poems are all still featured on the “Almanac” website. You can even listen to Garrison Keillor read them. The one to read or listen to now, perhaps, is “Greeting to Spring (Not Without Trepidation),” which first appeared in The New Yorker in the early years of World War II.
For those who like to watch something while listening, here’s a YouTube video of Keillor reading “The Alley Violinist.” Keillor included this one in his 2002 book Good Poems.
Coming in March: Visiting Professorship at St. Bonaventure University in Lax’s hometown
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to be the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in Lax’s hometown, Olean, New York. I’ll be on campus for the last two weeks of March, giving talks, visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and chatting with the Franciscan friars.
For more details about the Lenna Professorship and my time at St. Bonaventure, see this post on my personal website.
Talking About Lax at the 2017 Catholic Imagination Conference in NYC April 27-29
I’ll be talking about Robert Lax in the context of Catholic Literature and Biography as part of a panel on that subject at the 2017 Catholic Imagination Conference at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus April 27-29. One of my fellow panel members will be Dana Greene, author of a biography of Denise Levertov, who liked and promoted Lax’s work. Conference speakers include Alice McDermott, Richard Rodriguez, Dana Gioia, Fr. James Martin, and Paul Mariani. If you live in or near New York City, think about attending. It should be a great gathering and it’s inexpensive. You’ll find full details here.
–Michael N. McGregor
A Photograph of the Portrait of Lax Painted by Harry Jackson is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum
In 1961, artist Harry Jackson, who would become known as one of the major sculptors of the American West, painted the life-size painting of Lax shown here. As mentioned on page 238 of my book Pure Act, the painting, titled “Portrait of the Poet Robert Lax,” appeared in an exhibition called The Continuing Tradition of Realism in American Art. I don’t know what became of the painting but this photograph of it is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It was taken by the wonderful photographer Walter Rosenblum, a sampling of whose work appears here.
For more about Harry Jackson and his work in bronze, go to the home page for the Harry Jackson Studios. Here’s one of his bronze sculptures from the Smithsonian’s collection–Trail Boss, cast in 1958:
Robert Lax’s PAX and the Politics of Art and Peace
(Note: These thoughts and other Lax-related news and commentary were included in the December issue of the Lax Newsletter, sent out last week. If you’d like to receive the newsletter, which is mailed to your inbox once every two months, just fill out the form on the Home page.)
“I may be wrong about Pax, but keep feeling that through good poems and pictures, peace can travel.”
–Robert Lax to Thomas Merton, 1953
The image here is from the third issue of Robert Lax’s broadsheet Pax, which he published sporadically between 1956 and 1962, adding three new issues in 1985. I’ve been thinking about Pax in the wake of the American election because Lax’s idea in publishing it was to spread peace by sharing the work of writers and artists. The work didn’t have to be about peace per se; the simple act of making art, Lax thought, is a peaceful–and therefore peacemaking–activity.
I don’t know any more than anyone else what the coming months and years will bring, but I’ve seen the agitation and rancor the election has fostered already. I’ve seen people say on Facebook and elsewhere that everyone should take to the streets or get involved in politics. A former writing student of mine said over tea the other day that she was unsure about writing in these times, worried that writing an essay about something other than current issues might be trivial. I’m pretty sure I know what Lax would have told her: that we need people thinking deeply and imaginatively about life right now; that we need those people to put their observations and intuitions into words and images; that we need books with those words and images in our hands and on our shelves and in our beds at night when we’re prone to worrying about where our world is heading.
When I was on my reading tour for Pure Act, an audience member asked me if Lax was political at all. I said no. But two or three days later, someone who had been at the reading suggested (gently) that I was wrong. Lax’s politics, like Thomas Merton’s, were the politics of peace, this person wrote. And he was right. Pursuing peace through whatever means, even a fragile newsprint broadsheet that few people read, is a political act.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.” –Thomas Merton
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” –Thomas Merton
(You’ll find information on all Pax issues, including a list of the poets and poems in each one, here.)