Writings About, By or Inspired by Robert Lax
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.)
A Found Recording of Robert Lax & Robert Wolf Reading “Sea & Sky” and “Black & White”
I received a message this past week from a man named Edouard Jeunet, who said he’d found an old cassette of Robert Lax reading his “Sea & Sky” and “Black & White” poems in Italy in 1978 and uploaded a digital version to the Internet. I passed the message on to Lax’s niece and literary executor, Marcia Kelly, and she asked some of Lax’s old friends if they knew of it. Judy Emery, who knew Lax for decades and edited a couple of his books, sent the following reply: “I thought this tape had been lost. It was not made in Italy but right here in New York in September 1974. Three people: Emil Antonucci, Robert Wolf (nee Kachnowski) and Bob Lax spent an entire day recording Sea & Sky and other Lax poems.”
Here’s a link to the digital version. The first voice you hear is Robert Lax; the second voice is Robert Wolf. The recording copyright belongs to the Robert Lax Literary Trust.
Robert Lax Talks About Art as a Guide to Love and Understanding
Robert Lax in conversation with Michael N. McGregor, March 12, 1996 (an excerpt):
RL: I think that evolution, and all of history, moves through three classical stages: from power to wisdom to love. The ultimate one is love. You can say the reason for gaining some power is so you can gain some wisdom; the reason for gaining some wisdom is so you can finally understand or live in a state of love. We talk about going from earth to paradise and we think of paradise as being the whole kingdom of love.
MM: So where does art fit into that movement? What is the purpose of art?
RL: Well, I’ll talk figuratively for a second. Just as Virgil could lead Dante into hell and up as far as he could, and Beatrice could lead Dante the rest of the way up to heaven, art is a guide. Art is a bridge or a guide that leads you along to upper levels. It doesn’t drag you along by any means. At most it coaxes you or invites you. You might think, if you’d never seen any art or read any poetry, that your dreams and things that go beyond the ordinary were yours alone, and you might consider them a problem. Or you might consider your reactions to what someone said, which seemed so elaborate and so much beyond what, in the ordinary course of things, you’d expect them to be—she slammed the door; she didn’t slam the door, she just shut it a little quietly but still I’ve been thinking about it all day, the way she closed that door—if you’re alone with those thoughts and have no art to open up that world to you, you could be in trouble. But fortunately somebody learned to write about these things. Somebody learned to put them on stage. That helps the whole community know how to understand those moments—not just to deal with them but to understand and even appreciate them.
MM: I’m thinking about that phrase from Blake: the doors of perception. Is that what you’re talking about with art?
RL: Yes. I think that’s very apropos. I think that’s exactly it.
A Quote from Robert Lax on His 101st Birthday
Today is Robert Lax’s 101st birthday. Picturing him as a child all those years ago, it’s interesting to contemplate something he wrote in the late ’60s:
“…the meaning of our lives, and what we write, and what we do,
is somehow in us from the beginning:
in this sense, the child’s only duty is to live and grow”
–p. 304, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
Happy birthday, Bob.
Concrete Poetry Conference in Honor of Robert Lax: Mar. 31-Apr. 1, 2017
St. Bonaventure University in Robert Lax’s hometown of Olean, NY, will be honoring him March 31-April 1, 2017 with a conference called Never Abolish Chance: The Concrete Poetry Conference.
Poets and critics who were part of the Concrete Poetry movement in the later part of the 20th century embraced Lax as a kind of forefather and included his work in books and articles about the movement. This helped to bring his work greater attention, including more serious critical study.
The keynote speakers for the conference will be John Beer, Renee Gladman, and Evie Shockley.
John Beer is the editor of poems (1962-1997), a selection of Robert Lax’s poetry published by Wave Books in 2013. His own works of poety include The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium Books, 2010), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America; a chapbook, Lucinda (Spork Press, 2013); and the full-length verse novella of Lucinda (Canarium Books, 2016).
Renee Gladman‘s works of prose include Juice (Kelsey Street Press, 2000), The Activist (KRUPSKAYA, 2003), Newcomer Can’t Swim (Kelsey Street Press, 2007), and To After That (Toaf) (Atelos, 2008). Her recent title include Calamities (Wave Books, 2016), and the Ravicka novels Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013). In 2014-2015 she was a fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where she worked on Prose Architectures, an interdisciplinary project exploring the continuum between sentences and drawings. Gladman has taught at several U.S. universities, most extensively as a professor of creative writing at Brown University from 2006-2014.
Evie Shockley is the author the new black, winner of the 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry, a half-red sea, and a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa University Press, 2011). Her honors include the 2012 Holmes National Poetry Prize, fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and residencies at Hedgebrook, MacDowell, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. Shockley is an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, NJ.
Please submit 300-word abstracts for papers or 500-word abstracts for panels/roundtables to Concrete@sbu.edu. Proposals will be accepted until January 10. Accepted participants will be notified by January 25.
Kerouac Tries his Hand at Lax’s Vertical Style
I thought I’d end my summer hiatus (lasting into fall) with this short piece of writing by Jack Kerouac, in which he tries his hand at Lax’s vertical style. This is a letter to his girlfriend at the time, Joyce Johnson (who, coincidentally, was one of my professors in graduate school at Columbia University 40 years later). The “Robert” Kerouac refers to is no doubt Lax himself. The letter was sent in January 1958, four months after the publication of On the Road, when the friendship between Kerouac and Lax was strongest.
Kerouac’s letter to Johnson is from p. 116 in the book Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-58 by Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson
I’ll be adding more new posts to this site in the days ahead.
PURE ACT a Finalist for a Washington State Book Award
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Biography/Memoir. You’ll find a full list of finalists and information about the awards ceremony here.
If you live in the Seattle area and are interested in attending, the awards ceremony will take place 7-9 p.m. in the Microsoft Auditorium at the Seattle Public Library’s central branch (1000 Fourth Avenue).