The New York Times praised his 1959 work Circus of the Sun as “perhaps the greatest English-language poem of this century.” A reckless claim, perhaps, yet still today the minimalist poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) has his devotees, especially among fans of Thomas Merton, with whom he shared a lifelong friendship. Because of the hidden quality of his life, however, he is not as widely known as his contemporaries and friends such as Jack Kerouac or Merton himself.
With any luck, Michael McGregor’s compelling new biography will help change that. In telling Lax’s story, he’s been aided by the subject himself, who kept voluminous journals throughout his life, sometimes writing thirty to forty pages a day. Using these entries, McGregor recreates conversations and scenes that are as vivid as a screenplay.
Lax’s work and life, McGregor argues, can best be understood in terms of what he, borrowing from Aquinas, called “pure act” – a life of simplicity, poverty, and joy, lived completely in the moment. In the words of one of Lax’s poems, quoted by McGregor as a kind of manifesto:
there are not many songs
there is only one song
the animals lope to it
the fish swim to it
the sun circles to it
the stars rise
the snow falls
the grass grows
there is no end to the song and no beginning
the singer may die
but the song is forever
truth is the name of the song
and the song is truth.
Born to a New York Jewish family, Lax first met Merton at Columbia University, where both worked at the Jester, a student humor magazine. Both would go on to join the staff of the Columbia Review, with Lax as editor-in-chief. In the evenings, he and Merton would go listen to jazz musicians, and Lax later remembered the musicians’ free yet unified playing as his first experience of “pure act.”
The year 1943 marked a decisive turn: Lax followed Merton’s lead and converted to Catholicism – a decision inspired in part by reading Catholic writers such as Aquinas, Dante, and (not least) James Joyce, whose run-on style he imitated in his journals. According to Ed Rice, who served as godfather to both new converts, Lax “was born a Catholic and finally got baptized,” unlike Merton, who “really had to struggle with it.” Though Merton’s entry into the Trappist order meant an outward separation, the two corresponded faithfully.
As an aspiring writer, Lax initially met only discouragement, flitting from one job to the next, first on the staff of the New Yorker and then as Time’s poetry editor. Though often despondent over his failure to find a publisher, he worried about the danger of “committing suicide” as a poet by abandoning his voice in order to find a readership. Through this search for genuineness, he met the Cristiani family, who owned a circus, and spent months traveling with them. To Lax, the artistry of the circus reflected the creativity of God, the maker of the universe and master of history. These experiences served as material for Circus of the Sun, his best-known book, which portrays all life as taking place under a heavenly gaze:
Who is it for whom we now perform,
Cavorting on wire:
For whom does the boy
Climbing the ladder
Balance and whirl –
Seen or unseen
In a shield of light?
The beginning of the 1950s found Lax in Marseilles. Life in southern France was a revelation, a manifestation of the same genuine “pure act” that he had seen in the Cristiani circus: “The great thing in Marseille is not the buildings; it is the people . . . All who live here walk the decks of their city with grace and equilibrium, the joy of acrobats and sailors.” He would spend much of the next two years in France, working in Paris at a literary magazine alongside Jack Kerouac, whose work he came to champion.