Born in Olean, New York, Robert Lax studied poetry at Columbia, worked for The New Yorker, cofounded the Catholic publication Jubilee, joined the circus, spent thirty-five years on the Greek island of Patmos, and took up a type of meditation founded by Eknath Easwaran before returning to Olean just weeks before he passed away there on this day in 2000.
Lax never achieved the level of success that some of his colleagues did. He was friends with Columbia alum and Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt, both of whose work reached a wider audience. Yet early on in his career, Kerouac wrote to Lax, praising his work. The New York Times Book Review favorably reviewed Lax’s poetry book Circus of the Sun.
Lax’s work was collected by editor Jim Uebbing as Love had a Compass: Journals and Poetry. Here’s the overview from Barnes & Noble:
Every generation of poets seems to harbor its own hidden genius, one whose stature and brilliance come to light after his talent has already been achieved. The same drama of obscurity that attended the discovery of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens is suggested by the career of Robert Lax. An expatriate American whose work to date—more than forty books—has been published mostly in Europe, this eighty-year-old poet built a following in this country among figures as widespread as E. E. Cummings, Jack Kerouac, and Sun Ra. The works in “Love Had a Compass” represent every stage of Lax’s development as a poet, from his early years in the 1910s as a staff writer for the “New Yorker” to his present life on the Greek island of Patmos. An inveterate wanderer, Lax’s own sense of himself as both exile and pilgrim is carefully evoked in his prose journals and informs the pages of the Marseille Diaries, published here for the first time. Together with the poems, they provide a portrait of one of the most striking and original poets of our age.
Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly said:
Lax is a somewhat legendary poet known primarily for two reasons: he traveled in a circle in the 1930s that included Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Robert Giroux and Ad Reinhardt; and he has lived and written on the Greek island of Patmos since the early 1960s. This combination of famous friendships and personal obscurity has added heat to his reputation but not much lighthis poetry has been obscured by his myth. This volume, however, will likely introduce Lax’s considerable poetic power to a wider audience. Uebbing’s introduction captures the essence of Lax’s work: “A simple response to a simple moment”; “much of his work is almost devoid of imagery.” Lax’s early poems are a mix of emotionality (“for we must seek/ by going down,/ down into the city/ for our song”) and formal experimentation (“black/ black/ white/ white/ black/ black/ white/ white”). But his finest work can be seen in the previously unpublished sequence of poems, Port City: The Marseille Diaries. Drawing on the people and places he encountered during an extended, down-and-out time in the city during the 1950s, in “Port City” Lax finally declares his mission: “I will sing you/ of the moments/ sing you/ of those/ possibly/ meaningless moments.”
Lax’s funeral was held at St. Bonaventure University. Excerpts of his poem were distributed.