This article originally appeared in The Oregonian:
It’s comforting to know that even with the vast amount of information for which we now have access there are still biographies to be written about fascinating individuals most of us have never heard of. Michael N. McGregor, a professor of English and creative writing at Portland State University, has given us one of these: “Pure Act,” a highly readable and erudite account of the life and work of poet Robert Lax (1915-2000), a man whose poems and moral standing in the world deserve greater recognition than they’ve had.
Known perhaps less for his poetry and more for his friendships, Lax became close with writer Jack Kerouac, painter Ad Reinhardt, editor/author William Maxwell, and especially Thomas Merton, the great poet, monk, social activist, and one of four Americans that Pope Francis recently called exemplary before his address to Congress. Like Merton, Lax was a quiet and extremely spiritual man; he was introduced by Kerouac to his mother as a saint. When Lax wrote, he did it mostly for himself with little thought of commercial or financial gain. Both he and Merton, besides being hugely influenced early on by the writing style of Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” took a vow when they were young to write simply. Lax took this notion “to a daring extreme,” especially as he developed his short-lined, sometimes single-word, vertical poems.
McGregor, who met Lax in 1985 and got to know him well through the years while visiting him often at his modest home on the Greek isle of Patmos, meticulously researched the archives at Columbia and St. Bonaventure universities to present us with a warm, sympathetic literary biography of this complicated man who lived life as simply as possible.
Born in Olean, N.Y., Lax moved to and from Olean to New York City for much of his early life. In Olean he often stayed at his brother-in-law’s cottage, sometimes with friends such as Merton drinking wine and coffee, and writing and talking late into the night. In New York City, after graduating from Columbia where he (and Merton) studied with poet Mark Van Doren, Lax worked briefly for The New Yorker and later as co-editor (with Merton) for Jubilee, a Catholic literary magazine. (Despite growing up Jewish, Lax converted to Catholicism early in his life.)
But it was Europe that had the most lasting impact on him, especially early on with a visit to Marseille where Lax taught himself a “willingness to accept and even embrace poverty … the poverty that comes from simplifying one’s desires and thereby reducing one’s need to earn money.” This daily monk-like sensibility led Lax to develop a way of life he called pure act: “a natural living out of one’s God-given abilities and potentials without the splitting-off of consciousness that might question or judge.”
McGregor argues effectively of the influences that helped shaped Lax’s work and life, noting that “Kerouac helped him think differently about how he wrote, and Reinhardt helped him find his way beyond artistic conventions.” McGregor’s fluid narrative moves easily through the life of the man and the poet for whom he clearly has great respect and admiration: from Lax’s uncertainties in his early life to his difficulties in having to leave the island of Kalymnos after the complications of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and his last years on Patmos where he lived as he always wanted, simply, with no refrigerator, no phone, and mostly on the generosity of his friends and neighbors.
After reading McGregor’s deeply satisfying “Pure Act” we conclude that Lax lived an admirable life, remaining true to his beliefs to the end, including his strongest thought that life should be lived simply and slowly; the words marking his gravestone perfectly capturing his preferred place in the world: “slow boat / calm river / quiet landing.”
Reading: McGregor and John Beer will lead “A Celebration of Robert Lax” at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at Literary Arts, 925 S.W. Washington St., Portland, OR.
Jim Carmin, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Portland.