I’m excited my book will be available to people who need or prefer to listen rather than read, but it’s strange to hear someone else read words I wrote about my own experiences.
I recently received the note below from a Canadian reader. It expresses so well the kind of response I would hope for–to my book and to Lax–that I had to share it.
“Thank you so very much for writing Pure Act! Like Robert Lax’s poetry it’s a welcoming place to go to as the competition, chaos and anxiety of the 21st century become ever-more overwhelming. At 66, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography or memoir that is both so enlightening and comforting—one of which I can say, ‘This is thoroughly necessary.'”
First look at the paperback version of PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX. The publication date is April 3 but it’s available for pre-order now: https://www.amazon.com/
I didn’t know this was available online but found it yesterday: It’s a video of my editor, Fred Nachbaur, talking about the acquisition, design and selling of my book, PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX. It was presented at a conference as an illustration of what university presses can do beyond their usual markets:
The image here is of the bottle of vintage French wine Sylvia and I opened to celebrate signing my book contract with Fordham University Press two years ago. Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been out in the world just over a year now, and what a year it has been. The unofficial end of the book’s debut year came three weeks ago when we attended the Washington State Book Awards in Seattle. Pure Act was a finalist in the Biography/Memoir category. It didn’t win but it was a great honor to be recognized in my home state.
All told, Pure Act was a finalist for four awards: the WSBA in Biography/Memoir, the Religion Newswriters Association Book Award for best religion book of the year, the Association of Catholic Publishers’ Excellence in Publishing Award in Biography (it won second place) and the Catholic Press Association’s Book Award in Biography (it received an Honorable Mention). It has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award too, but the finalists for that won’t be announced until early January 2017.
For a big book by a first-time author about a little-known poet published by a small publisher, it has done pretty well. It’s in its third printing and a paperback version will be published in March 2017. It was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement in the U.K., Publishers Weekly, the Oregonian and over 20 other publications. The American Association of University Professors recommended it as one of ten nonfiction books and only two biographies (the other was of Mark Twain) in the area of American Studies for libraries to purchase in 2016. I’ve had a chance to read from it at bookstores, universities and community events across the country. And it has led to my being asked to be a keynote speaker at the 2017 International Thomas Merton Society conference at Saint Bonaventure University.
I’m reluctant to let this wonderful year end, but time marches on, of course, and I’ve already drafted my next book, a memoir about a year spent in the San Juan Islands. A huge thank you to all who were part of a marvelous experience.
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).
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been named one of ten finalists for the Religion Newswriters Association’s 2016 Religion Nonfiction Book Award. A full listing of finalists for all awards is here. Winners will be announced on September 24.
Robert Lax (1915-2000) is today best known in this country as Thomas Merton’s closest friend. Having met when they were both students at Columbia University, the two exchanged letters until Merton’s death in 1968. It is the purpose of Michael N. McGregor’s new biography of Lax to move him out from under the shadow of Merton’s powerful personality and give him his own place in the sun. This is not an easy thing for an American biography to do, both because Lax spent so much of his adult life outside the United Sates and because of his commitment as a poet to seeking the purest and sparest language possible, a commitment that makes his hermetic poems a challenge for many readers. While Lax enjoyed a certain measure of fame in Europe during his lifetime, it was only late in his life that his writings found a place in the American literary scene.
After Lax graduated from Columbia in 1938, he got off to a promising start. He landed jobs at the New Yorker and Time, and even spent some time as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. But a lifelong restlessness led him away from the well-beaten path of literary success. He traveled with a circus, lived for a short while in Paris and then in a poor neighborhood of Marseilles. He spent some time at a religious retreat near the shrine of La Sallette in France, and eventually settled—if that’s the right word—on the Greek island of Patmos. Finally, old age and illness brought him back to his upstate hometown of Olean, New York, where he died in 2000.
Born into a largely nonobservant Jewish family, Lax was baptized a Catholic in 1943. Ed Rice, who was Merton’s godfather, was also Lax’s. In the early 1950s, Rice founded Jubilee magazine, for which Lax served as a “roving editor” from Europe. That job was one of a number of threads that kept him somewhat tied to the American scene. He also kept up a correspondence with Mark Van Doren, the legendary Columbia professor, and thanks to his friendship with the graphic designer Emil Antonucci (who did a lot of work for Commonweal over the years), Lax’s great long poem The Circus of the Sun was published in this country. During all his years abroad, he wrote constantly. His poetry became gradually more pared-down, more minimalist. While he found sympathetic publishers in Europe, he remained little known and little published in this country, garnishing a certain reputation among better-known poets such as John Berryman (another classmate at Columbia) and John Ashbury.
McGregor got to know Lax by accident on a trip to Greece when someone on Patmos told him of the greatly admired American who lived on the island. McGregor sought him out and over the years they became friends. In fact, a fair amount of this biography frames itself around McGregor’s many visits to Patmos and the time he spent with Lax doing the things Lax loved most: walking around the island, swimming, and spending time in his modest home drinking tea, discussing books, sharing poems, and at times, sitting quietly. Toward the end of his life, Lax depended on McGregor to assist him with his papers and to help him return to upstate New York before the end of his life. Lax’s way of life, which McGregor observed in Patmos, had been established decades before: “living simply among those at the bottom of society, watching and writing down his observations, offering peace and whatever else he could to those in spiritual or physical need.” There was something almost monastic about it; it was in some ways similar to the life that Merton lived. Not surprisingly, Lax was, like Merton, a lifelong pacifist.
The title of this book derives from some lines Lax once wrote, obviously under the influence of the Thomism he learned during his Columbia days. God is pure act with no potency within Him, while everything else in the universe is in potential: on its way to pure act and thus on its way to unity with God. To really see something is to grasp that it is oriented toward pure act—which is to say, toward God. Perceptive critics were able to grasp this fundamental philosophical orientation in Lax’s austerely minimalist poetry. Mark Van Doren said that Lax expressed the “purity of the object and reverence in the beholder.”
Both Lax’s way of living and his poetics raise the question of his religious orientation. Lax never rejected his Jewishness after his entrance into the Catholic Church. He continued reading deeply in Jewish sources and was a close reader of Martin Buber. McGregor cites a long journal entry from late in Lax’s life where he writes that it is important to find the “right” religion and the right culture, but even more important “is the progress you make—the progress you find you can make—once you have found it.” The end, however, is to get beyond being a “good” Jew or Catholic in order to become a “contemplative, yes to be a mystic, yes.” In that context, Lax loved the line of Teilhard de Chardin: “Everything that rises must converge.”
McGregor wants to see Lax in his own right, and, true to that aim, he has written an intellectual biography that is as full and fair as one could expect. As a longtime reader of Lax, I learned a great deal from this finely researched book. It is not perfect: it is stronger on Lax the poet and essayist than on Lax the spiritual writer. On the latter topic one should consult Steve Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher (2002). But Lax the poet deserves the attention he gets here, and the poetry, now mostly overlooked, is a good way into Lax’s mysticism.
Seeing the review of Pure Act in today’s New York Times Book Review made me think it might be useful to provide links to the many reviews and related essays, articles, interviews and podcasts that have appeared since the book’s release in September. In addition to those below, you’ll find over a dozen reviews of the book on its Amazon page.
Thank you to all who have taken the time to write about the book and Lax or publish his or my writings.
Image Update [link unavailable]
Open Letters Monthly–forthcoming January 1
Other reviews are forthcoming in Commonweal, The Christian Century, Books & Culture, The Catholic Worker, Logos, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, The Merton Annual, The Merton Seasonal and The Merton Journal (UK)
ESSAYS AND ARTICLES
“Robert Lax: Master Minimalist”–Introduction by Michael N. McGregor, Poetry magazine
“Kalymnos: November 29, 1968”–new poems by Robert Lax, Poetry magazine
“The Mystic from Morningside Heights”–by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, America
“Life, Influences of Robert Lax Explored in New Book”—Olean Times Herald
“When the Greek Islands Were Hospitable to Strangers”–essay by Michael N. McGregor, The Christian Century
“Michael McGregor Keeps Story of Robert Lax Authentic”–by Juliana Sansonetti, The Fairfield Mirror
“The Hidden and the Tangible”–essay by Michael N. McGregor, BooksCombined
“A Kind of Breath, A Way of Breathing”–essay on Lax by Michael N. McGregor, forthcoming in early January in Notre Dame magazine
“An Interview with Michael McGregor”—University of Portland, English Department blog
“December 2015: ‘Nothing Is Too Small'”—Poetry magazine podcast, featuring Michael N. McGregor talking about Robert Lax
“Robert Lax: In Pursuit of a Life of Meaning with Michael N. McGregor”—New Dimensions Radio (15-minute version)
“A Celebration of Robert Lax”–a joint interview of Michael N. McGregor and John Beer by Paul Martone–Late Night Library, forthcoming February 2, 2015
“Robert Lax: In Pursuit of a Life of Meaning with Michael N. McGregor”–New Dimensions Radio (one-hour version)–forthcoming February 2015
Here’s an interview with some of my thoughts on writing, reading and Pure Act, conducted by Jackie Ott, a young writer at the University of Portland. It was originally posted on the UP English department’s blog. At the end you’ll find some advice for aspiring writers.
An Interview with Michael McGregor
by Jackie Ott
On October 6, the University Book Store will be flooded with the wisdom of Robert Lax and the beauty of Michael McGregor’s words. McGregor’s reading is sponsored by our very own English department and the Garaventa Center, and he will read from his new book Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, a biography about the inspirational, spiritual poet who influenced many, including McGregor himself. I had a chance to interview McGregor about his passion for the work of Lax and his own career as a writer. Here’s what he had to say:
For someone who may not have heard of Robert Lax, what would you say is the draw of Lax as a poet? What made you want to write a book on his life?
Lax was an incredibly inventive poet whose work makes you more aware of life’s moments and their transcendent possibilities. My fascination with him goes far beyond his poetry, however. When Lax was young, he had a deep influence on the spiritual development of his close friend Thomas Merton. When he was older—after working for the New Yorker, reviewing films for Time, writing scripts in Hollywood and even traveling with a circus—he settled among poor fishermen and sponge divers in Greece because he wanted to learn their wisdom.
I wrote about him because I knew him for 15 years and he was the most remarkable and loving man I ever met.
What is your writing process?
When writing nonfiction, I like to gather as much information as I can and then live with it for a while before starting to write, to know it as intimately as possible, to digest it fully, so the writing feels as if it’s coming from a place of true understanding. I like to write in the morning, before the day’s events crowd my thoughts. I’m a slow, multi-draft writer. I read things over many times, often out loud to hear the rhythms of the words and sentences.
What kind of research did you do in the writing of your new book?
I did extensive research over many years for this book. I spent hours upon hours in Lax’s archives at Columbia University and St. Bonaventure University, reading through journals and letters, watching films, going through pictures, and even checking postmarks on cancelled stamps to see where he was on what date. In addition, I interviewed his family and friends, visited the many places he lived (Marseilles, the French Alps, the Greek islands of Kalymnos and Patmos, etc.), and read countless books on the times in which he lived, the subjects that influenced him (poetry, jazz, meditative writers), and his friends (Merton, Jack Kerouac, William Maxwell, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Van Doren and more).
What works of literature have been formative for you as a writer? What are you reading right now?
Instead of individual works, let me give you authors. There are too many to count, but here are a few: Tolstoy taught me how to evoke a feeling of lived life, Hemingway taught me how to be clear and give flow to my sentences, Kundera taught me how to write ideas into stories, Homer taught me how to write with action, Conrad taught me how to think about narration and multiple viewpoints rendered from a single perspective, A. J. A. Symons taught me how to turn a biography into a quest for identity, Baldwin taught me to prioritize humanity in everything I write, Borges taught me how to use repetition and invention, Hugo taught me how to reach for deeper emotions, the great Hebrew and early Christian writers taught me how to address spiritual matters in a variety of ways, Camus taught me how to focus on the beauty of existence, and Lax himself taught me how to write with economy and clarity. Of them all, Baldwin, especially in his nonfiction, has been my best teacher.
Right now I’m reading a book about the relationship between Baldwin’s prose and the various musical styles that have come out of the African American experience: blues, jazz, gospel, spirituals, etc.
Although Pure Act is your first book, you have an impressive number of works published in various styles from poetry to journalism. Out of all the types of writing you do, do you have a favorite and if so why?
I can’t say I favor one over another, but I love storytelling, working with ideas, and creating beauty with words. So fiction, I suppose…or maybe literary nonfiction…or possibly poetry….
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write as much as you can, every day, and don’t quit. Study those who’ve done it well. Slow down enough to really see life and hear language. Be thankful for each moment and always, in every moment, be fully human–alive, compassionate and filled with joy.