The drive to abstraction

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, Michael N McGregor
(444pp, $34.95, Fordham University Press)

When I published a long essay on Robert Lax’s poetry in the UK journal Poetry Information in 1974, following my first visit with Lax in Greece, there was relatively little critical material about his work, and his writing was mainly associated with Concrete poetry – a somewhat useful but limited and limiting view. Not only this, but there was a definite resistance towards his poetry amongst various fellow poets: I remember that mainstream UK poets Michael Hamburger and Peter Levi were dismissive when I mentioned Lax – but so was Eric Mottram, one of the doyens of experimental UK poetry, who told me that he didn’t think Lax was a poet at all. From my experience, the situation was not substantially better in the States.

By the late 1980s, this had changed to quite some degree, but Nicholas Zurbrugg and I still felt the need to start putting together a volume entitled The ABCs of Robert Lax
, eventually published by Stride in 1999. This included essays and tributes, both new and archival, from many poets, writers and critics, including Thomas A Clark, Frank Samperi, Cid Corman, Emmett Williams, Eugen Gomringer, Richard Kostelanetz, Henri Chopin, Stephen Bann, Julian Mitchell, C K Williams, Denise Levertov, Mary Ellen Solt, R C Kenedy, Simon Cutts, Michael Gibbs, Paul J Spaeth and many others. In the introduction, Nick and I made the point that Lax’s work was still not as well known as it should be.

Lax died in September 2000, and since then there have been various new publications of his work as well as books about him. Most recently, I included one of Lax’s most important pieces, ’21 pages’, in The Alchemist’s Mind: a book of narrative prose by poets (Reality Street, 2012), John Beer edited a substantial collection of Lax’s poetry, Poems (1962-1997) (Wave Books, 2013), Paul J Spaeth edited A Hermit’s Guide to Home Economics (New Directions, 2015) and Michael N McGregor has published this new biography of Lax, as well as editing a mini-feature on him in Poetry (Chicago) (December 2015).

Just how much Lax’s reputation has increased is a question I’ll return to later.

McGregor’s Pure Act
is not the first attempt at a biography of Lax. Sigrid Hauff’s A Line in Three Circles: The Inner Biography of Robert Lax (Belleville Verlag, 1999), was the first, and amongst other things boasted a very good Lax bibliography put together by Hauff and Hartmut Geerken; this was followed by James Harford’s Merton and Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax and Edward Rice (Continuum, 2006); and there was also a good deal of biographical material in Robert Lax, edited by Hauff for the Museum Tingueley (Benteli Verlag, 2004). However, McGregor’s is by far the most comprehensive, and is likely to be regarded as the standard biography of Lax, especially as it’s unlikely that anyone else will want to write another book of this size on someone who, while in my mind (and the minds of many others) an important writer, is scarcely a household name.

In some respects this is a pity. McGregor has clearly put a good deal of thought, time and work into this book, and it provides very considerable information about Lax’s life and poetry; yet there are also signs of a slapdash approach at times, with the information not always being accurate. I will explain. But I should also mention that I think McGregor’s basic approach, of interweaving a personal memoir into the biography, is a mistake. It may sound unkind, but there is simply too much about the author in the book. McGregor would have done better, I feel, to publish a separate memoir about his friendship with Lax, and stick to a more straightforward biographical approach here.

So what sort of mistakes are we talking about? To give a few examples, we are told that Ian Hamilton Finlay was an English poet rather than Scottish, and that he belonged to a group
(rather than a movement) of Concrete poets that included Aram Saroyan and Stephen Bann (p 275); the playwright Julian Mitchell is referred to as a poet (p 280); we are informed about something called 'England’s Centre for Contemporary Art' (p 361) where in fact it should be De Montfort University Centre for Contemporary Art; the publisher tel-let is called 'tel-net' (pp 387 & 440); the book Rooster is referred to The Rooster Poems (p 376).... McGregor mentions the Lax text a room full of voices (p 387) but doesn’t seem to know that it was published by hawkhaven press in 2002. (The same publisher brought out the very beautiful earth & sky in 2000.) Some of the omissions are extraordinary, such as his failure to mention Beer’s selection Poems (1962-1997) in the bibliography, nor Hauff’s Lax selection, Poesie der Entschleunigung: Ein Lesebuch (pendo verlag, 2008). Susan Howe’s seminal essay on Lax, Finlay and Ad Reinhardt, ‘The End of Art’, written for The Archives of American Art Journal and subsequently included in Stereo Headphones in 1982 and also in The ABCs of Robert Lax, doesn’t get a mention. I could go on.... And there are sometimes irritating conjectures where no concrete evidence exists (e.g. p 32, where we’re told Lax 'probably slept with women'– how useful is this?).

Am I being petty or mean-spirited here? I don’t think so. There is an obligation to accuracy in any book of this sort; there is also an obligation to respect those who have worked towards getting Lax’s writing better known, e.g. the publisher of tel-let (John Martone). There are two further things to say here. One is that once you start to notice mistakes and omissions, you begin to wonder what else is either wrong or missing. Perhaps not very much at all; but how does one know? The other is that small things, small details, matter. Why else did Bob Lax often write one syllable to a line, caring about each and every syllable? Why else did he care for the stray cats on Patmos, where he lived for many years, when no one else was bothering?

'Attentiveness is the rarest and purest form of generosity', wrote Simone Weil (quoted by Jacques Cabaud in Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love
); and it is the gentle yet strong focus, lucidity and faithfulness of the act of attention (to words, to the things and the people around him, to whatever he names in poems) that constitutes one of the most salient features of Lax’s poetry and also his life. Perhaps this is another way of expressing what McGregor means by 'pure act'.

I am possibly concentrating too much on the faults rather than the virtues of McGregor’s book. It certainly fills in many biographical gaps, and gives a good sense of the trajectory of Lax’s life. It also contains a sympathetic and informed discussion of Lax’s poetry; however, because of the biographical slant, McGregor sometimes chooses to quote writings that shed light on aspects of Lax’s life (e.g. his friendship with Jack Kerouac) but which are not always his best.

For this reason I would not recommend the book as the best introduction to Lax as a writer. I’d recommend Poems (1962-1997)
, along with ’21 pages’ and also Circus Days and Nights (ed Paul J Spaeth, Overlook Press, 2000). Then The ABCs of Robert Lax, if anyone can find an affordable second-hand copy. And then perhaps Hauff’s biography, if one wants to know about Lax’s life. Then perhaps Pure Act.

I’ll conclude by addressing the question of Lax’s reputation. It has increased over the years, surely, yet the poetry remains either unknown or problematic for many. Why? Lax’s independence, for one thing, the fact that he really didn’t fit in anywhere, not even in minimalism (although much of his work can be seen as minimalist) or Concrete poetry (although quite a lot of it does overlap with Concrete poetry). When you consider his writing as a whole, you can’t place him. That’s awkward for many, I’m afraid. Apart from this, his writing isn’t 'difficult', at least in the usual sense, when 'difficulty' is prized in some quarters, but neither is it populist poetry, by any means. It doesn’t exclude a notion of personhood, yet it most certainly isn’t egoistic/subjective 'I'-poetry, whether of the confessional or lyrical variety (or any other). It has a definite drive to abstraction (in the sense more generally used by artists and art critics), which is anathema to some, but this is always rooted in the here and now, even when he constructs poems simply out of the names of colours.

Rather like his great friend Ad Reinhardt’s late, 'all-black' paintings, the poems almost aren’t there, yet very much there, or if you like, very much here
. That’s their paradox. And the best of them are extraordinary.

     © David Miller, 2016