Thoughts while reading Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice, by James Harford

I feel a tension between my devotional life and my love of writing.  I have recognized this tension also in the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a modern-day contemplative and a gifted writer. I bought Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton and the Vocation of Writing, a 2007 compilation of Merton’s writings on writing, to see how Merton lived with a calling to both writing and devotion.

I’ve always found Merton’s distinction in New Seeds of Contemplation between a poet and a contemplative both true and tough:

The poet enters into himself in order to create.  The contemplative enters into God in order to be created.

I found language in Echoing Silence (from the 1958 essay “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal”) that expands on the New Seeds aphorism:

Now it is precisely here [a novice contemplative’s tentative experiences of grace, which reflection threatens to spoil] that the aesthetic instinct changes its colors and, from being a precious gift, becomes a real danger.  If the intuition of the poet naturally leads him into the inner sanctuary of his soul, it is for a special purpose in the natural order: when the poet enters into himself it is in order to reflect upon his inspiration and to clothe it with a special and splendid form and then return to display it to those outside.  And here the radical difference between the artist and the mystic begins to be seen.  The artist enters into himself in order to work.  For him, the “superior” soul is a forge where inspiration kindles a fire of white heat, a crucible for the transformation of natural images into new, created forms.  But the mystic enters into himself, not in order to work but to pass through the center of his own soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him.

Consequently, if the mystic happens to be, at the same time, an artist, when prayer calls him within himself to the secrecy of God’s presence, his art will be tempted to start working and producing and studying the “creative” possibilities of this experience. . . . The artist will run the risk of losing a gift of tremendous supernatural worth, in order to perform a work of far less value.  He will let go of the deep, spiritual grace which has been granted him, in order to return to the reflection of that grace within his own soul.

(Merton isn’t always so categorical in seeing a contemplative’s role as higher than a poet’s.  In another selection from Echoing Silence, he advises some to accept their vocations as writers – the grace given to them – and to stop pining for a contemplative vocation that God probably did not intend for them.)

Merton fights this writer-versus-contemplative battle less abstractly and more personally in his letters and journal entries.  In one 1948 letter to a friend, he resolves not “to either renounce or to adopt whole ‘blocks’ of activity – cutting out ‘all’ writing or ‘going into solitude for good’ (as I would like to) . . .”  On the other hand, a 1949 journal entry states, “At the moment the writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude.”  Later on, however, especially in the 1960’s, he sometimes describes his writing as a distraction and an obsession.

[book]When I bought Echoing Silence, I bought a recent biography of Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice at the same time to get free shipping and to learn more about how Merton got along with his Columbia friends – Lax, Rice, and others – once Merton took his vows a couple of years after leaving Columbia with a master’s degree in 1939.  James Harford’s Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice introduced me to Lax’s poetry.  If Merton’s life and writing have clarified my struggle with writing and devotion, Lax’s life and writing have helped me see how devotion and writing may come together for me.

With regard to Merton, Lax, and Rice’s relationship after Merton entered Gethsemani, they stayed in close contact with one another through their letters and publishing endeavors.  Rice founded and edited Jubilee, an influential and unprofitable American Catholic magazine published from 1953 through 1967, and he relied heavily on his Columbia buddies to supply articles, photos, artwork, and other writers.  Merton was a frequent writer-contributor.  Lax, who published earlier than his Columbia buddies – a few poems in The New Yorker in the 1940’s – was a more sporadic contributor of both photography and writing to Jubilee.  When Lax was in New York, he’d hang out at Jubilee’s modest, crowded office.  Staff members would often find him meditating on the office’s fire escape to escape the commotion.  But Lax spent many of the Jubilee years in France, North Carolina, Connecticut, Greece, and elsewhere.

Lax, Rice, and Merton, along with fellow-Columbia pal and painter Ad Reinhardt, increasingly influenced one another as their fame grew.  Reinhardt’s paintings were moving to purely black canvases about the time Lax’s already spare palette was frequently cleaned of all but six or seven words per poem, words that were repeated in vertical shapes that invite contemplation more than analysis.  Reinhardt’s paintings and ideas influenced Lax a great deal.

But Lax was a gifted copy editor, and he was known for his concision long before he came under the influence of Reinhardt’s minimalist theories. One photographer at Jubilee said, “If you worked with Lax, you didn’t need Strunk and White.  My eight pages of pictures and his forty words caught the whole story.”

Lax’s concision and his quiet spirit seemed to affect his poetry more as the Jubilee years went on.  During the fifties and sixties, Lax’s poetry reflected a more contemplative bent, employing little religious imagery – in fact, little metaphor at all.  Here’s “The Port Was Longing,” an example of his poetry from the early 1960’s:

The port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this ship

not for

that ship

not for

this ship

not for

that ship

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this sea

not for

that sea

not for

this sea

not for

that sea

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this &

not for

that

not for

this &

not for

that

the port

was longing

the port

was longing

not for

this &

not for

that

The increasingly spare and simple words in Lax’s poetry and his experiments with vertical forms got Lax labeled as an abstract minimalist.

Lax’s move to Greece was as seemingly impulsive as his earlier moves, but he settled there. Before Greece, Lax made several moves and career changes by jumping in the backs of friends’ cars as they were leaving town.  The Circus of the Sun, published in 1958 and arguably Lax’s best book of poems, was the result of a year he spent as a circus clown and juggler.  His meditation on a picture of John writing the Apocalypse in a cave at Patmos precipitated his move to the Greek islands in 1963, and he lived there until just before his death in 2000.

Lax didn’t move to sparsely inhabited Greek islands to become a hermit, but to become a better poet.  As he explained in his introduction to A Greek Journal, “I thought I needed [a quiet place] for my work, as a photographer needs a darkroom.”  Lax became fascinated with the Greek fisherman and other characters near his modest, rented home, though, and he enjoyed his island contacts.  Nevertheless, he gained an international reputation for being a hermit, much as he had gained a reputation among his coworkers at Jubilee’s offices years before as being a kind of quiet “clown saint.”

At Patmos and the other Greek islands on which he lived, Lax seems to have found the quiet, contemplative place that Merton had hoped to find at Gethsemani.  Merton did move to a hermitage at Gethsemani, but the move never seemed to fit him.  Unauthorized picnics with friends (including, famously, Joan Baez) and a romantic interlude seemed to make some of his Catholic friends feel that his earlier, regular monastic life was a better fit for him.  But much of the distraction came from the chief demand on Merton’s time – his writing. Merton lived under the pressure of constant writing deadlines.  One visitor to Merton’s hermitage described the atmosphere there as a one-man newsroom.

The difference between Lax’s and Merton’s spirituality had something to do with their temperaments.  Lax once described Merton as a “type A” and himself as a “type Z” personality.  Merton’s temperament reminds me of the Apostle Peter – strong and restless, sometimes at home with himself, but more often picking fights.  Lax reminds me of John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast at Passover and whose portrait in Marseilles involves him both writing and praying and caused Lax to pick up his tent for the last time until his health declined in old age.  Lax, like John, was one of the last of his crowd of spiritual explorers to die.

Their temperaments also influenced the way they negotiated their vocations as writers with their callings as contemplatives.  Somehow Lax witnessed a more joyful marriage of contemplation and writing than did Merton.  Lax found and arranged shapes and sounds and expressions that, for me, largely bypass the ego and suggest meditation.

Here are some thoughts from James J. Uebbing’s introduction to Lax’s Love Had a Compass (1995) that I think ring true:

[Lax’s] insistence upon patience, upon attention to trivialities is not an incidental element of design, for simplicity – its centrality as a human virtue and the necessity of its cultivation – is at the heart of Lax’s achievement as a poet and as a man.

º º º

With Lax it is necessary to put aside the very notion of interpretation, the expectation – so basic to us that it is barely recognizable as a strategy – that an author’s art will by its nature be linear and syllogistic.

º º º

The elements of his art are the elements of the created world: the sea and the men and the animals and the light.  Like every artist he makes his use of them, but unlike most he acknowledges that they do not belong to him.  They find their origin elsewhere.  It is in this respect that Lax must be acknowledged as a religious man, insofar as for him artistic creation is not a ransacking of the visible world or an assertion of some unfettered consciousness so much as it is a participation in a process that was already in motion long before he arrived on the stage.

Lax’s poetry often feels like a clear reflection of God creating.  It also seems beyond the inspiration and creation that Merton suggests can keep an artist from losing herself in God.

Unlike Merton, who remains one of my favorite writers, Lax was at peace with his art.

 



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Posted April 4, 2008.