Wednesday, March 28, 2012

one stone

Photo of Lax taken by Dr. Paul Spaeth at St. Bonaventure University in 1990

The following is excerpted from a fascinating and excellent article about Lax by Michael McGregor.  It appears HERE in the online version of Image magazine, Issue #70.  I understand that the excerpts from this article are part of a new, upcoming, biography of Lax.  The first one really.  I can't wait.  Like McGregor, I believe that Lax was Merton's mentor.  Lax had an intuitive grasp of what Merton was - and we all are - seeking.  Merton called it a direct link to the living God.  But to get Lax, you have to go slow, be still.
 
Words—those wonders he wielded better than anyone else, requiring “remarkably few” to “weave awesome poems,” as critic Richard Kostelanetz put it.

Words—those specks of speech he parceled out like perfect pearls—one per line in later poems, or maybe just a syllable.

“Write as though sending a telegram in which every word costs a dollar,” he said more than once, paraphrasing Joyce, his literary hero. “Never use a single word more than necessary.”

His breakthrough as a writer—his transformation from mainstream poet into experimental minimalist—had come from a single word. A single object. A single act. In New York City in 1961, twenty-four years before I met him, he’d seen a stone on a sidewalk and picked it up. A few years before that, he had lingered in Europe for the first time, living on little money among immigrants and drifters near the Marseilles harbor, then in a seminary high in the French Alps. He’d returned to New York for work because he’d run out of cash, but after living so simply, so relatively quietly, the words that whirled round him there—the words he and others used so blithely both in poetry and conversation—bothered him. He wondered how many he or anyone understood.

Then that day he saw the stone. That undeniably physical and natural object in an uncomfortably abstract, unnatural world. As he picked it up, he thought only: stone. Stone, he realized, was one word he felt sure about. One word he could write down and feel confident a reader would understand. Standing there, he started a poem that began:

one stone
one stone
one stone

i lift
one stone
one stone

i lift
one stone
and I am
thinking

i am
thinking
as I lift
one stone

one stone
one stone
one stone

Although he’d written unusually vertical poetry before, publishing some in the New Yorker, this was his first poem in what critics would come to call his minimalist or concrete style. He wrote more—dozens in the days ahead—feeling freer every time he set one down. A year later, Emil Antonucci, an artist who had collaborated with him before, published a book of them called simply New Poems.
And further down the page, there is this:

These compositions have the force to imply that everything is capable of being transformed into symbolic meaning by coming into contact with a passionate human being. Nothing is too small and nothing is too great to be comprehended—or to transmit the meaning which is beyond meanings and which defines itself by remaining incomprehensible. Lax has chosen to write about the common experience in order to avoid seeming to be an elected person. Sanctity is meaningful to him only if it belongs to everything; to sea, sky, minnow and god.

You really have to read the whole essay.  McGregor gets Lax and is able to talk about him within the context of his own creative writing without in any way distorting what Lax was about:

Living among poor Greek fishermen and sponge divers had freed him from the American obsession with money, the expectations of editors and writer friends, and the need to maintain anything anyone might call a career. It had allowed him to write as he wanted to write and live as he wanted to live—a life of what he called pure act among people he saw living that way naturally.

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