Thoughts About Robert Lax

There has been a lot of talk about affect in the poetry news – whether or not Conceptual Poetry does away with affect, what the relationship is between Flarf and affect, what, more generally, is the place for affect and/or sentimentality in our ironic age.  These are fascinating questions.  They get to and at the heart of what poetry is, why we read poetry, how we think about poetry, how we think about language, and how we approach literature.  A seminal anthology of Conceptual Poetry came out in 2011 called Against Expression, in the introduction of which Craig Dworkin writes,

But what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.  (http://www.ubu.com/concept/)

 

These are also wonderfully important questions.  I find them relevant, too, in discussing the work of Robert Lax, whose poems (1962 – 1997) has been released by Wave Books, with a marvelous introduction by the poet and critic John Beer.  But how does Lax’s work fit so importantly into this discussion about affect and Conceptual poetry?  What is the relationship between Lax’s work and affect, and/or between Lax’s work and irony? 

            One similarity between Lax’s work and Conceptual poetry is this: both may be perceived by others (wrongly, I believe) as examples of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon.  This is when people look at a Jackson Pollock painting, a poem by William Carlos Williams, Duchamp’s urinal, Philip Glass’s compositions, John Cage’s work, Andy Warhol’s ouvre, and dismiss all of these works because, as the person remarks, “Oh, I could do that.”  The targets of the person are the “smart dumb” artists (to use a useful phrase given by Kenneth Goldsmith) who are knowingly ignorant, artists who attempt, like Wallace Stevens in “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction,” to   

…become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye

or, to quote John Ashbery in his discussion of Fairfield Porter’s work, artists who form  “a series of brilliant know-nothings who at intervals have embodied the American genius, from Emerson and Thoreau to Whitman and Dickinson down to Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore.”  (314 Reported Sightings)  It’s time we add Lax to this remarkable list.  Look at this untitled poem, from his groundbreaking work, new poems:

is

is

is

is

is

is

 

is

is

is

is

is

is

 

is

is

is

 

is

is

is

 

is

is

is

is

is

is

 

This is the kind of work that people are quick to judge.  “What the hell is this?” I can hear them saying.  “A poem composed of the word “is” 24 times?  This is a poem?”  But we need to look again, and we need to look closer. 

 

How do we even contextualize Lax?  Beer writes,

the frequent characterization of Lax as a “minimalist” poet, on the model of the visual art  of Donald Judd or the music of Philip Glass, invites misunderstanding of the work.  To be sure, just as “concrete” gestures toward the centrality of the individual word or syllable in Lax’s writing, “minimal” notes correctly that these are poems that generate their effects out of the smallest units of semantic significance.  But both labels tend to figure Lax’s work as more oppositional and consciously avant-garde than it really is, and thereby obscure the deeper continuities between Lax and the lyric tradition.

 

I think Beer is right, although it is worth dwelling on the “minimal” fact that “these are poems that generate their effect out of the smallest units of semantic significance.”  This, in and of itself, strikes me as a massively interesting revision of the lyric tradition, a revision that is indeed “concrete” and “minimalist,” but that also pushes poetry towards silence, askesis, and even (unintentionally?) towards the image.  For look at the poem above.  What do you notice first?  It seems to me there are three things that immediately ring a bell, or trigger an alarm, in the reader’s mind; and each of these aspects of the poem suggest the limits between reading and looking: 1.) the word “is” is repeated over and over again, 24 times; 2.) the poem is centered on the page, instead of beginning on the left margin, although a left margin remains intact, and 3.) the poem drops, rather than unfolding horitozontally.  I think, because of these features, the reader is compelled to look at the poem, and develop an awareness of the emotional and intellectual ramifications of form, just as much as read the poem, to develop an awareness of the emotional and intellectual ramifications of the content.  Lax lets the form sing just as much as the content.  Perhaps this is why, in new poems, Lax writes (although is “write” the right word?) these two poems:

123

123

  1234

123

 

123

123

  1234

123

 

1234

1234

1234

                                                                                                      123

 

123

123

  1234

123

 

and

 

AAA

AAA

  AAAA

AAA

 

AAA

AAA

  AAAA

AAA

 

  AAAA

  AAAA

  AAAA

AAA

 

AAA

AAA

   AAAA

AAA

 

These are brilliant ideas manifested in thought-provoking poems, but they are “smart dumb” poems, and so capturing and collecting their elusive beauty requires a bit of thought and concentration.  (Another similarity between Lax and Conceptual Poetry – the time it takes to read Lax and think about his work is analogous to the time it takes to skim a Conceptual work and also think about it.  In that sense, Lax’s poems provoke into being a “thinkership” just as much as a “readership,” although Lax is much less ironic than many Conceptual poets, and indeed can be considered, a la Beer, more of a lyric than Conceptual poet).  But what is it that lends these poems their beauty?  Look at the beginnings of the five stanzas that compose Wallace Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”:

            I.

            In that November off Tehuantepec,

            The slopping of the sea grew still one night

            And in the morning summer hued the deck […]

 

            II.

            In that November off Tehuantepec,

            The slopping of the sea grew still one night.

            At breakfast jelly yellow streaked the deck […]

 

            III.

            In that November off Tehuantepec,

            The slopping of the sea grew still one night

            And a pale silver patterned the deck […]

 

            IV.

            In that November off Tehuantepec

            The night-long slopping of the sea grew still.

            A mallow morning dozed upon the deck […]

 

            V.

            In that November off Tehuantepec

            Night stilled the slopping of the sea.  The day

            Came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck, […]

 

And now look at this stanza from Pieces by Robert Creeley:

 

            Here here

            Here.  Here. 

 

One wonders, looking at these works, if progress in poetry mirrors technological progress.  For what we see in the progression from Stevens to Creely and Lax is the refinement of an idea, (like the refinement of, say, the automobile or the internet), the idea in this case being the relationship between life and variation, the way in which things and contexts change through time, even every second, so that the same word uttered twice can mean two totally different things.  But look at the Stevens passage as compared to Creeley and Lax.  It is as though all the armature that Stevens needed to bolster his poem – the numbers that introduce each section, the intensely sound-drenched language, the large and conspicuous words – these have all been resisted, or revised, for poems that are somehow less “poetic,” almost less “authorial.”  And yet the Creeley and Lax poems convey the same profundity, the same wonder at the way in which things change, only with a simplicity that is miraculous.  And the Lax poem goes further – he uses the capital “A” and numbers to signify, suggesting that the barest levels of meaning can still yield surprisingly effectual results.

            But Lax’s poems are not just experiments in meaning; they are also strong exemplars of a kind of muted, pure lyricism that is Lax’s music alone.  Look at this excerpt from new poems:

summer

autumn

winter

spring

                       

summer

autumn

winter

spring

 

summer

autumn

winter

spring

 

sky

&sky

&sky

&sky

 

How do we read these words, these poems?  And does our reading tell us about ourselves, just as much as it tells us about the poem?  If so, how do we talk about a poem that is less a jigsaw puzzle and more of a mirror, reflecting back to us the moods we are seeking in a poem?  For when I read this poem, I sense an incalculable sadness, mixed with a high degree of wonder.  I sense a wise nostalgia mingling with a sobering boldness, a clear-eyed wistfulness woven together with a shocking breathlessness that I find more convincing than the poems of W.S. Merwin.  Somehow the poem is simultaneously hermetic and lucid, transparent and opaque, not unlike Whitman.  And it is a reduction that somehow expands, a leveling down or inside that opens up and out new avenues for thought.  Without any pomp or circumstance, Lax comes along and, with a staggering humility, breaks the tenacious hold on poetry that the horizontal, and certain modes of the lyric, have possessed for millennia.  And while so much talk happens around the word “critical thinking” that the poor term has lost all meaning, it becomes evident that Lax practiced “critical thinking” before the term even came along and became a cliché.  By using the smallest words with the largest potentials, he points to what exists in the world, and makes us wonder about the world’s existence, without having to use clumsy and portentous words like “existence.”  In that sense, again like Conceptual poetry, Lax is doing the “least amount of work possible” to achieve something we often consider to require the most amount of work – he is evoking in his readers the experience of wonder, and the awareness of variation, in ways that are powerful, memorable, interesting, and different.   

 

           

 

 

            

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