RICHARD KOSTELANETZ Reviews
Poesie der Entschleunigung: Ein Lesebuch by Robert Lax, Ed. Sigrid Hauff
(Pendo Verlag, Munich & Zurich, 2008)
ROBERT LAX AGAIN
Robert Lax (1915-2000) for me epitomized the legendary small-press writer whose books appeared not because a publisher thought he could make money on them or someone at a university press had enough power to get them printed but because his publishers loved Lax's profoundly innovative work.
His work's first loyal loving publisher was Emil Antonucci, a Brooklyn graphic designer whose Journeyman Press produced classic Lax chapbooks in the 1950s and 1960s. Then came Gladys Weigner and Bernhard Moosbrugger, Swiss, whose Pendo Verlag in Zurich issued modest perfectbound Lax books from the 1970s into the 1990s. This imprint has survived Moosburger's passing thanks to Sigrid Hauff, a Munich litéraratteur, who edited and introduced this new anthology of Lax's best writing-in English translation, Poetry of De-Acceleration, or Speeding Down. Hauff also wrote A Line in Three Circles. The Inner Biography of Robert Lax (Norderstedt/Germany: Books on Demand, 2007).
Though Ms. Hauff's introduction is entirely in German, all the Lax texts appear with the original English on the left-hand (verso) pages, and brilliant indeed they are, making this German book the best selection of an American poet's work. My own new favorite is not a severely minimal poem, which was Lax's forte, but a prose text titled "21 Pages," which begins: "Searching for you, but if there is no one, what am I searching for? Still you. Some sort of you. Not for myself?" Nothing known to me resembles this.
Why is it after decades of a self-congratulatory National Endowment for the Arts that so much of this first-rank innovative American writer is still published abroad? What truth is implicit in that fact?
For many years, Lax's larger books reprinted a blurb attributed only to the New York Times Book Review: "among America's greatest experimental poets, . . . the last unacknowledged-and, alas, uncollected-major poet of his post-60s generation." Crediting the NYTBR annoyed me, whose words they were, who sneaked the encomium into a 1978 review of Thomas Merton's Collected Poems. Never has anyone else connected to the NYTBR acknowledged Lax's (or most other American avant-garde) poetry. Never. That's never.
One virtue of James Harford's Merton & Friends (Continuum, 2006) is crediting me, thanks, though the book's dust-jacket mentions only the NYTBR, dammit. Otherwise, Harford's book is a charming memoir that connects the legendary Trappist Merton to his college buddies, Lax and Edward Rice. The last published the influential liberal Catholic magazine Jubilee in the 1950s and 1960s to which the others, including Moosbrugger, contributed.
This Catholic emphasis accounts for why a fourth, equally influential college buddy in Merton's circle is slighted—Ad Reinhardt, a Protestant, whose minimalist paintings were likewise concerned with higher spirituality, whose prose was as concise as Lax's.
May a respectful publisher, perhaps Continuum, someday release a book anthology remembering the best of Jubilee, which I would review, much as I'm now gladly re-reviewing Robert Lax.
This article is part of Richard Kostelanetz's PERSON OF LETTERS IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD which is forthcoming via Kindle.
Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz's work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.