An elder statesman in art and faith circles, John Leax (Jack to friends) is a poet and essayist of hard-earned, humble wisdom, and as such, he avoids the spotlight. The author of books like Country Labors: Poems for All Seasons and Out Walking: Reflections on our Place in the Natural World, he would rather be working in the garden than at the podium, and since retiring from a long teaching career at Houghton College, Jack has done just that. But he has also been busy putting the finishing touches on three forthcoming books. Here, in Part I of this interview, Leax discusses his early days as a poet of faith and his adoption of Wendell Berry’s metaphor of “at-one-ment” in his life and writing. At the end of the interview are two poems by Leax, “4 AM Meditation on the Baptism of Christ” and “Late Night: Thinking of William Carlos Williams, I Remember the Red Wheelbarrow and the Old Statue of St. Francis in the Shed,” which he reads aloud.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In 2009, you retired after more than forty years of teaching. What have you been up to since then?
John Leax (JL): The first thing I did, after redesigning my garden and making some sculptures for it, was read William Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. Those, along with my daily work in the garden, turned me back to Alexander Pope. I wintered with him and a stack of books about his gardening. During Lent, I gave myself up to Milton—Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Pope and Milton sent me to the Latin poets. I read all of Virgil. Then Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which I had only dipped into in the past. It was exciting to discover it as a single, whole poem. From there I moved on to Horace’s Odes.
The garden and pastoral themes in all of that reading led me into the Italian Renaissance, to Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Dante. My next reading project is Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. I’m anxious to see how I get on with that. As I was taking in all this foundational Western stuff, I was also working through David Hinton’s translations of Chinese “river and mountain poets,” roughly the fifth through the thirteenth century. And underlining all of this was a body of devotional reading: the desert fathers and mothers, selections from Philokalia, Eusebius, Early Christian Lives by Athanasius and Jerome, and Augustine’s City of God.
Recounting my reading this way sounds so pretentious that it scares me. I guess that after all those years of teaching the twentieth century, I’m running to the sources as fast as I can. Needless to say, this is forcing me to rethink and revise my current writing projects.
The first writing project, a selection of poems from the last twenty years, is more or less finished. I’m calling it Recluse Freedom: Poems 1990–2010. WordFarm has it scheduled for publication in 2012. The second is a collection of sonnets on biblical themes that is about two-thirds done. And third is a collaborative project with Jeanne Murray Walker and Robert Siegel, a collection of epistolary poems on the seven deadly sins. We’ve been working on it for more years than there are sins; I’ve no idea when we’ll finish.
TOJ: In the literary nonfiction course I’ve taught at Houghton, we’ve studied books by Gregory Wolfe, Alan Jacobs, Andy Crouch, Marilyn McEntyre, and others, as well as A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art and Shouts and Whispers: Twenty-One Writers Speak about Their Writing and Their Faith—a collection of transcribed talks from Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing. We’ve also looked at pieces from Image, Books and Culture, and The Other Journal.
All this to say that today’s writing students at Christian colleges are growing up in an environment rich with contemporary material that examines the relationship between faith and serious literary writing. I know it wasn’t always so.
Could you take us back to a time before this proliferation, in the early part of your career? What did the art-and-faith writing landscape look like when you were starting out?
JL: This is a harder question to address than it appears because, I think, the answer must be fairly personal, even granting that the personal is experienced within the larger cultural atmosphere.
I remember a series of contradictions. I studied, during my prep school years at the Stony Brook School, with Frank Gaebelein. A superb biblical scholar, he was also a man of sophisticated taste in the arts—he was a pianist, a writer, and also a mountain climber; he encouraged his students to be involved in culture, to understand, to be creative. He represented everything I still find most positive about an integrated life of faith and art.
On the other hand, much of what I encountered could be summarized in this story: midway through my junior year of college I dropped out and worked as a laborer for a year. Just before returning to school, I had an interview with the senior pastor of the large, downtown Presbyterian church I attended. This was not a fundamentalist church. After a long discussion about getting my life in order, I finally asked him what he thought of the poems that I had given him. His response was brutal: “It’s time to put that nonsense aside, young man, and get to work.”
Two books helped me. One was Henry Zylstra’s Testament of Vision. The other, the more important one, was a little Pendle Hill Pamphlet by the Quaker artist Fritz Eichenberg, Art and Faith. From that I took two principles. The first I can quote: “Speed is the enemy of the craftsman.” The second is that one must step aside from economic ambitions or ambitions of success to be faithful to the work. These books allowed me to believe not only that a life of poetry was possible, but also that it was good.
I went to Wheaton, and while at Wheaton I encountered for the first time the world of the fundamentalist. Wheaton in the early sixties was an exciting place: full of controversy and discussion about the arts. Students were trying to break free from the fundamentalism, but I found the atmosphere oppressive. There was a very strong ethical perspective on the arts; you had to be careful of the arts because they would lead people astray. It was your responsibility as the artist to anticipate what somebody might do with your words or images, so you simply could not take any kind of risk.
There is, I’m sure, something to be said for that ethical concern, and I’m glad I’ve been affected by my exposure to it, but at the same time, it is a limiting and ultimately deadening approach. It makes the weakest person—the person most easily offended or most willing to be offended—the arbiter of the culture. I don’t think we can allow that to define us. We do have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters, but if we have vocations as artists, we also have a responsibility to the work, and that’s what was not understood.
TOJ: Let me follow up on the topic of models. Many of us now can look to contemporary artists of faith who are producing work of high literary quality. What poets and writers of faith did you look to as models when you first started out?
JL: Very few, very few. In my college years I had C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. They were the only figures of any stature I was aware of. When I started writing poems my senior year of high school, I was influenced by Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg. This was shortly after Lowell had published his Life Studies, so it was not the Catholic Lowell of the early books—the elaborate and technical Lowell—it was the Lowell breaking loose into confessional verse. And of course Ginsberg was largely confessional in his work.
The one poet I did meet at Wheaton was Chad Walsh, one of the founders of the Beloit Poetry Journal. He was an Episcopal priest. And over the years he was personally very encouraging to me. But I don’t think his verse influenced me. What he gave me was permission to be a poet. His suggestion that if one is a Christian and one is a poet, one can’t help but be a Christian poet, was very helpful to me at that time. It kept me a bit looser about the subject than some of my friends.
But other models—there really weren’t many. I was looking to secular poets. Merton didn’t become the crucial influence he has been until I rediscovered him in my early thirties.
TOJ: How did you begin building community with other literary poets of faith?
JL: At Wheaton, Jeanne Murray Walker was a good friend. We made great progress as poets in the back row of a physical geology class, where we mostly wrote poems and critiqued each other’s work while the world of “Rocks for Jocks” swirled around us. I think I was somewhat in awe of her work then, and I still am.
I traveled pretty much alone for quite a while. I left Wheaton, finished at Houghton, and went on to Johns Hopkins, where I worked with Elliott Coleman, another Episcopal poet. When I came to Houghton to teach, Lionel Basney and I started a little magazine of our own (Ktaadn). This was in the era where everybody who wanted to be a poet started a magazine. We even learned to do letterpress printing. I think I would be an entirely different and lesser poet and person apart from my friendship and twenty-five years of collaboration with Lionel. Though he never published a book of poems, he was the better craftsman.
The little magazine allowed us to begin making connections. One day we got a letter and a stack of poems from this person who wrote, “I’m a friend of Jeanne Walker, and she said I should send you some stuff.” So Lionel and I took a look at the poems and said, “Well, this has some promise.” Full of the arrogance forgivable only in the young still defining themselves, we sent it back and said, “If you make these changes, we’ll use it.” And the writer, with what I have learned is the spirit that characterizes her passionate desire to learn to be a better poet and to seek greater excellence, agreed to the changes. That exchange began a long friendship with Luci Shaw.
Working on Ktaadn allowed us to establish this circle that continued to expand, because as you met one poet, he or she disclosed another. We corresponded with and published early work by Leslie Leyland Fields, Diane Glancy, Jean Janzen, James Schaap, Hugh Cook, and others. We were also able to work with established poets like Samuel Hazo, a Catholic poet from Pittsburgh; John Bennett, who was also one of the founders of the Beloit Poetry Journal; and Arnold Kenseth, a wonderful poet we met through Chad Walsh. Kenseth spent his life as a Congregational pastor in New England all the while writing superb poems, including a delightful book called The Holy Merriment. He’s a George Herbert for the twentieth century, but hardly anybody knows him. A truly great figure we were able to publish and who I eventually met on a couple occasions was Thomas Merton’s friend Robert Lax. Lax was from down the road in Olean, New York, though he was living on Patmos in Greece when we corresponded with him.
We were blessed.
TOJ: The dedication of your collection Country Labors, to your wife, begins, “Hands worn hard by labor give / better tongue to truth than words.” And the poem “Here” from that collection includes the lines, “ . . . and we, faithful, bound / flesh to flesh learn / in brokenness the changes / loves works in fertile soil.” I’m interested in the relationship between these two strands in your life and your poetics: working the earth and writing.
JL: I think that to answer this question I need to talk about metaphor. In his essay “Discipline and Hope,” Wendell Berry writes about the “at-one-ment” metaphor: the farmer and his field, the marriage of the husband and wife, the spiritual relationship of Creator and creation—he points out that each of these is a metaphor of the others so that they all interconnect. We understand our relation to the creation as we understand our relationship to other people (the marriage relationship standing in for the social). We understand God as we understand people as we understand creation. Should any one of those metaphors be broken, our ability to understand the others is going to be limited.
So the metaphor has a direct correspondence to our ability to function in reality. When I wrote In Season and Out, I engaged in a very deliberate exploration of that metaphor. I set out to write every day for a year looking for these intersections, to see if, in fact, this was an accurate description of the world. I found it accurate. Perhaps more importantly, writing the book caused me to enact that metaphor. Being conscious of looking for it, I was also creating it. And I think that’s part of what happens. As C. S. Lewis says that “Myth becomes fact,” I would say that metaphor becomes fact, that this exploration of metaphor requires wholeness in one’s work so that one must engage the physical world in order to be a poet. They interact, interlock; one leads to the other. Putting that metaphor at the center of In Season and Out, and consequently everything I’ve done since, has set up that relationship, the terms of my being here.
TOJ: Speaking of “here,” you’re known as a writer of place, and you are often called upon to reflect on what that means. In an essay in A Syllable of Water, you note that all you have to say about place grows from the central metaphor of your life, which is being in Christ and that “rather than simplifying anything, having one’s place in Christ complicates one’s life, for the . . . spiritual ecology is all-inclusive. I am in a place in a process that remains beyond my comprehension.” Could you talk a little more about this spiritual ecology?
JL: You can’t talk about creation without talking about the Creator. And you can’t talk about the Creator without talking about creation. This is the at-one-ment metaphor we’ve been describing: everything is connected to everything else. You experience both the Creator and the creation in a body in a particular place. There’s no other way to experience life and remain human. The body is important; it is our means of apprehension.
If you’re going to approach this as a Christian, when you talk about the Creator, you’re going to have to talk about the Trinitarian God. It’s not just that the Father is maker, but that the Spirit is present at creation, the Son is present at creation, and creation is not something that happened a long time ago; it’s continuing to happen. Your presence in it is part of what it is. By walking through a field, you’re making the field a different place. And you, of course, can comprehend it only partially. But any ecology that does not include the intersection of the natural and the supernatural, or the eternal and the temporal, is reductive and incomplete. This apprehension becomes infinitely complicated—and infinitely exciting.[audio:https://theotherjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/4-AM-Meditation3-1.mp3|titles=”4 AM Meditation” by John Leax]
4 AM Meditation on the Baptism of Christ
Were this watch chosen, I would be still,
this wakefulness a quiet waiting
for the light rather than this agitation
this restless tossing after sleep.
My dreams, too often dreamed
to appear strange, wake me. “Drill here.
Drill now,” the nightmare politicians
chant as if the world were a tooth decayed:
native peoples float away
islands slip from underfoot
swimming bears tire and drown
in the rising tide of money money money.
The camel strains in the needle’s eye.
Wanting ever more, the cheering crowd
will not yield even the riches
it can not have. What have I to hold
against this dream? A cup of cold water.
A cup of blood. Crumbly bread
and the poverty of hope. Christ Jesus,
floating, swimming, going down.
[audio:https://theotherjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Late-Night-1.mp3|titles=”Late Night” by John Leax]
Late Night: Thinking of William Carlos Williams, I Remember the Red Wheelbarrow and the Old Statue of St. Francis in the Shed
What does it matter, if I say
this or that—revise my poems,
wheel rocks from the river
to line the dry stream
through the garden,
I come and go;
It’s all the same—
When I mow the lawn,
I pause to urge small toads
from the mower’s path.
When I’m awakened by the screech owl’s
falling call, I lean out the window,
listen, answer, if necessary
Read part two of our interview with John Leax, plus two more of his poems (and audio) by clicking here.
 John Leax, Country Labors: Poems for All Seasons (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991).
 Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2003).
 See C. S. Lewis, “Myth Becomes Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1994).
 Emilie Griffin, ed., A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008).