Issue 136 |
Summer 2018

The Greatness of Thomas Lux: A Look2 Essay

Reading a prolific writer is like visiting a big city. In Thomas Lux, readers find their own districts. For some it is his literary and historical poems or his obsession with maps or language itself that runs throughout his oeuvre, or the poems of social satire, like “The Happy Majority” or “The Nazi at the Puppet Show.” For others it is the work that hints at the spiritual world in God Particles or the gorgeous odes in his last book with its now prophetic title To the Left of Time. Because I am his friend, I treasure his poems of family life. I have always admired the way he could make consequence, and ultimately literary figure, out of maraschino cherries in a boyhood refrigerator, the skates hung on the wall along the basement stairs, or his parents’ sugar spoon worn “until it’s almost flimsy as tinfoil.” And then there are the many poems, some odd nursery rhyme–like constructions, inspired by the birth of his daughter, Claudia, an event that made his heart, as well as his imagination, expand.

Thomas Lux’s death on February 5, 2017, came as a shock to his friends in the many places in which he lived and taught and to his worldwide readership. At seventy, with shoulder-length blond hair, blue jeans, quick smile, gorgeous shirts, and his wisecracking, sometimes rebellious, manner, he still cut the figure of a young poet and retained a youthful and joyous vitality. A reverent irreverent, he never wavered in his love of the making and teaching of poetry and lived his life faithful to the first principles of his art. He believed deeply in poetry, its capacity to change people’s lives. He was our natural laureate. And he would have made a wise old man.

Thomas Lux grew up on a dairy farm in Easthampton, Massachusetts. His uncle tended the cows; his father delivered the milk. His mother worked for the telephone company. An only child, he followed the Red Sox and was bookish in his teens, a habit he continued throughout his life. Anyone who has ever been to one of his residences has seen the mile-high stacks of new poetry books and the hardbound volumes of all kinds, usually nonfiction, from which he harvested his odd facts. On the farm he read adventure books, histories, and biographies. He learned to shoot and he rode a horse named Sunday, thus, the title for his third book of poems.

Because he lived his entire adult life in cities or just outside them, the landscape of Western Massachusetts always remained an important touchstone like the Heaney cattle farm in Derry or the Roethke greenhouse in Michigan. For him the dairy farm was a lifelong “cradle place” of love and sanity. Throughout his poetry, he reconstructs the farm in numerous works, such as the early poem “Barnfire,” in which, “because they know they are safe there, / the horses run back into the barn,” or in “The Voice You Hear,” wherein “the barn you say / is a barn you know or knew,” or in Lux’s newest book, To the Left of Time, which is filled with references, among them a titular “Milking Stool.” In Lux’s popular New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995, he writes:

It happened that my uncle liked to take my hand in his

and with the other seize

the electric cow fence: a little rural

humor, don’t get me wrong

(“Triptych, Middle Panel Burning”)

Lux’s family life gave him an ethos and decency that formed the greater aesthetic of his poetry: a celebration of the flawed but deeply loved, and a gratitude for the life given him.

The Lux-icon has many vivid expressions and affectionate names for things. His book Memory’s Handgrenade became “Memory’s Hand-Job”; Houghton Mifflin was “the muffler”; Cleveland State University Press was “Cheapland State,” Ploughshares “the Plow-Boy,” and so on. These appellations were never meant to be insulting; he was always enormously grateful to his publishers and editors and wrote one of his best elegies to Peter Davison, his longtime editor at Houghton Mifflin and The Atlantic. Nicknames were part of the fun that made it easy to be around him. Fatherhood gave him a tendency to add an ie onto words—so maybe we would go get a “drinkie” after a reading. One thing he did not care for when his name was used professionally was being referred to as Tom Lux rather than Thomas Lux. He once told me, “No one puts up a poster or prints your name as Stu Dischell.”

Lux’s relationship to Emerson College and the Plow-Boy goes back to his undergraduate days. In a profile I wrote for Ploughshares issue 77 (Winter 1998-99) for which Lux edited the poetry, I interviewed James Randall, one of the early spirits behind Ploughshares, the first director of Emerson’s MFA Program, and Lux’s first publisher at Pym-Randall Press. When I asked him what Lux was like as a college student, he told me: “In the late 1960s when Lux came to us, the writing program was new. He looked vaguely like a hobo in dress and manner, but he stayed on. There was a freshness and openness about him, and he spread his enthusiasms to others. Before we knew it, we had a serious poetry group at our college.” Upon graduation Randall hired him as Emerson’s poet-in-residence. Lux then spent a year studying at Iowa before coming back to teach for several years at Emerson. He also served as an advisory editor to Ploughshares and guest-edited three issues.

In his long career at Sarah Lawrence College and then for the last dozen years at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he held an honorary professorship, the Bourne Chair in Poetry, Lux taught thousands of students, if you include stints at Boston University, Columbia University, the University of Houston, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of California at Irvine, University of Michigan, Oberlin College, and in the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA Program for Writers. The list of those he continued to mentor is huge as well. He loved teaching and frequently remarked, “Can you believe they pay us for this?” or “Beats the hell out of working in the box factory.” He told his wife, poet Jennifer Holley Lux, that he “wanted to be dragged feet-first out of the classroom.” He nearly succeeded, having taught until a few months before he died.

Sometimes I think our Thomas was an angel of some kind, but he was not a saint. On more than one occasion, he quieted a gallery or bar venue by telling people to “shut the fuck up” when someone else’s reading was being disturbed. He had a temper when people were rude to others, especially to working people. I was thrilled when he got mad like that. But he was cool without knowing it—as truly cool people never know how cool they are. I can recount again how the first night we hung out together in 1981, we met up with Franz Wright, whom he had taught at Oberlin, at the Bow and Arrow in Cambridge, a true dive bar. I remember walking past the bouncer who worked the door and him shouting after us, “Hey, Mick Jagger, it’s Mick Jagger, man.” Lux’s smile had the bite of mischief; being “mis-chee-vi-ous,” he willfully pronounced the word. In the early pictures, such as the one on the cover of Sunday, you can see a little smirk of skepticism there too. That was the smile that scared people who were full of shit. Later, the smile became broader, gentler, without hesitation, and had a contagious quality for those around him.

He could also be fiercely critical concerning poets of needless or pedantic obscurity and their use of the kinds of abstractions and allusions that make readers feel bad about themselves, the writers who struck their knowledge like a club against the audience. Instead, he loved to find the historical detail that told a story: “Walt Whitman’s Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor,” “Hitler’s Slippers,” or a scientific fact like river blindness were ways to invite the reader in. He also invented imaginative details to engender poems such as “Jesus’ Baby Teeth” or “The Deathwatch Beetle.” His curiosity was as endless as his reading and attentiveness. The surrealism of his early poetry had itself transformed into a metaphoric way of seeing.

Although not as formal a poet as his early influences Hart Crane and Theodore Roethke, Lux’s great gifts are in his ability to create surprise and unpredictability through the syntactical construction of the sentence as it breaks against the line: the genius of his free verse, which offers greater possibility for enjambments than the metered line yet produces musicality. The Thomas Lux poem accumulates power through its vertical movement down the page; the poem is always on the move. I imagine this is why Lux wrote nearly all of his later poems in a single stanza structure, so as not to showcase or showboat the linguistic dexterity. A good example of this is the opening lines of “A Small Tin Parrot Pin.”

Next to the tiny bladeless windmill

of a salt shaker

on the black tablecloth

is my small tin parrot pin,

bought from a bin,

75 cents, cheap, not pure tin—an alloy,

some plastic toy tin?

The actual pin, the pin that pins the pin,

will fall off soon

and thus the parrot

if I wear it, which I will

on my lapel. I’ll look down

and it’ll be gone.

Language itself is a subject he returns to, itself evident in titles like “Virgule,” “Amphibrach Dance,” and “The Oxymoron Sisters.” Lux’s syntactical genius, along with unpredictable inclusions of diction, particularly his love of nouns, especially proper nouns, gives him some of the most varied diction of poets of his generation. The reader need only open a book at random to find titles like “The Grand Climacteric” face-à-face with “Vaticide.”

One of my favorites of his poems has its own history with Ploughshares; it was published in the Fall 1979 issue, and later reprinted as the first poem in the chapbook Massachusetts: Ten Poems, published by James Randall in the Pym-Randall Press series. Ultimately, “The Milkman and His Son” appears as the first poem in his important book Half Promised Land, when his poetry was developing from a period surrealism into finding transformation in the quirky human round of daily activity.

The Milkman and His Son

For a year he’d collect
the milk bottles—those cracked,
chipped, or with the label’s blue
scene of a farm

fading. In winter
they’d load the boxes on a sled
and drag them to the dump

which was lovely then: a white sheet
drawn up, like a joke, over
the face of a sleeper.
As they lob the bottles in

the son begs a trick
and the milkman obliges: tossing
one bottle in a high arc
he shatters it in midair

with another. One thousand
astonished splints of glass
and again, and damned
if that milkman,

that easy slinger
on the dump’s edge (as the drifted
junk tips its hats

of snow) damned if he didn’t
hit almost half! Not bad.
Along with gentleness,

and the sane bewilderment
of understanding nothing cruel,
it was a thing he did best.

In my copy of Massachusetts: Ten Poems, on the state map on the title page, he drew an arrow and circled a dot he made where he lived in Easthampton. He wrote: “Tom’s House.” The inscription is dated December 10, 1981: his thirty-fifth birthday, though I did not know it at the time.

It is a fitting metaphor for our friendship that he would give me a gift without revealing it was his birthday. He gave constantly; Thomas Lux was not one to turn down a request for a letter of recommendation or paragraph of advance praise when requested for such, especially by a young poet. He dedicated many of his creative hours to this because he believed it would be wrong not to help someone who was talented and needed a break. “Dee or Disch or Dog,” he would say. (His daughter, the novelist Claudia Kilbourne Lux, told me I’m called Dog in his extensive daybooks.) His generosity extended from friends and former students to random down-on-their-luck people who asked us for money on the streets of Boston or New York or Atlanta. Then there were times of extravagance when, celebrating his NEA grant at the Wursthaus in old Harvard Square, he gave the waitress a hundred-dollar tip on our fifty-dollar meal. She sure appreciated it.

On his deathbed, Thomas Lux was more concerned about the fate of Flying into Myself, Bill Knott’s selected poems, which he had edited and were just about to appear, than To the Left of Time, his own new book of poems. I think the book is one of Lux’s best. In a prescient way it is kind of a “selected” anthology—but not of poems already written as much as poems with his kinds of wide-ranging subjects. The title itself is richly suggestive and made more mysterious since Lux’s passing.

Structured in three sections, the collection opens with a group of poems in which he revisits the landscapes of Western Massachusetts in “Cow Chases Boys,” “Haystack of Needles,” “Manure Pile Covered in Snow,” and people with odd occupations such as “dowsers” and pre-occupations such as “The Horse Poisoner.” The second part is a sequence of twenty-five odes and anti-odes to “joyful ones,” “chronic insolvency,” “scars,” and “lichen,” among other subjects. Lux uses the structure of the modern ode as if he had invented it and the poems together compose one longer intricate ode of thanks and gratitude. The third section forms an aggregate of elegies and oddities, poems of language itself, like “There’s a Word for It” and “Onomatomania.” Attila the Hun, Crazy Horse, and Pope Leo are here too. Notably, in “Frank Stanford at 63,” he summons the poet whom he elegized nearly forty years earlier in Sunday:

There’s still a hole, Frank, a dented molecule

a cracked genome in the poetry of America

you were meant to fill, to make


Rereading the five books Thomas Lux published after New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 for this essay, I realized that one must stand back from a friend to see their greatness and the complexity of the work. A poet known for his wildness, Lux wrote most of his work in traditional structures—the elegy, the ode, and the pastoral—if not in traditional forms. Although elements of narrative appear in his poems, his writing is resolutely lyrical. His lines are not metrical yet are frequently accentual. There is a musical pulse that is darn near electric. His timing is perfect. Through countless poems he militates against injustice without posturing or self-aggrandizement. Tom would not have allowed that kind of admiration anyway—from me or anyone else. He would have wisecracked and thrown in a few choice expletives in a syntax that made each come alive as if you had never heard those words before.

His deflecting manner turned his attention to others, and he enjoyed listening to their stories; from the athlete-poets he loved to teach at Georgia Tech to former students who subsequently won major awards for their work, Thomas Lux influenced them all. He made them want to be poets, despite the groans of many a parent. Moreover, he created communities wherever he went. An able advocate for poetry, he edited the Barn Dream Press and Jeanne Duval Editions, created the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence, along with Jean Valentine, began the Sarah Lawrence Summer Literary Seminars, and founded Poetry @ TECH. Lux was ever the writer and teacher who opened students’ eyes to poetry, whether in the university classroom, a community workshop, a high-school library, a writers’ conference, or at any of his readings. He brought poetry to life because he brought life to poetry: public life, family life, and the life of the imagination. He also made it OK to feel a little goofy in this world, like the man who “risked his life to write the words” he misspells in Lux’s famous poem “I love You Sweatheart.” People respond to that.

Over the course of his life, Lux gave over a thousand poetry readings at campuses throughout the country, bookstores, galleries, and festival stages. He also performed in Mexico, Ireland, Great Britain, and Germany. He was a remarkable reader of his poems with exact syntactical timing, intensity, and sometimes deadpan humor. No one was ever bored at a Thomas Lux reading when he woke the audience up with a poem like “The People of the Other Village,” broke them up with “To Help the Monkey Cross the River,” or broke their hearts with “Render, Render.” (Fortunately, there are many fine recordings of him today on YouTube.) Everywhere he read, he expanded the audience for poetry.

Throughout his life, Thomas Lux made his “pals” into his sisters and brothers. In “For My Sister” from To the Left of Time, he addresses the sibling he never had: “Forever we’ve never spoken,” he opens, and has occasion to inform his imagined sister of the death of their parents and the details of their decline. “Mother starved to death in truth. / For many months she could not swallow…Father did not know what to do / When his legs were lost beneath him.” There is both remarkable intimacy and great distance—impossible distance here in the voice. How Luxian to turn a thing inside out to love it more and see it better. How fortunate, my friend, to write one of your best books last.

and everyone knows that nothing is really real

until it is written.

Even those who don’t read

know that.