Issue 77 |
Winter 1998-99

About Thomas Lux: A Profile

Thomas Lux is always getting ready to leave for somewhere else: for the highway to his home in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he spends part of each week with his eleven-year-old daughter, Claudia; to his classes at Sarah Lawrence College, "each week a honk for Wallace Stevens" when passing through Hartford; to a writing residency at Warren Wilson or Cranbrook; to the airport for a newspaper assignment in San Diego or a poetry reading in Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, or Tucson. Lux is a tire manufacturer's dream and a frequent flier club's nightmare.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1946, he spent most of his childhood living on a small family dairy farm. His grandfather and uncle were farmers, and his father was the milkman. Sometimes Lux returns to that life in poems like "Barnfire," "The Milkman and His Son," and "Cows": "Trochee, trochee, trochee -- that's how / I heard them, the cows . . ." Vividly it is remembered in "Triptych, Middle Panel Burning."


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,

no way child abuse . . .

And certainly not coincidentally in his recent poem "The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently":

. . . what you know by feeling,

having felt. It is your voice

saying, for example, the word barn . . .

and a sensory constellation

is lit: horse-gnawed stalls,

hayloft, black heat tape wrapping

a water pipe, a slippery

spilled chirr of oats from a split sack,

the bony, filthy haunches of cows . . .

Lux attended Emerson College in Boston. James Randall, his professor, recalls, "In the late 1960's 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 he was hired as Emerson's poet-in-residence. He then spent the fall of 1971 and the spring of 1972 at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa, but left before graduating to return to teach at Emerson. Appointments followed at Columbia College of Chicago, Oberlin, and then, in 1975, at Sarah Lawrence College, where he remains today. Additionally Lux has been on the graduate faculties of Iowa, Columbia, Boston University, Houston, Warren Wilson, Michigan, and Irvine.

James Randall published Lux's first chapbook,
The Land Sighted, under the imprint of Pym-Randall, which was one of many small presses in the late sixties and seventies in a very active Boston publishing scene. Distinct among these small presses was Barn Dream Press, which Lux himself started with Joe Wilmott and Patrick Botacchi. Barn Dream published works by a group of young poets that included Bill Knott, Charles Wright, Marvin Bell, Paul Hannigan, and William Matthews.

Pym-Randall brought out
Memory's Handgrenade, Lux's first full-length collection, in 1972. This was a productive decade in which he published three chapbooks and two more full-length collections,
The Glassblower's Breath (Cleveland State, 1976) and
Sunday (Houghton Mifflin, 1979). He has published four more collections of poems with Houghton Mifflin,
Half Promised Land (1986),
The Drowned River (1990),
Split Horizon (1994), and, most recently,
New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 (1997). In 1996, Adastra Press also issued
The Blind Swimmer: Early Selected Poems 1970-1975. Additonally, Lux has published seven other chapbooks of poems.

Lux is a powerful advocate for the relevance of poetry in American culture. Those who wonder whether poetry can matter have probably never read him or attended one of his readings. A review of
New and Selected Poems for the online bookseller comments, "His writing has escaped the confines of academia, bringing a ringing lyricism, raw humor, and a raging heart to the stuff of everyday life. More accessible than lofty his poems still retain a mysterious awe for language." Recently Lux gave eighteen readings in a little over two weeks at colleges, high schools, a prison, community centers, the lobby of the Château Marmont Hotel, and The World Stage in South Central Los Angeles. Lux's reading style is energized, dynamic, and entertaining. Elena Karina Byrne, a regional director for the Poetry Society of America, says: "Tom's readings come alive without pretension. With his 'heart like a tent peg pounded / toward the earth's core,' one hand raised in the air, he goes to work transforming the audience, using his own dependable wit and colloquial insight."

When asked why poetry suddenly has so many venues, Lux responds that he believes people want "what poetry, at its best, provides: something both complex and simple, something human and alive, something rarely overproduced but not lacking in its own kind of pyrotechnics. A lot of us feel overwhelmed in our lives by a popular culture dominated by technology, hugely overproduced movies and music. Poets have only one instrument. There are no backup singers for poets, no props, no synthesizers, no special effects. Just pure lucid words. Put in the proper order -- which includes the order of their sounds -- they can shake us to our bones."

In both subject and syntactical inventiveness, Lux is public enemy number one against boredom. Just to list some titles of his poems is instructive: "The Nazi at the Puppet Show," "What Montezuma Fed Cortes and His Men," "Commercial Leech Farming Today," "Travelling Exhibition of Torture Instruments," "I Love You Sweatheart," "The Oxymoron Sisters," "Walt Whitman's Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor," "Institute of Defectology," and "Pecked to Death by Swans." At a time when many poets have exclusively devoted themselves to explorations of the neurotic life, Lux has expanded the breadth of his poems into the social fabric, its weave and unraveling. His sense of outrage is non-polemical. He does not offer bromides or remedies but reminds his readers of humanity's horror, humor, and heart.

Michael Ryan, Lux's friend since their Iowa days, introduced Lux at a poetry reading at the University of California at Irvine by saying, "The generosity of spirit that makes him such a valued teacher is also the ground beat of his poems. While he has been a lyric poet since the beginning, singing of himself in a language that has always been relentlessly inventive, he has in his maturity developed the capacity to see clearly into other lives, including the lives of historical figures, inanimate objects, words, and vegetables. His poems are like no one else's: readers of contemporary poetry can recognize a Lux poem a mile away: their characteristic wit, their refusal ever to be dull, their subjects and occasions ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to endive, and sometimes, unfashionably, their propounding of explicitly moral messages which takes a tour-de-force virtuosity to get away with. The reason they do and do brilliantly goes back to the writer's genuine generosity of spirit: the creation of a humane,
down-to-earth, and wise man to speak the poems, who is not only in the poems, but has been himself created in fact in no small part by twenty-five years of writing them. Of all the poets I know, I know of none less suited to do anything else -- which is to say I know of no poet who is able to give his work, and embody in his work, more of himself."

Lux's work has not gone unrecognized by other poets, editors, reviewers, and foundations. He has received grants and awards from dozens of organizations, including the Kingsley Tufts Award for
Split Horizon, the Jerome Shestack Poetry Prize from
The American Poetry Review, the Emily Clark Balch Award from
The Virginia Quarterly Review, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, and three fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts.

Over the last few years, Lux has also written several feature articles on assignment for the weekly newspaper
The San Diego Reader. One concerned dairy farming in the Pauma Valley, another was based on a visit to the Museum of Death in San Diego. In his most recent piece, "Poetry and the People," Lux provokes a nurse, a cop, two advocates for the homeless, and a rat-catching exterminator to each write a poem, urging them to simply find the voice within themselves, to listen to -- as he defines in his own poem -- "The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently":

not the sound your friends know

or the sound of a tape played back

but your voice

caught in the dark cathedral

of your skull, your voice heard

by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts

and what you know by feeling . . .

Ryan's remarks on Lux's generosity remind me of an almost trivial incident that occurred some years ago. I had bought a new car, my first, and Tom and I took it for a spin and to get something for lunch. I noticed a highly coveted and unusually ample Cambridge parking space, nosed my car into the spot, and left lots of room to keep from getting bumped. An urban success. Walking to the restaurant, Lux looked back over his shoulder. He was aghast I had taken up two places. "What if some poor fucker like you is driving around looking for a place to park?" I got back in my car and made room.

Stuart Dischell is the author of two collections of poetry: Good Hope Road
(Viking), which was a National Poetry Series selection, and Evenings & Avenues
(Penguin). He teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.