EASTHAMPTON — By the time he died of cancer Feb. 5 at the age of 70, Thomas Lux had established a reputation as a poet with an unusual wit, a gift for turning ordinary moments into graceful verse and a passion for sharing his skill with college students. After sinking roots in Georgia, locals there dubbed him “Atlanta’s Literary Lion.”
Lux’s literary roots were more modest. The Easthampton native and author of 19 books of poetry began his writing career as a teenager covering sports events in the Protestant Youth League for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
In those early articles, Lux referred to his friend Terrence McCarthy as “Meadowlark,” a tongue-in-cheek analogy between the country-born son of millworkers and legendary Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon.
“We had the same sense of humor and both of us were only children. We were more like brothers,” said McCarthy, who went on to become a writer. “Many of us who grew up with him remember playing basketball in the loft of the barn.” The barn he refers to, which is still half-standing today, was part of the Healy Dairy Farm on Holyoke Street.
Lux was born Dec. 10, 1946 and raised on the Easthampton farm, the son of a milkman and a telephone operator for Sears. Neither of his parents finished high school, and they did not quite know how to understand their son’s chosen career as a poet.
“They seem to be perfectly accepting of it, but they don’t say anything about it. If they’ve read my books, they’ve never commented on them,” Lux said in an interview with The Cortland Review in 1999.
Despite critical acclaim and admiration from the poetry community, Lux’s work is considered widely accessible. “Tom never confused difficulty with depth of thought,” says Richard Michelson, a fellow poet and owner of Michelson Galleries in Northampton. “His was a poetry that welcomed all to the table, but he never underestimated his audience.”
For one thing, his poems are funny. In an online tribute to Lux entitled, “Remembering a one-of-a-kind poet,” the long-time poetry editor for The Atlantic Monthly, David Barber, remarked on Lux’s “deadpan delivery, the sure comic timing, the live-wire ear for kooky lingo and hearsay, the slyboots way of spinning tall tales out of small talk.”
Consider the playful yet plain speech in these lines from “To Help the Monkey Cross the River,”
If a crocodile is aimed from upriver to eat the monkey
and an anaconda from downriver burns
with the same ambition, I do
the math, algebra, angles, rate-of-monkey,
croc- and snake-speed, and if, if
it looks as though the anaconda or the croc
will reach the monkey
before he attains the river’s far bank,
I raise my rifle and fire
one, two, three, even four times into the river
just behind the monkey
to hurry him up a little.
In his approach to poetry, Lux remained close to his Easthampton roots and working class upbringing. “Poetry is like any other job,” McCarthy remembers Lux saying, “You pick up your lunch pail and you go to work.”
Writing poems, as Lux pursued it, was a fitting occupation for the son of a milkman who worked 17 years straight without taking a day off.
“I remember liking the sound of words and particularly funny sounding words even when I was very small,” Lux told The Cortland Review. He wanted to become a writer but didn’t discover poetry until he got to Emerson College, where he earned his degree and then became the poet-in-residence from 1970 to 1975.
It was at the Boston college that he took his first real creative writing class (with Helen Chasin) and met his first famous poet (Robert Lowell). He found and devoured the works of some of his favorite poets—Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, James Tate, Adrienne Rich, Bill Knott—many of whom would later become friends.
Lux did a year of graduate school at The University of Iowa without earning a degree, but the lack of an MFA did not impede his teaching career. At a time when many poets reluctantly sought refuge from poverty in the halls of academia, Lux loved teaching and worked hard throughout his career to become an outstanding teacher.
“He made sure there was no gulf between faculty and students,” said Michelson, who in the early 80s studied with Lux in the Goddard College MFA program, “He made me feel that we are all on this singular journey together.”
Lux taught all over the country—Oberlin, University of Houston, University of Michigan, University of California Irvine, among others—but his two longest stints came at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, from 1975 to 2001, and Georgia Tech, where he held the Bourne Chair of Poetry from 2001 until his death. His work has been recognized with many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kingsley Tufts poetry award.
“It is impossible to think of contemporary American poetry without him,” says Edward Hirsch, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
More significant than these honors, though, are the warmth, generosity, and humor his friends knew him for. He was a champion of the literary works of his friends and students, and a tireless blurb-writer for the backs of their books. He was completing the editing of an collection of his friend Bill Knott’s poems, I Am Flying Into Myself, at the time of death.
Writing in a recent Georgia Tech newsletter, His colleague Karen Head, remembered Lux’s “booming laugh” from the parties he hosted after literary events. In the same newsletter, his colleague Travis Denton said, “Tom’s generosity of spirit will never be matched by anyone — EVER.” Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins mourned, “The world could use a few thousand Tom Luxes, but there was only one, and now there are none.”
Many seem to feel a connection with Lux. In the Atlantic Monthly article, Barber is quoted as saying, “The Atlantic could be said to have a special claim on him.” His friend McCarthy mused, “I’m always surprised to hear Tom referred to as ‘a Southern poet’ because to me his work seems so connected to Web City,” referring to Easthampton’s old nickname for the elastic mills that once operated there.
It’s a rare human being who seems to belong everywhere and to everyone. By the end of his life, his wife said, he felt a sense of satisfaction.
“He seemed to feel, that in poetry at least, he had said all he needed to say,” Jennifer Holley Lux said in an email. “When I read his last book, ‘To the Left of Time,’ I hear an urgent, passionate voice — one that seems acutely aware of what little there is ‘left of time.’ Thomas praises those things of the world that are ‘eyeball-vibrating ravishing’ (from ‘Ode While Awaiting Execution’), yet still argues, as he always did, with unkindness, violence, injustice.”
McCarthy, who now lives in North Carolina, said he and Lux spoke often. “I just talked to him a month, month and a half ago, and he didn’t mention anything about his illness. He was a private man.”
“We never talked about writing,” says McCarthy. “We talked a lot about sports. Tom was a big Red Sox fan, and then he became a Georgia Tech fan, too. He’d get very excited when the baseball players registered for his poetry workshop.”
Lux returned to Easthampton in July 2014 to give a reading at White Square Books. The book-filled room on Cottage St. was packed, “not because he was famous but because they were all old friends,” White Square owner Eileen Corbiel said. Lux read many of the poems about growing up in Easthampton he’d written throughout his long career. He was nearing 70, but according to McCarthy, “He still looked very young, almost child-like.”
Maybe Lux’s youthful appearance was another facet of what sounds like a charmed life, or maybe it was brought out by being in such close proximity to that “field of fly balls” he remembers in one of his poems, “the best part of childhood/and baseball.”
Jenny T. Abeles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org