While driving one day, the poet Thomas Lux spied a profession of love spray-painted on a girder above the highway: “I love you sweatheart.”
Borrowing the graffiti phrase for a poem title, Mr. Lux barely winked at the typo that turned a sweetie into a sweatie – “His words are not (meant to be) so unique” – and instead saluted the courage it takes to dangle 50 feet above pavement, bursting with affection:
A man risked his life to write the words.
Love is like this at the bone, we hope, love
is like this, Sweatheart, all sore and dumb
and dangerous, ignited, blessed …
Publishing his first chapbook of poems in the 1960s just before graduating from Emerson College, Mr. Lux began his teaching career there as poet-in-residence. Through much of the late-1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, he commuted between his homes in Greater Boston and Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where he taught for 27 years before becoming, in 2002, the Bourne professor of poetry and director of the McEver Visiting Writers Program at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
On Feb. 5, Mr. Lux died in his Atlanta home of cancer. He was 70 and last year published his last poetry book, “To the Left of Time.” He spent his final months editing “I Am Flying Into Myself,” a collection of poems by Bill Knott, a longtime Emerson professor who died in 2014.
Mr. Lux’s work on that collection, scheduled to be published this month, was more than just a favor for a late friend. “Tom would always say to me, ‘I think this is going to be the most important book I’ve done,’ ” said his wife, Jennifer Holley Lux, who also teaches at Georgia Tech.
Though he published more than a dozen volumes, beginning with “Memory’s Handgrenade” in 1972, a significant part of his legacy was championing other poets. A prolific writer of book-cover blurbs and recommendations, Mr. Lux “was always generous to a kind of reckless degree,” said his daughter, Claudia Kilbourne Lux of Austin, Texas. “He was so generous with his time. He was always looking through other people’s manuscripts.”
His own poetry, meanwhile, had “a bigheartedness, a generosity, which comes from being genuinely interested in the world around him – and not just the beauty of the world, the strangeness of the world,” said Billy Collins, a former US poet laureate.
A variety of magazines, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic, published Mr. Lux’s poetry, which ranged from the personal to the political to the wildly imaginative. His poem titles included “Walt Whitman’s Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor,” “Ode While Awaiting Execution,” and “Attila the Hun Meets Pope Leo I.” (It begins: “I doubt it went well/for the Pope.”)
“The refreshing thing and the enviable thing about him, for me, was that most of his poems weren’t about him. They were about something else, something interesting – marine life, mining, vegetables,” Collins added. “He would smuggle in an emotional content, but his poems were always interesting and very eccentric. A lot of poetry today just fails that test. It’s not very interesting.”
Mr. Lux preferred that poets and poetry inspire, intrigue, and entertain – especially in public. He directed readings such as the Poetry@Tech series in Atlanta, and was known for his charismatic presence as a reader. “Tom didn’t like boring poets and boring performances,” his wife said.
“He would grab the lectern and really stand and deliver in a way that I don’t think any other poet did,” Collins said. “He was a very powerful reader. It was almost like he was giving a halftime talk to his players when they were behind by 14 points.”
And he spent more time reading books than writing – “about eight hours a day, sometimes a book a day, a few books a week,” said Jennifer, whom he married in 2012. His own work drew heavily from his wide-ranging reading, and being in his study was “like living inside Tom’s brain,” she added. “His goal was to die with 10,000 books, and if he wasn’t at 10,000, he was pretty darn close.”
An only child, Mr. Lux grew up on an Easthampton dairy farm run by his grandfather and uncle. His mother, the former Elinor Healey, was a switchboard operator at a Sears store. His father, Norman, was a milkman. In a 1999 interview with The Cortland Review, Mr. Lux said that during one period his father worked 17 years in a row without a vacation.
“That background stayed with Tom all his life and I think it shows in his poetry – the love of the common man,” said the poet John Skoyles, a longtime friend.
Mr. Lux inherited his father’s work ethic, which he applied to writing. “He believed in humility and hard work. One of the last things he said was, ‘Don’t get cocky and work your guts out,’ ” his daughter said.
“He always felt that way about poetry, too, that it wasn’t something that magically flowed out of your brain,” Claudia added. “It was something you had to build, that you had to work at.”
As an undergraduate, Mr. Lux began writing in a poetry workshop, and after graduating he was a dishwasher and a night watchman before Emerson offered him a teaching job. He left for graduate work at the University of Iowa, and returned a year later to teach again at Emerson. From there, he taught at Columbia College in Chicago and at Oberlin College in Ohio before Sarah Lawrence.
“He really cared about the students so deeply,” said Skoyles, who formerly taught with him at Sarah Lawrence. “One time he said to me, ‘You know, I would pay to teach.’ He put his heart and soul into it.”
While teaching at Emerson he met Jean Kilbourne, a writer and activist with whom he once taught a writing course. They were married for more than a decade, had a daughter together, and remained friends after divorcing. “Tom was the funniest person I’ve ever known,” she said. “He had an incredible sense of humor, and totally deadpan. He never laughed at his own things, never cracked a smile.”
He wore his emotions more openly when it came to being a parent. “Tom was 40 when Claudia was born,” Kilbourne said. “I’ve never met a man who wanted a child more than Tom did.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Lux, whose immediate survivors are his wife and daughter.
“I know a lot of poets, and many of them can put on a persona, but Tom never did,” said the poet Stephen Dobyns, a longtime close friend. “There was a boyish quality, an innocent quality. He certainly knew the dark corners of the world, but there was an innocence he never allowed to get corrupted.”
There was, however, one concession Mr. Lux would have gladly made. If Satan offered him a 50-year run as a poet or “one year as a centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox, I’d have to think about it,” he told The Cortland Review. “If I could bat about .390 and steal 30 or 40 bases and win a Gold Glove in outfield, I might consider that deal.”