Remembering a One-of-a-Kind Poet

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Claudia Kilbourne Lux

The poet Thomas Lux died on February 5. It seems fitting to honor him and his decades of Atlantic contributions with a brief history, but also with his own words in his own voice.

Speaking about his craft in an Atlantic interview from 2004, Lux is both magpie of unusual facts (“Without the dung beetle we’d all be up to our clavicles in cow pies. They deserve an ode!”) and defender of poetry’s essential weirdness:

I love mystery, strangeness, nuttiness, wildness, leaps across chasms, irreverence, all the crazy stuff we love about poetry. We don’t usually love poems because they are well made, or smart, or deep. We love them for their crazy hearts.

In the nine poems Lux published in our pages, you’ll find wry humor—1984’s “Snake Lake” begins:

My friends, I hope you will not swim here:
this lake isn’t named for what it lacks.

And you’ll find startling echoes of the present in “Henry Clay’s Mouth” (1999):

He said: “Kissing is like the presidency,
it is not to be sought and not to be declined.

It was written, if women had the vote,
he would have been President,
kissing everyone in sight,
dancing on tables (“a grand Terpsichorean
performance ...”), kissing everyone,
sometimes two at once, kissing everyone,
the almost-President
of our people.

Years ago, as part of a series for poetry month, we gathered a selection of old Atlantic audio recordings of poets reading their works. My part was to convert the files from an obsolete, unplayable format to mp3. Among them was Lux’s reading of “Virgule,” an ode to “/” that begins:

What I love about this little leaning mark
is how it divides
without divisiveness. The left
or bottom side prying that choice up or out,
the right or top side pressing down upon
its choice: either/or,

Listen to him read the entire poem:

Far more qualified people can speak to his particular brilliance—I’m just someone who tried to rescue his voice, or a minute and 38 seconds of it, from the online abyss and deliver him to you.

I asked my colleague David Barber, the Atlantic’s poetry editor, for his memories of the magazine’s long history with Lux. He writes:

Tom Lux’s quirky, wily, incorrigibly uncanny poems left their mark far and wide from way back, but The Atlantic could be said to have a special claim on him.

For one thing, he was a local boy made good: Born and raised in Northampton, Mass., where his father ran a dairy farm, he was a fixture for many years in Boston and its environs, home base to the august bewhiskered poets who founded the magazine in 1857. His editor at Boston’s Houghton Mifflin for several of his celebrated collections was Peter Davison, the Atlantic’s late longtime poetry editor and literary lion of parts. His work appeared early and often in these pages over those years, immediately recognizable for its mordant wit, offbeat verve, and matchless knack for musing beguilingly on just about anything. The only predictable trait of a Lux poem was that it would be the one and only thing of its kind.

It’s the weariest of clichés to say that a certain poet sounds like none other. Lux was the real McCoy. It’s there in the deadpan delivery, the sure comic timing, the live-wire ear for oddball lingo and kooky hearsay, the slyboots way of spinning tall tales out of small talk. His bittersweet satirical bent belongs to no school or tribe; his smarts and chops were his and his alone. Is there another American poet since Stevens who conjured up so many humdinger titles? Could anyone else have composed an ode to the secret life-force of a punctuation mark? Was there ever a laconic elegy for long-gone summertimes quite as definitively disarming as “The Man Into Whose Yard You Should Not Hit Your Ball”?

Not by our lights.