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A Love Affair With Language : The words themselves seem reward enough for Thomas Lux. But now the poet's devotion to his craft has earned him this country's top prize for a single work.

April 10, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WALTHAM, Mass. — It was a typical week for news and national events: financial scandals, Republicans frolicking with live elephants on the Capitol steps, a maybe-no-but-ultimately- yes baseball season and oh, yes, that trial.

Not exactly the stuff of gentle rhyme; hardly the makings of contemplative verse.

Unless, like Thomas Lux, you heed these happenings as further evidence of the urgency of the poet's mission. Computerspeak, political cynicism and a steady avalanche of callow business school graduates "make it even more important to keep doing it," Lux said, "really trying to get poems out there that might matter."

Lux's compelling rhythms, his biting irony and his steady devotion to a craft that often seems thankless are what helped earn him this country's largest poetry prize honoring a single work. The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award at the Claremont Graduate School carries a purse of $50,000--a poet's vision of a significant king's ransom. Conferred in recognition of Lux's collection, "Split Horizons" (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), it is scheduled to be presented at noon today at Claremont Colleges.

At the same ceremony, Doug Anderson, a teacher at a Massachusetts community college, will receive the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Poetry for his book, "The Moon Reflected Fire" (Alice James Books / University of Maine, 1994). The latter prize recognizes an emerging poet and carries an award of $5,000.

"One writes poems never expecting anything (particularly money) back for that effort," said Lux, 48. "When one does get something back, it is a great gift--a blessing."

These days, concurred Stanley Kunitz, the 90-year-old eminence grise of American poetry, "a poet must not look for rewards in terms of money or fame, but within himself, or herself--the sense of fulfillment that is perhaps impossible except through poetry."

Lux's editor and fellow poet, Peter Davison, agreed that "it takes guts" to write poetry in these strange, waning days of the century. But as Lux observed, "this is not something one chooses to do." Rather, "it is something I was drawn to. I do it because I love to do it, and because I don't have any choice. If I don't write, I feel empty and lost."

Besides, Lux continued, "poetry exists because there is no other way to say the things that get said in good poems except in poems. There is something about the right combination of metaphor or image connected to the business of being alive that only poems can do. To me, it makes me feel more alive, reading good poetry."

But growing up on a dairy farm in western Massachusetts, Lux knew little of the mysteries of metaphor. His father was the milkman in a town where every other relative worked in a grim, decaying factory. His mother answered telephones at the local Sears & Roebuck store. Casualties of the Depression, neither parent finished high school. Both were determined to do better by their only child.

A bookish boy, Lux found his way to words at the town library. The Russian novelists, Dostoevsky in particular, unleashed in him joys he could scarcely fathom. Contemporary poetry remained uncharted ground. "I didn't know there were such things as living poets because all the books stopped in 1940," he remembered.

His Odyssey into poetry began in his student years at Boston's small, arty Emerson College. By 25, he was publishing his first book, "Memory's Handgrenade" (Pym-Randall Press, 1972).

But if his early literary success helped guarantee him a future of academic appointments, it brought scant consolation to the dairy farm. "My mother used to say, 'if you have to write, why don't you write stories?,' " Lux said. Two and a half decades of grants, accolades and a dozen-plus books of poetry have done little to change that opinion. Even today, Lux said, his parents tell people that he's a teacher.

With his barrel chest and his silky, shoulder-length blond hair, Lux is part hod carrier, part friendly lion. He wears owlish glasses and an easy smile that flashes brightest of all at the mention of his 7-year-old daughter, Claudia. Divorced, Lux shares custody of his only child. As a result, his weekly commute is nearly 500 miles, from his teaching job at Sarah Lawrence College outside Manhattan, to this Boston suburb. In the fall, the commute will stretch farther still as Lux takes on a temporary assignment at UC Irvine.

But the trappings of his trade--his brain, a note pad, a pencil--accompany him wherever he goes. Lux is fiercely, proudly computer illiterate. Each poem for him is a product of relentless effort. A single title may require 30 drafts and revisions. In a prolific year, Lux turns out from 10 to 12 poems. An extraordinary year might yield 20.

"It's a craft, and art form," Lux said. "And for me, at least, to do it well is very hard work.

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