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Thomas Lux

      . . . poet. Internationally acclaimed, Mr. Lux’s awards and grants include the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, three Pushcart Prizes, three NEA grants, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Cradle Place is his 10th book of poems. Mr. Lux is the Borne Chair in Poetry and director of the McEver Visiting Writers Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, after 27 years at Sarah Lawrence College, where he directed their M.F.A. Program in Poetry. He has served on the M.F.A. faculties of major universities including Columbia, Michigan, Iowa and California, Irvine.


Poetry’s great power is its ability to make us more human and alive, less alone, to offer solace and insight and healing ... even if only a little, according to Thomas Lux. He’s part of a poetic resurgence being experienced around the world.

Thomas Lux is an internationally acclaimed poet. No surprise there. But most people are surprised to learn about “Poetry@Tech” which he directs at Georgia Tech.  That’s the Georgia Institute of Technology, where Mr. Lux teaches poetry, as he did for 27 years at Sarah Lawrence College. Georgia Tech is said to be the only university in America with not-one-but-two endowed chairs for poetry. Mr. Lux holds one chair and fills the other with acclaimed visiting poets he brings to campus and shares with metropolitan Atlanta.

Mr. Lux acknowledges that for decades, poetry was often obscure, felt uncomfortably like riddles requiring decoders.  Thanks to his efforts and those of a growing cadre of increasingly popular poets, poems are, once again, alive and accessible. The result has been an explosion of interest in poetry, in the venues where poets read, dozens and dozens of new publishing houses and more and more contests with grants available.

What happened? Mr. Lux gives a lot of the credit for today’s worldwide poetry revival to “spoken word” or “performance” or “slam” poets. They brought poetry back to the human voice, its ancient home, and their poems were comprehensible -- they no longer made people feel stupid.

But we don’t love poetry just because we understand it, Thomas Lux says.  We love it for the crazy stuff it does for us, how it moves us, the way it reminds us of how we are human. He’s convinced that the best poems are understood both on a literal level and by the reader’s body and gut and heart. He has taken as his mission to write poetry that does both.  And he’s eager to be a good servant to language, mindful that he is never its master.

Yes, poetry is everywhere, says Mr. Lux. But poems don’t just begin or live in a some kind of sublime state of mind. If you want to turn that poetic moment into a poem, start sweating. Poems are “made things,” a process of trial and error and discovery and, most often, failure. Remember, poetry is not only an art form, it is a craft with a million little details. Pay attention. You have to learn the rules before you can break them. Serious writers must have the entire tradition, going back thousands of years across all cultures, in their bones. Then be clear enough. Try to have something interesting going on, some imagination, metaphor, music, things rubbing up against each other to create friction, some tension in a poem. Sincerity alone is as deadly as it is naive.

Know your craft. Then hide it, he advises. Craft succeeds best when it is invisible, heightening whatever the crazy stuff is that we love in a poem. Just ask the millions of people who are flocking back to poetry ... and loving it.

[This Program was recorded October 17, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]


Conversation 1

Thomas Lux tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about poetry’s revival all over the world. Mr. Lux credits “slam” poets for bringing poetry back to the human voice and describes how poetry speaks directly to the human condition.


Conversation 2

Poets from Erica Jong to Billy Collins have been part of the resurgence of poetry in America, Mr. Lux says, applauding the expanding venues. He describes how and why poets write. Unable to imagine poets who would not want to be understood, Mr. Lux acknowledges there are still people who revel in obscurity. Vital, original poetry is meant to be understood and read out loud, he insists, and describes how poetry can fill the human longing to feel connected. A writer’s life as a writer begins when his or her obituary is published, he says, and addresses the craft itself.


Conversation 3

Remembering his own eagerness to be a teacher, Mr. Lux describes a variety of ways poets make a living.  The writer’s first responsibility, he says, is not to bore the reader.  He urges poets to be clear and direct, acknowledging the challenge to balance originality and accessibility.  He suggests why we love poetry.  Poems are “made things,” Mr. Lux says, and describes how he brings the world into his poems.  The role of “craft” is explored. You have to learn the rules of traditional poetry before you can break them, he counsels aspiring poets.


Conversation 4

The world is full of poetic moments, says Mr. Lux, but to turn them into a poem takes sweat. He describes the process. He reads his poem “The Bandage Factory” and describes how he crafted it. He wants his poems to be stories, he says, and agrees with Pound that poets are the antennae of the race. Mr. Lux explains his role as a servant to language, not vice versa. Adamant that song lyrics are not poems, he reads his “Regarding (Most) Songs,” praising the necessity of music.  He distances himself from “directly autobiographical” poems. “Sincerity,” he says, is deadly for a poet and expands on what makes poetry powerful.


Conversation 5

Mr. Lux describes Georgia Institute of Technology’s “Poetry at Tech” program, which he has created and leads. Going into the community is a key element, he says, serving adults as well as school children. Mr. Lux links poetry’s long history to its renewed power as a spoken art, in America and the world. He considers its potential as a revolutionary force, then describes the early days of “slams” and their broad influence. What poetry has always done for human beings is to start the blood rising, he says. He compares prose to poetry.


Conversation 6

Thomas Lux sets the stage for and then concludes by reading his poem, “The People of the Other Village."



Thomas Lux gently nudged Paula and Bill back toward the land of poetry and has now made us feel welcome there. We are immensely grateful to him for that, for the luminosity that he and his poems add to the world, and for a great deal more.

Ginger Murchison does a wonderful job supporting Thomas Lux at Georgia Tech’s “Poetry at Tech” program. We thank her for all the help she has given us.

Related Links:

Among Thomas Lux’s many books of poems, The Cradle Place, Street of Clocks and New and Selected Poems are published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
The Poetry program at Georgia Tech.

Our program with Thomas Lux and businessman/poet, Bruce McEver, who endowed the other poetry chair at Georgia Tech is here.

Among the poets to whom Thomas has introduced us are Robert Bly, Billy Collins and Kurt Brown.

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