Ecologist David Orr told us years ago that we should treat “neighbor” as a verb, an act: to neighbor.
“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,” our then neighbor, acclaimed poet Thomas Lux told us.
We shared a townhouse wall with Tom for well over a decade. Robert Frost’s assertion “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” held true enough, as that division was often breeched: to water each others’ countless plants; to join in boisterous post poetry-reading parties; for Tom to shepherd famous poets the width of his garage so we could welcome Billy Collins, Robert Bly, Kurt Brown, Bruce McEver and others to our studio; or for us to deliver his mail while Tom traveled far and near to spread the news: Poetry. Is. Back.
Tom had had to win us over, two confirmed poetry-skeptics. He did it with understated charm, grace and style. But he was furious that we -- like millions of others -- had to BE won back.
I took no offense when he told me it was “age-appropriate” for the teenaged me to have adored e.e. cummings’ poems, then to have unceremoniously dumped poetry altogether. Good judgment, he said. Blame Modernism. Too many practitioners had specialized in the inaccessible -- riddles he called them. Once-useful critics became mere arbiters between poet and audience while imitators of the truly great modernists “robbed us of poetry’s enduring joys -- its musicality”.
What changed? When we welcomed him as our guest, Thomas gave credit to spoken poets’ “slams”-- they gave poetry back its voice. No longer must we “feel dumb” in the presence of a poem.
Tom was uniquely qualified to guide us back. Had he not been adamantly averse to belief systems, we would have called Tom evangelical as he lived out his eagerness to open the world to poetry’s magic.
Tom relished teaching, working hard at it. We met him when he was recruited to take the Bourne Chair in Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology and to create and lead Georgia Tech’s “Poetry at Tech” program. It was the result of Georgia Tech’s second endowed Chair in Poetry (the only university in the country so blessed we were told). Cleverly, Tom saw to it that this one was filled on a rotating basis by prominent and upcoming American poets. Seemingly millions of times we heard him say "Poetry at Tech is NOT an oxymoron!" STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students need the arts perhaps even more than those studying in the humanities.
Regularly we’d all cavalcade across the interstate for readings by his auspicious guests, but we never missed the after-parties (whether we showed up or not since they were on his adjoining deck). The single -- embarrassing! -- “absent without leave” was when, as Tom hosted a major national gathering of poets, he made a surprise debut of “Apology to My Neighbors for Beheading Their Duck” before it appeared in God Particles. No one would notice our absence there, right? Wrong. Our duck! (Goose actually, but he preferred the sound of “duck”.)
True neighborliness braids together the small with the large. We’d walk softly if the Red Sox lost, "wahoo"-ed together when they won. When his parents were dying in rapid succession in a far away place, we covered the daily stuff while he commuted to care for them. We mourned with this quintessential loving son just as we chuckled at his paternal pleasure in sharing The Simpsons with his beloved daughter -- via telephone.
Tom always insisted that poems are “made things”. So is friendship. We had a surprising head start. What are the odds that while teaching in Chicago in the late ‘70s, he’d watched my NBC-TV Show? Or that his next job -- “the biggest break of my life” as he characterized it in the wonderful Cortland Review -- would be at Oberlin College, my alma mater? Was it his childhood on a Pennsylvania dairy farm that inspired the attachment to greenery that we shared, he eagerly adopting our 12 foot tall “Mr. Greeny” when we move? Or the reality that his library was even more massive than our considerable one? (Blessédly our townhouses were built on the mass of granite undergirding much of Atlanta so the assembled book-mass did not result in noticeable subsidence of our adjoining homes.)
We shared a love of New York City, and reveled in his tales gleaned from 27 years living there while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College’s legendary writing program (leading their MFA in Poetry the last 19 of them). On one return from regular trips back, the sometimes reticent Thomas actually volunteered the source of his memorable grin. Riding the subway he’d spotted a poem his beloved daughter had inspired ... on the car’s overhead ad space! He alone could measure the pleasure he took as part of the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion”. Now THAT’s accessible.
Then, having turned 65 together, he proceeded to make good on his exuberant expectation that we three were headed into unexpected “extra innings”. We missed his Connecticut wedding by a day: the Pennsylvania farm boy marrying the lovely scholar from an old New England family. We did witness his vegetarian bride learning to cook sausages as we non-sectarians learned to express gratitude before enjoying them. Living love poems.
Certainly from the start, we’d had an inkling there was serious neighboring to be made. One example suffices. Tenuously explaining the logistics (and underlying mathematics) of 2 parking spots for 3 vehicles, I apologized for treading on the domain of a "Georgia Tech Professor". His singular chuckle preceded his oft-repeated response: "Huh! I'm just a f...n’ poet."
And what a poet he was! One awestruck attendee at our 2004 symposium “Emotions: The Real You” at Atlanta’s Fox Theater said we could have ended it before we began...Thomas had opened for us, reading his iconic poem “The People of the Other Village.”
Thomas died last Sunday. We hope that in some field of dreams, in some not too distant galaxy Tom is playing center field for the Boston Red Sox, nailing the tagged runner heading for home base with a particularly apt poem.
So, thank you, Thomas. Now rest. Poetry is flourishing and -- sad as we are -- your loving wife and daughter, far-flung students and friends, and total strangers will carry forward the flicker you fanned into flame for us all. Your 16 full-length books of poetry have cemented your place in poetry’s (uni)verse. You witnessed the Red Sox regaining their honor. And we -- your grieving Nabes (Lux-speak for “neighbor”) -- will forever thank you for sharing those extra innings with us.
P.S. It’s OK about the duck.