Thomas Lux, a poet who used spare, direct language to express the absurdities and sorrows of human life, and whose 1994 collection, “Split Horizon,” won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, one of the most lucrative prizes in American poetry, died on Feb. 5 at his home in Atlanta. He was 70.
The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Jennifer Holley Lux.
Mr. Lux showed a rare gift for blending comedy and disturbing surrealist images in his early collections “Memory’s Handgrenade” (1972), “The Glassblower’s Breath” (1976) and “Sunday: Poems” (1979). A character in the poem “Five Men I Knew” dreams he is reading “Duino Elegies” by Rilke “aloud, / in German, at a racetrack in Florida,” when suddenly “the flamingos are drained of their color / and collapse.”
His early manner, according to the reference work Contemporary Poets, was “tormented and tortured, full of complex and disjointed images reflecting an insane and inhospitable world.”
With time, Mr. Lux gravitated toward a taut, precise realism, finding his subject matter in seemingly mundane events to which he applied an often comic twist, reflected in titles like “Attila the Hun Meets Pope Leo I” and “Like Tiny Baby Jesus, in Velour Pants, Sliding Down Your Throat (a Belgian Euphemism).”
In “Refrigerator, 1957,” the depressing contents of a midcentury icebox — “boiled potato in a bag, a chicken carcass under foil” — give way to a wondrous jar of maraschino cherries, “heart red, sexual red, wet neon red, / shining red in their liquid.” In “Motel Seedy” he expressed the soul-destroying décor of a cheap hotel room:
To put this color
green — exhausted grave grass — to cinder blocks
takes an understanding of loneliness
and/or institutions that terrifies.
In a 1999 interview with The Cortland Review, Mr. Lux said: “Making poems rhythmical and musical and believable as human speech and as distilled and tight as possible is very important to me. I started looking outside of myself a lot more for subjects.”
His work was gathered in more than a dozen collections. Two compilation volumes were published in the mid-1990s — “The Blind Swimmer: Selected Early Poems, 1970-1975” and “New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995.”
Thomas Norman Lux was born on Dec. 10, 1946, in Northampton, Mass., where he grew up on a dairy farm run by his grandfather and uncle. His father, Norman, delivered milk for the farm. His mother, the former Elinor Healey, answered telephones at a local Sears store.
He studied English literature and took poetry workshops at Emerson College in Boston, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1970. In his senior year, James Randall, one of his teachers, published his poems in “The Land Sighted,” a chapbook. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Iowa but returned after a year to teach at Emerson, where he was named poet in residence.
While teaching at Emerson he married Jean Kilbourne. The marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage. Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Claudia Lux.
With “Half-Promised Land,” published in 1986, Mr. Lux began turning away from surrealism. Many of the poems in that collection drew on childhood memories of the family farm. At the same time, he retained the wild comic sense that made for such memorable subjects as “Commercial Leech Farming Today” and “Walt Whitman’s Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor.”
“Usually, the speaker of my poems is a little agitated, a little smartass, a little angry, satirical, despairing,” he told the arts journal Cerise Press in 2009. “Or sometimes he’s goofy, somewhat elegiac, full of praise and gratitude.” He added: “I think one uses humor/satire to help combat the darkness. I do.”
In 1975 Mr. Lux began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. At the same time, he served on the faculty of the M.F.A. program for writers at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C. In 2002 he became the Bourne professor of poetry and director of the McEver Visiting Writers Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Mr. Lux’s poetry collections also included “The Drowned River” (1990), “The Street of Clocks” (2001), “The Cradle Place” (2004) and “Child Made of Sand: Poems, 2007-2011” (2012).
His most recent collection, “To the Left of Time,” was published last year. Just before his death, he finished editing “I Am Flying Into Myself,” a selection of poems by Bill Knott, a poet who greatly influenced his early work. It was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Feb. 14.