The British poet
Keith Douglas was a tough-minded sophist and a courageous young man, as the
editors make clear in their preface to his Collected Poems (1967). That he was a remarkable personality
Edmund Blunden shows in his reminiscent introduction to this volume. But
plainest of all is the fact that he was a genius who, when he died at the age
of twenty-four behind enemy lines at Normandy in 1944, had already written a
body of work that emerged as some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century
— certainly the best poetry of World War II.
It would be a
mistake, however, to think of Douglas primarily as a war poet. He was far too
universal, and too specific, for that. Specific in that his sense of image and
description, and his ability to put them into language, were highly refined;
universal because, as Blunden pointed out, he was able to fulfill Coleridge's
dictum that the best poets utter a philosophy. Blunden says, "He hated
decoration without anything behind it, but his verse is decorative...; yet it
was his real aim in pleasing the imagination thus to impress truths of human
affairs which he came at in his independent way. He did not wish to startle
with novelty, but to fashion his work as definitely as physical objects."
Even the earliest
poems included in the book cited — pieces written in Douglas's fourteenth year
— cannot be considered the usual juvenilia. They are completely realized
objects of art, like "Famous Men," written when the poet was fifteen:
now no longer sun,
mourning, not remembered
under the sun,
enough their deserved
The quick movement of dactyls
not compensate them.
air is advertised of seas
smote, from green to copper.
were merciful men.
think, like plates lie deep
clean their skulls,
The idiom is as
spare and modern as anyone could wish, and the thought is complex. More to the
point, mode and idea suit each other, tense and flex to compound the effect of
the poem as a whole.
But this poem is not
nearly so complex as his later, more textured work. The last poem he completed,
"On a Return from Egypt," is mystic. Written just before his death,
it is prophetic, ending thus:
next month, then, is a window
with a crash I'll split the glass.
it stands one I must kiss,
of love or death
person or a wraith,
fear what I shall find.
This is not to say
there are no flaws in the work of this Englishman. There are. His endings
sometimes seem less successful than his centers. It is as though, for most of
the poem, he were thinking as a painter but became self-conscious about being a
poet when it came time to round off the piece in hand. Much of the fascination
of his work derives from his ability to depict a scene and evoke the atmosphere
of exotic places through an imagery that makes strangeness familiar yet retains
the quality of strangeness. But even this does not begin to get at the heart of
the matter, for, though Douglas had great range and depth, great craftsmanship,
he was not a poet's poet — he is everyone’s poet.
published in the omnibus review titled, "Of Laureates and Lovers," Saturday
Review, l:41, October 14, 1967.
and Revisions of American Poetry, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, UArkansasPress 1986. Paperback, $12.95. 1986 Melville Cane Award of the
Poetry Society of America. ORDER FROM AMAZON
Putnam Turco. Satan’s Scourge, A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft, a book review by Joe Danciger
Lewis Turco refers in its title to smallpox and also to the punishments applied
to those believed to be involved with witchcraft or allied practices, such as
alchemy or divination. This book develops a story spanning the years from
1580-1697, chronicling the sweep from a more superstitious age to the age of
science and reason. This book is a must read for anyone interested in early
American history or witchcraft and magic.
rich in detail, and many scenes have a sense of immediacy that makes history
exciting. The brilliant and graphic account of the Salem witch trials may be
the best and most detailed ever written. By the time the trials begin, we have
walked the cow paths of New England with these people and have seen the
terrible hardships of colonial existence. These details make the trials all the
more poignant. Turco is a descendant of the Putnam family, who were very
involved in the Salem witch trials, and on whom the book is centered. One might
say without exaggeration that this story is in Lewis Turco's blood.
the time of "Satan’s Scourge,” in Europe Galileo was publishing and
considered to be heretical, while in Salem, Massachusetts, farmers were
planting and harvesting crops of corn and wheat. Turco describes the historical
and philosophical beliefs of the times so thoroughly that the narration can be
wholly readable without resorting to further references. In addition the
bibliography and index contain favorites of those who are fond of books on
demonology and magic, such as Sir Reginald Scot’s “The Discoverie of
Witchcraft.” This anchors the story and lends its own pleasures. On both
continents, riches could be gained by feigning or attempting diverse magical
practices—and by hunting those who did so.
narrative of Satan's Scourge is not without humor: an occasional fool blows up a
boat by accident, and some players are reliably unreliable. The legendary
Mother Goose appears in her actual person and uses her herbal knowledge on some
very bee-stung boys. The people portrayed in the book are documented by Turco’s
detailed and well-researched writing makes reading this book a pleasure: e.g.,
in a typical passage, “Early in the spring of 1679 John Stebbins of Northampton
was working in a sawmill when he began to have trouble with the logs and boards
with which he was working. They began to act up in strange ways- falling down
by themselves, writhing out of his hands.” Stebbins later dies, covered with
spots, and a neighbor is charged with witchcraft.
in such an engaging way that it is hard to stop reading, the narrative of
tells about a family and a time of superstition that was replaced by science.
This book has depth, and goes far beyond retelling witchy stunts and acts of
cruelty by stern patriarchs.
Scourge: A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England
1580-1697 by Lewis Putnam Turco
was the winner of the Wild Card category of the New England Book Festival 2009.
The award ceremony was held at the Omni Parker House in Boston, Massachusetts,
on Saturday, January 16, 2010, from 7:00-9:30 p.m.with
the author and the publisher, Dr. Steven E. Swerdfeger of Star Cloud Press,
Scottsdale, Arizona, both present.
Satan’s Scourge: A
Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England 1580-1694, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2009, ISBN 978-1-932827, jacketed cloth, $54.95; ISBN
978-1-932842-26-5; trade paperback, $39.95, 808 pages. ORDER FROM BARNES
& NOBLE / ORDER FROM AMAZON
interview by Deirdre Fleming, Staff Writer, The Maine Sunday Telegram, Sunday, March 15, 2009,
writer Lewis Putnam Turco is out with a book, Satan’s Scourge: A Narrative
of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England 1580-1697, on the deadly and scurrilous witch hunts that
plagued Britain and America in the 16th and 17th centuries. After 35 years Dr.
Turco has finally had his 800-page historical work on the Salem witch trials
published. The 74-year-old award-winning poet was determined not to cut it.
Fleming. Why not?
Turco. I was quite happy with what I had done— I had researched all that stuff,
found out so much information about my mother's family, the Putnams of Salem
Village, Massachusetts, which is now Danvers. I really didn't care whether it
was published or not.
Fleming. But published it was, and you will discuss this
newest book on March 29 at the Augusta City Hall learning gallery at 16 Cony
St. What will be the focus of your talk?
Turco. The talk will be on the only trial of a Maine witch
that occurred during that period — the trial of Casco minister George Burroughs
in 1692. Burroughs was convicted and hanged.
Fleming. When did you actually write this book?
Turco. In 1974 I researched and wrote about the history of
the Putnams, as well as all of the witch trails that occurred in New England at
the height of the age of "sympathetic magic." The book is told not
only chronologically, but also from the point of view of the crystal gazers,
alchemists and alleged witches as well as their accusers, other witnesses and
clerics. Read in its entirety, the book fully explains the period of time when
science was coming into being and those who believed in magic were sometimes
hunted down and killed.
Fleming. How did you become interested in this subject?
Turco. I have known about my mother’s ancestors and been
interested in the subject since high school, or even before — I had been
reading about it for years.
Fleming. Yet for more than three decades, your work and
writing were focused on poetry. You taught poetry at the college level since
1960, first at what is now Cleveland State University and then at the State
University of New York at Oswego, from which you retired in 1996. Your book on
literary criticism, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry, won the Poetry Society of America's Melville Cane
Award in 1986, one of many awards your work on poetry has received. Why did
this book sit around and not get published?
Turco. I tried to publish it. I wrote around, and
publishers said it was too long. I wasn't willing to cut it, so I let it sit
for 35 years. I didn't even try to peddle it for most of that time. Then, in
2006, I bought a new computer and decided to type it in. I had actually written
the typescript in a spring and a summer, so I took another summer and rewrote
it as I went along. — It didn't change much. I tightened it up a bit, but it is
largely unchanged. When I mentioned it to my current publisher he asked to see
it, so I sent it along.
Fleming. Why make it so long?
Turco. It is the only book that I know of that covers
that entire history of witchcraft in England and New England during the period
I specify, the year 1580, which is the birthday of my mother’s Putnam ancestor
who founded the Putnam dynasty in America, to 1697 when the witch-hunts finally
died out for good. That was the age when the system in America and in the
world, really, was shifting from what we consider sympathetic magic to science,
as for instance the shift from astrology to astronomy. It's a fascinating
period. This changeover from magic to science is what the Salem witch-hunt was
all about. It was the last big clash between science and sympathetic magic.
Fleming. What can we learn from that period?
Turco. There are lots of things we can learn — for
instance, the way that witches could be saved in New England in the 17th
century was if they confessed to being witches. If you read the whole book, all
the accused witches who weren’t hanged in Salem confessed to being witches, and
of course, they weren't witches. But some refused to confess, and they weren't
witches either. They were hanged. That should tell us something about the
ethics of torture. You also learn something about belief and the difference
between belief and reality.
Fleming. Are those things relevant today?
Turco. We had a big witch hunt while I was in the Navy
in the 1950s — it was called McCarthyism. That was a witch hunt. It is the same
thing, exactly. You can learn a lot about human nature. We do repeat history.
We're doomed to repeat. We never seem to learn. And there are so many
mysterious things that no human being is ever probably going to get to the
bottom of, such as “black holes” and “the big bang.” Well, if people have open
minds, perhaps they can get their minds around such things, and then believe
But believing them is just taking them on faith. Some people take it
on faith that there was an initial explosion that created the universe. Other
people say God created it, but how do they know that? They take it on faith. The big question is,
if God created the universe, who created God? And if there was an initial “big
bang,” what came before the big bang? One of these two things is based on
science, and the other is based on religion, but both of them are totally
mysterious, and people believe in both.
Fleming. Do the same sorts of wrestling matches over ideas
continue throughout history?
Turco. Right now there is a witch-hunt going on. We are
looking for terrorists. And to a lot of people, anybody with a Muslim background
is one. That is not a lot different.
Fleming. Are there others?
Turco. There is a small witch hunt getting started — it
is the witch-hunt over the woman who had octuplets. The grandmother is getting
threats, and the young “octomom” is getting threats. What is the most rational
thing to do? To say, “forget all that, and take care of the babies.” The babies
are there. Stop trying to blame the mother. So she's crazy — that's past.
That's a good example of a modern witch-hunt.
Fleming. Do you think you'll write more on witchcraft?
doubt it. I'll be seventy-five years old in May. I'm not young, and can't
really take on a huge project at my age. So I doubt I will. I will keep
writing, though, and I'm giving that talk at Augusta City Hall that you mentioned.
I went through my book and got all the information on the minister there in
Casco who was hanged in Salem, and put it together as a lecture for this event.
And in the summer I’ll be giving another such lecture in Connecticut on the
Wallingford witch-hunt that took place about the same time as the Salem event.
So I’m still fiddling with the subject to a degree.
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.