An Interview by Gerhard Zeller
In an essay on Lewis Turco in The Encyclopedia of American Literature (New York: Continuum, 1998), R. S. Gwynn wrote, "The Book of Forms (1968) and its successor The New Book of Forms (1986) have now influenced two generations of students and poets, most prominently the group known as The New Formalists (a term Turco anticipated when he began to write approvingly of 'neo-formalism' in the early 1980's)." A bit later in his article Gwynn wrote, "For a number of years Turco has employed an alter-ego, one Wesli Court (an anagram of his name), to construct light verse and formal tours de force, including many of the sample poems in The New Book of Forms [and The Book of Forms, Third Edition 2000]."
Actually, although his birth date is listed in some reference works as April 1, 1940, and he is supposed to have been a sailor on the Great Lakes for many years, Wesli Court came into being between 1960 and 1964 in Cleveland, Ohio, on Lake Erie. His first manifestation was as a book reviewer for Loring Williams' magazine American Weave, also located in Cleveland where, at the time, Lewis Turco was teaching and directing the Poetry Center (which he founded in 1962) at Fenn College, now Cleveland State University.
Wesli Court next surfaced in Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario, where he conducted an "Interview with a Split Personality," videotaped for a classroom television course, "The Nature of Poetry," which was being developed for the new Program in Writing Arts that Turco founded at the State University of New York College at Oswego. This interview, published in New England Review, I:5, April-May 1970, was purported to have taken place on two dates, in July of 1960 and in November of 1968
During these years, formal poetry had gone begging in American literature. Throughout the decades of the 1960s and 1970s formal poetry had been equated by the various "avant garde" schools of "Whitmanesque" and "Poundian" and "Williamsish" prose poetry with "the military-industrial complex" and with those who waged the Vietnam war. Formal poets in the academy caved in, went underground, and stopped teaching their students that, in fact, there was a long and distinguished tradition of craftsmanship in American as well as in British poetry, with the result that young poets were graduating from college completely innocent of the knowledge of verse writing.
But Lewis Turco had a secret vice. Although he, too, had been writing non-traditional poetry, as for instance "free verse" in his chapbook The Sketches in 1962, unrhymed syllabics in Awaken, Bells Falling (1968), prose poems and word-count poems in The Inhabitant (1970), he also had published the first comprehensive compendium of verse forms in the history of English literature, The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (1968), and he had secretly continued to write poems in those forms. In the mid-1970s he rented a post-office box in the name of Wesli Court and began sending the poems to periodicals. He soon realized that Wesli Court was receiving more acceptances than he was. It was the first indication that the worm was beginning to turn.
In 1977 Wesli Court became the author of Courses in Lambents, followed the next year by Curses and Laments (in this latter book Turco published curses against some of his academic enemies, including the president of his college — hence, the duplicitous titles), and, in 1981, The Airs of Wales, poems in the ancient Welsh verse forms which Turco needed for his revision and update, The New Book of Forms, which would not be published until 1986.
This interview was conducted on July 4th, 1980, in Dresden, Maine, where Wesli Court had moved in 1979 to become the proprietor of a summer enterprise, The Mathom Bookshop and Bindery which closed at the end of 2006. It was accepted for publication by Modern Poetry Studies, but that periodical suspended publication before "The Anachronist" could appear, and the interview was not published until two years after the death of Zeller in 1996 just after Turco retired from teaching. It appeared in E. L. F., Eclectic Literary Forum, viii:1, Spring 1998, pp. 6-12. Zeller, a close friend and colleague of Lewis Turco, was for more than three decades a member of the English faculty of the State University of New York College at Oswego.
Gerhard Zeller. From the scant biographical information I've been able to gather, I understand that you are largely self-educated. You've spent most of your time working on the Great Lakes, and what interests me most recently in my reading through your first book, Courses in Lambents [Oswego: Mathom, 1977], is your constant reference to out-of-the-way poets. The longest poem in your book is "Robyn and Makyn" which you say is "out of the Scots of Robert Henryson." I'm curious to know where you picked up your interest in these virtually forgotten poets of the past. For example, who is Henryson?
Wesli Court. Henryson was a Scottish poet who lived in the period just after Chaucer and who wrote in the dialect called Scots, which is still very close to Middle English. I became interested in these old poets because I'm interested in traditional lyric poetry, and I write in nothing but traditional lyric forms, although I'm not above an occasional experiment in meters and rhymes. It seems to me that some of the most interesting poetry in English is lyric poetry, and that some of the most interesting poems are quite ancient.
Zeller. It seems to me you are resuscitating ancient forms, not just the poems of old poets like Henryson. You seem in all of your published poems, including Curses and Laments [Stevens Point: Song , No. 5, 1978], to show an interest in forms that aren't being used by other poets, such as the Welsh forms and Anglo-Saxon alliterative measures. Don't you think this makes you something of a modern anachronism?
Court. It's true that I'm a literary anachronist. However, Lewis Turco needs examples of many of these ancient verse patterns for his revision of The Book of Forms, and he has asked me to help him out with modern versions of medieval poems in the bardic forms.
Zeller. What do you think you accomplish by going back to these forms that are so much out of the mainstream? How does it feel to be moving constantly against the grain?
Court. Well, I don't think of it that way. I consider it as merely going back to the roots of English poetry. I should have said "British" poetry, because I'm interested in the Welsh and Gaelic forms as well. Although there's a great deal of what passes for poetry being written today, it's boring, most of it. I think the most interesting poems of the twentieth century very often were lyric poems, such as those by the early Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens — these poets have been credited with having given American twentieth-century poetry new directions which have been picked up, supposedly, by poets writing since the 1950s, but in fact many of them were really excellent traditional metrical poets, and many of the greatest poems of this century are metrical. Not many people think of it in these terms, but it's a fact.
I can think of other poets, for instance Vachel Lindsay, who was a so-called "modernist," who was a lyric poet; John Crowe Ransom and, a little later, Theodore Roethke, who were wonderful lyric poets writing in the prosody called podics, or "folk meters," which was the system used in the old Scottish border ballads of the fifteenth century, of many of the poems of the early Renaissance poet John Skelton, and the nursery rhymes of the seventeenth century. When people think of twentieth-century poetry they think of poems written by people such as T. S. Eliot, but even he was writing in metrical verse very often — Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is the most obvious example — so I think that the direction of most recent poetry is misguided. I think that a poet ought to be interested in the sonic level, at the very least, and the thing that interests most readers is sound and rhythm, good imagery, and those are the things I'm still interested in also.
To say that I'm a throwback misses the point. What I am is in the mainstream, and all these other people are going off on tangents. I suspect that within the next hundred years, perhaps sooner, we're going to see a return to this mainstream of lyric poetry writing. Therefore, I will be considered by the folk of the future to have been in the avant garde.
Zeller. Well, you've probably answered my question already, but in one of the poems in Courses in Lambents — why did you give your first two books such similar titles? — you have a character named Ollie. Would you read it?
SEPTEMBER PLAY SONG
Red Rover, Red Rover,
Let Alice come over,
For Alice is a scary girl
Whose hair is wild, whose curls are gold,
As bold as lightning by the river
Moving bluely to the sea.
Red Rover, Red Rover,
Let Billy come over --
Billy wicked, Billy bad,
Billy crazy as the daisies
In the pastures blooming mad
Among the grasses.
Red Rover, Red Rover,
Let Ollie come over.
Let sad little Ollie who loved pretty Polly,
Who lost fickle Polly to raindrops and time,
Let Ollie come over
All mossy with rime.
Red Rover, Red Rover,
Let Whozis come over.
For Whozis is looking for Alice and Bill,
For Ollie and Poll lying cold in the clover....
Red Rover, Red Rover,
Push all of them over.
Zeller. The effect of that poem is chilling, but Ollie is, you say, "all mossy with rime." You wouldn't see that as a self-criticism — being mossy?
Court. I'd consider it a compliment.
Zeller. You've given quite a pastiche of literary figures that you feel akin to, writers as diverse as Pound and Eliot on the one hand and, on the other, Vachel Lindsay, but all of these poets, with the exception of Lindsay, were noted for their intellectual avant-gardism based on strong academic credentials. You, on the other hand, have no such background. It's as though you are a throwback to those nineteenth century Romantic poets who were essentially uneducated or self-educated.
Court. It is absolutely true that I taught myself, afloat and ashore, all these traditional techniques I continue to use. No teacher taught them to me. But on the other hand, what academic background did Frost have? And he is one of the century's most formal poets. Many poets traditionally have been self-educated in versewriting. In fact, before the 1940's and the rise of the college "writing workshops," which are a phenomenon of the postwar period, nearly all poets have been self-educated in poetry composition. Hart Crane is another obvious example.
Zeller. The one thing that I think differentiates you from most of the poets we've mentioned, at least in the bulk of their work, is a sense of humor, frequently bawdy, that runs through much of your work. This morning as I reread Courses in Lambents I noted that in your opening "Proem: The Muses' Ball" you say that the test of a poet is that "the verses jest solemnly." Would you read that poem so that we can talk about it?
Court. I'd be happy to do so:
PROEM: THE MUSES' BALL
A Dialogue of Sonnets
Narcissus. I've had it, on good authority, that the best
poems are those which are delimited
and which, within strict bounds, are amply fed
on wit and learning. There is but one test
one need apply: does the verser jest
solemnly? Which was the sage who said,
"A solitary talent, well directed,
shall make a man the Muse's welcome guest?
I can't abide that deadly social trance.
I shall bed down with every busty rime
that bends to dalliance. There is no time
for proper posing if the pen would dance --
go sit and sip with Miss Calliope.
Erato is no hostess. She's a she.
Endymion. Discourse is social too. If you must dance,
go reel Virginia in, rhumba, cakewalk --
but some of us would rather sit and talk.
We do it quietly -- by choice, not chance.
Still others of us will not join the fun
because our plainer muses do not shine
like public chandeliers. The finest wine
comes by the goblet, never by the tun.
We have our place in this, the Muses' Ball,
as you have yours. There's room enough and more
for you and your coy mistress on the floor;
must you usurp Euterpe's bit of wall?
Leave us to muse here while you step and roar.
It is too easy to seduce a whore.
Narcissus. Okay, I will.
Zeller. Which of those two poets is you?
Zeller. Do you believe yourself to jest solemnly in most of your poems?
Court. Yes. I think that life is a tragicomedy. If a poet is going to be a whole poet he has to take into account both the solemn and the joyous, both the hysterically funny and the despairing. If I am going to reflect human nature, I must write of both. Poetry is simultaneously a game and a deadly serious contest. Life is a serious game.
Zeller. In that same poem you quote an unnamed sage as saying, "A solitary talent, well directed / shall make a man the muse's welcome guest." Even if your publication record isn't vast, do you consider yourself to be such a guest? And who is the sage?
Court. I am, just as I am both poets. You have to remember the subtitle of the poem; it's a debate between two kinds of poets, between "Narcissus" and "Endymion." The former is a romantic extrovert, and the latter is a classic introvert. While I probably have both elements within me, I tend to side with the quieter Endymion.
Zeller. You seem to have not just a split personality, but a shattered one — how many of you are there? Isn't "Wesli Court" just a pen-name?
Court. All my names are "pen names." I once did an interview with two of my other selves ["Interview with a Split Personality," New England Review, i:5, April-May 1970]. I also have a personal muse, whose name is Jascha — he's a gargoyle, and he sits on my right shoulder. If I'm not his welcome guest, at least he is mine.
Zeller. Let's talk about the bawdy side. You seem to have, especially in your second book, Curses and Laments — which appears to be at least an echo of your first book of poems — a great number of downright lewd poems. How much of a part does sexuality play in your work?
Court. Again, that's an element of human nature that hasn't been treated with great candor by contemporary poets. Not to say that there aren't dirty poems around, but the bawdy has been neglected. In the preface to Curses and Laments I say, 'What's wrong with a curse? Red Hanrahan wrote a great curse against age which Yeats recorded, but the genre has been much neglected since then. A curse ought to be intemperate. A curse ought not to be cursory, nor ought it to be over-inflated. It ought to last as long as it takes to take effect on its object; it ought to be well-tempered, and there should be nothing of the reflective about it at all.' Would you like a sample?
Zeller. Of course.
Court. This poem was supposed to be written in the French form called the virelai, but it refused to fit and would only manifest itself as an acrostic rondeau. All I could do was pun on the word "virelai," in an anagram which begins the poem:
VIRELAI AVORTÉE EN FORME DE RONDEAU ACROSTICHE
Anagram: "Ring a Virile Lady."
V irelai, won't you come? Just so,
I t will have to be the rondeau
R ising to love. Nor will you spurt,
G alloping response to the quirt
I n my hand. You will merely go
N ag on me, like that bland "No!"
I n my lady's lips. You will grow
A trifle testy if I flirt.
L ai, won't you?
R ing a virile lady and blow
A s you will, winding to and fro,
D iking up happiness and hurt.
L eman, once more before I squirt,
E asing off this sheet...yes, I know:
Y ou won't lai.
Don't you feel that it's about time that all the feelings we have, including hatred, ought to be put into words again?
Zeller. Most certainly. There seems, however, to be, both in the serio-comic verses and in the bawdy poems that occur in your work, a strong undertone of darkness, death, and despair. Earlier this morning I was reading in your manuscripts an unpublished poem titled "Reflections in an Attic Room" [since published in Miller Williams' Patterns of Poetry, Louisiana State University, 1986], which, as is so common with your work, is couched in an ancient form, the sonnet redoublé. In the poem, you speak of "A skeleton of what is my concern: / The meaning of it all." And, in reference to that a bit earlier in the poem you say, "...we merely lie / Noting nothings echoing." Is that your vision of life?
Court. Being alive is a very depressing occupation, and, as I said, if I'm going to reflect human nature in all its moods and aspects, I'm going to have to show the dark as well as the light side. I really do live in an attic room. I am perhaps the only poet you'll ever meet who actually lives in a garret, and it gets depressing in my garret where I'm surrounded by the books of these gone, dead poets. You noticed earlier that I'm interested in ancient poems; well, I get to looking, sometimes, at the spines of all these books on my shelves, and I get to thinking about the futility of writing. There are many poems in many of these books that are simply beautiful, and nobody ever reads them except people like me, and I get to thinking about the people who have written them, how long they've been gone, and then I begin to move forward in time to the point were I, too, am one of those spines standing on a shelf, and I become depressed, and I write about that melancholy.
Zeller. One of your books is dedicated to Ezra Pound, isn't it?
Court. Not a book, a manuscript still unpublished titled, at the moment, Ancient Music after a Pound poem which is a modern imitation of the medieval poem that begins, "Sumer is icummen in." A portion of the manuscript will be published soon as a chapbook special issue of Temple University's Poetry Newsletter. Its title will be The Airs of Wales [Philadelphia, 1981], and it's just the Welsh poems in a collection of modern versions of medieval Welsh, Irish, Scots, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems. One of the latter appears in Curses and Laments. "The Blacksmiths," a curse from the anonymous Middle English, is, like Piers Plowman and Gawain and the Green Knight, a late example of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. X. J. Kennedy is going to anthologize this poem in his Tygers of Wrath [Univer-sity of Georgia, 1981]:
Sooty, swart smiths, Smattered with smoke,
Drive me to death With the din of their dents.
Such noise at night No men heard, never!
What knavish cries And clattering of knocks!
The crooked cretins Call out, "Coal, coal!"
And blow their bellows Till their brains burst:
"Huff, puff!" says that one; "Haff, paff!" that other.
They spit and sprawl And spill many spells;
They gnaw and gnash, They groan together
And hold their heat With their hard hammers.
Of bullhide are made Their broad aprons;
Their shanks be shackled For the fiery flinders;
They've heavy hammers That are hard-hafted,
Stark strokes On a steely stump:
LUS, BUS! LAS, DAS! Rants the row —
So doleful a dream, The devil destroy it!
The master lengthens little And labors less,
Twines a two And touches a trey:
Tick, tack! hick, hack! Ticket, tacket! tyke, take!
LUS, BUS! LAS, DAS! Such lives they lead,
These cobblemares: Christ give them grief!
May none of these waterburners By night have his rest!
Zeller. That's a very Poundian poem in several ways, it seems to me. Pound once spoke of artists being the antennae of the race, and yet in his attempts to put out feelers to the new he was constantly going back to ancient poets in a great number of languages, much in the way that you do, too. Do you feel a kinship with Pound in this habit?
Court. Yes. One of the things that I'm trying to do in these modern versions is breathe new life into the poems of those old masters. The only reason many of them aren't read is because they're written in dialects or languages that are no longer spoken. What I'd like to do is bring back something of the aura and ambience of those poets and their times so that modern readers can enjoy them. Of course, Pound was much interested in similar things throughout his career.
Zeller. Yet, at the time Pound was, and perhaps is still accused today, of being archaic and of trying to dig up forms that cannot really be resurrected and used with effect in the twentieth century. And now that another half-century has passed since Pound engaged in this literary grave-raiding and his message evidently didn't get through, do you feel that this is a profitable line to follow, or do you think that, now we are well into the last quarter of our century, there is a gradual awakening to the kinds of concerns that Pound urged upon young writers?
Court. What do you mean his message didn't get through? It got through to me! I feel that pronouncements to the effect that forms cannot be reused by later generations is just stupid. A form is an abstract pattern, and if someone comes along who has the talent to take that pattern and make a modern, enjoyable poem of it again, as Yeats did and others I've already mentioned, then the stupidity of the statement is made manifest. Still, people say these things. However, I've noticed that such statements are made generally by people who can't do, or haven't tried to do, the hard thing. I've only been publishing these poems for three or four years, but oddly enough, during that time, in this latter-day of "free verse" prose poems, I've had considerable success in the little magazines and in some anthologies, too.
I think people really want to hear the kind of poems Pound was interested in early in his career, and that I am interested in now. I think that there is a rebirth of interest beginning in formal lyric poetry, and that the interest is getting stronger. I believe we have passed through an age of dullness, and now both readers and writers want to try to get some of the primal interest of poetry — that is, in the sounds of the language and in the imagery — back into circulation.
Zeller. Pound was accused by many people of being a poetic charlatan. I know that this charge has been leveled against you as well. In your poem "Terzanelle" from Courses in Lambents you say, "The wind's a huckster whose breath blows / Tongues and voices, voices and tongues / Out of a sack of echoes." Are you a huckster, a poetic charlatan?
Court. Well, an artist is a masker, isn't he? We needn't go through all that business that Eliot and the New Critics went through when they talked about the mask, the persona of the poet. Here's what I think about critics anyway — it's a curse from Curses and Laments:
ACADEMIC CURSE: AN EPITAPH
Curse him who digs in yellow leaves
To scrape my twisted tongue
Of twisted songs that once I sang
Out of a twisted lung!
Rot take the worm that bites my dust.
May his bowels wither!
I shall make him eat his words
When he grovels hither.
Writing poetry is telling lies in order to tell the truth, adopting masks in order to merge oneself with a personality that is perhaps alien to one's ordinary nature. Yes, indeed, I am a fraud through and through, but I tell the truth.
The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court, 1953-2004, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004. ISBN 1932842004, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 1932842012, quality paperback, $26.95, 460 pages, © 2004, all rights reserved. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.