If you’d like to see some of Wesli Court’s Epitaphs for the Poets of the seventeenth century, please go here: http://www.the-flea.com/Issue19/Epitaphs.html -- the complete series, from Chaucer to the present, will be published by BrickHouse Books in the not-too-distant future. If you’d like to look at a “poemoir” and several poems by Wesli Court, please go here: http://towerjournal.com/fall_2011/.
During the winter of 1980 I read an essay about Emily Dickinson by Van Wyck Brooks which quoted four lines from Emily Dickinson's letters: "The Moon rides like a girl through a topaz town"; "Tonight the Crimson Children are playing in the west"; "The lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear today for the first the river in the trees," and "Not what the stars have done, but what they are to do is what detains the sky."
I was struck by the modernity of these prose expressions; their sounds and images seemed to me to have more of the feeling and flavor of modernity than even Dickinson's poems, or even the lines of many and many a poem of the 20th century. Immediately, I wrote four poems that included, and tried to live up to, the Dickinson lines I have quoted.
No doubt this was a foolhardy thing to do, but I had attempted the same sort of thing with Robert Burton's 17th-century tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and I produced a book of poems the whole title of which reads, The Compleat Melancholick, "A Sequence of Found, Composite, and Composed Poems, based largely upon Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy," a collection which was published in 1985 by the Bieler Press. I felt then, and I still feel, that my poems did little damage to Burton and, indeed, that Burton inspired me to accomplish some of my better work. These are the first four poems, titled “A Suite for Emily,” that I wrote in a similar series, “A Sampler of Hours, Poems and Centos from Lines in Emily Dickinson’s Letters” contained in my book titled Emily Dickinson: Woman of Letters:
When I had finished these first four pieces I sent them to a magazine at SUNY Buffalo titled Escarpments whose editor, Carol Sineni, accepted them immediately, but I was by no means satisfied with them myself, for I felt I had not assimilated Dickinson's tone and style and made my additions indistinguishable from her quotations. I went to the library and checked out Dickinson's Collected Letters, hoping to find other lines I might quarry. Much later I was fortunate enough to find a copy I could purchase for my own library.
By 1984 I had written sixty poems in a series I have titled A Sampler of Hours:Poems and Centos on Lines from Emily Dickinson's Letters, Selected, Arranged and Augmented by myself. Some readers of these pieces wish to know which lines are Dickinson's and which are mine. At first I had tried italicizing her words, as I had done with Burton, but that practice seemed to break up the poems badly whereas in the Burton poems it had actually seemed to help. As a result, some people have fallen into a guessing game almost automatically, which I deplore, but it can be amusing, to me at least, because the conjectures are generally wrong.
If they were not, I would have been unsuccessful in assimilating Dickinson's style, and the poems would be failures. Perhaps they are — readers will have to judge that for themselves. The subtitle of the sequence indicates that I have "selected, arranged, and augmented" Dickinson's lines. In the first four poems I had simply used each of her quotations as the first stanza of a poem, breaking the passage at the ends of phrases — what William Carlos Williams called "the breath pause" — and writing subsequent stanzas in the syllabic line-lengths into which Dickinson's phrases had happened to fall. For instance, the first stanza of the first poem fell into the form of a quatrain the lines of which happen to be 6-6-8 and -6 syllables long; thus, the succeeding stanzas are quatrains with the same syllable counts line for line.
At times I have done little more than select a complete passage from a particular letter and cast it into syllabic prosody; more often, I have taken lines from various letters and arranged them in some sort of order. Reasonably often I have "augmented" Dickinson's lines with my own. Some poems are almost entirely hers, others are more mine then hers, but the shortest poem in the series may serve as an example of the method of composition I used most often:
A one-armed man conveyed the flowers.
I gave him half a smile.
The first line is Dickinson's, the second is mine.
On one occasion, when I was giving a reading from these poems in Portland, Oregon, I was accused by a woman of "tampering with an American classic," but this is not so. I have touched none of the canon of that classic, the poems themselves; I have worked only with her letters, which few people read. If any of these poems work, then all I have done is bring to the attention of a modern audience a number of Emily Dickinson's beautiful and startling observations that would otherwise have stayed buried in the bulk of her prose.
This, it seems to me, would be a shame. I have never met a person who had such a brilliantly wide-ranging mind, or such an ability to toss off, seemingly at random and on any occasion, images as arresting and colorful as any in American poetry, or to match in depth of perception and succinctness of expression the flowers of anyone's intellectual garden, as in this cento titled
THE WINTER GARDEN
It is November. The noons are more
laconic and the sundowns sterner.
November always seemed to me
the Norway of the year. A neighbor
put her child into an ice nest last
Monday forenoon. Sharper than dying
is the death for the dying's sake.
I cannot stoop to strut in a world
where bells toll — frost is no respecter
of persons, and yet the wind blows gay
today; jays bark like blue terriers.
My heart is red as February
and purple as March, for I taste life —
it is a vast morsel. If we knew
how deep the crocus lay, we should
never let her go. The gentian is
a greedy flower, and overtakes
us all. Although death grasps the proudest
zinnia from my purple garden,
blossoms belong to the bee. I would —
eat evanescence slowly — my winter
flowers are near and foreign. I have
only to cross the floor to stand
among the Isles of Spice and Summer.
And here is an epitaph for Emily which appears in the forthcoming Wesli Court's Epitaphs for the Poets from BrickHouse Books:
R.I.P. EMILY DICKINSON
December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886
The Maid of Amherst, Emily
Dickinson, sang quietly
Far from the roar of the madding throng,
But now she holds her breath too long.
“A Suite for Emily” first appeared in the periodical Escarpments, ii:1, Spring 1981; These poems and all the other poems in the series titled “A Sampler of Hours: Poems and Centos from Lines in Emily Dickinson’s Letters” are available in two books that are in print (in 2011): Emily Dickinson, Woman of Letters by Lewis Turco, Albany: SUNY PRESS , 1993; hardbound, $39.95, wrappers, $14.95. ORDER FROM AMAZON, which contains essays by various scholars, and Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM which contains the entire sequence titled “A Sampler of Hours.”
For information regarding the forthcoming Wesli Court's Epitaphs for the Poets from BrickHouse Books please query:
In the early 1960s I was teaching at Fenn College, at that time a private, downtown engineering school located in Cleveland, Ohio; it has since become Cleveland State University. The instructorship in English was my first full-time teaching job after finishing graduate work in the Writer's Workshop of the University of Iowa. Fenn College was essentially three buildings — a skyscraper, a smaller building beside it on Euclid Avenue, and, beside Fenn Tower there was a parking lot facing Stillwell Hall, the nearly block-long building across 24th Street — formerly an automobile showroom — where most of the classes were held.
Loring Williams, Lewis Turco, James L. Weil in class at Fenn
I was younger than most beginning instructors because, having finished the coursework for my M. A., though not the degree itself, I had decided not to work toward a Ph.D. At my interview I had told Dr. Randolph Randall — “'Dolph,” the department chairman who was considering hiring me — that I was a publishing writer and that I wanted to do my own work rather than some academic advisor's pet graduate project. I had thought that this would lose me the job, but I didn't at the time realize that 'Dolph had himself taken thirty years to get his Ph.D. and was a missionary in the Great Cause of Postgraduate Education. He evidently thought he saw in me someone whom he could eventually persuade to do the right thing, at least to make a start. 'Dolph gave me the job, and when I arrived on campus I found that the department was half full of people who had been "working on" their terminal degrees for considerable lengths of time.
I soon found that I hated teaching the "socially conscious" novels we had to read in the third quarter of freshman composition: McTeague, Bleak House, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets. I had nothing against social consciousness, for I was reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time to my classes as it was being serialized in The New Yorker. I simply felt we ought to be engaging students with material that they recognized as applying to their lives and times, not The Great Depression of their parents and, I might add, my own: I had been born in 1934, the center of it.
The novels had been chosen by 'Dolph himself, without consultation with his faculty upon whom he looked as "sons" — I suppose there must have been a woman or two on the staff, but I don't recall any. I wasn't alone in my loathing of these works by Lewis, Dreiser, Hardy and Dickens, but I was the only one who dared to speak up about it.
The second year I taught at Fenn 'Dolph had some sort of stroke and was hospitalized for nearly the entire year. The Department got together while he was gone and reorganized the composition course. The bad novels were out. When 'Dolph returned my third year, the books were back in. He couldn't believe that his little family of “scholars” would do something like this to him; therefore, irrationally, he blamed me for it. He never accused me in so many words, thus I couldn't explain to him that I wasn't a majority of the department in and of myself and could not have voted the old curriculum out unilaterally. I was even slow to realize what was in his mind.
His position became apparent, however, when I began my fourth year. The school had a rule that an instructor had, at the end of that year, to be promoted to assistant professor or be let go. There were no rules about one's having to work on a doctorate in order to be promoted, but there was one that said an instructor could be let go for "lack of professional development." I felt that this could not be invoked against me because I had published in 1960 as a selection of The Book Club for Poetry my First Poems (no one else in the Department could claim authorship of a book…or of much of anything else, for that matter); I had held a Bread Loaf poetry fellowship in 1961, finished work on and received my M. A. at Iowa, and issued an award-winning chapbook of poems, The Sketches, in 1962, not to mention many poems, stories, reviews and essays in journals, some of them first-rate academic quarterlies. And, while my chairman was in the hospital, I had founded at Fenn College the Poetry Center of Cleveland, an institution that subsequently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1986, long after I had left.
Yet 'Dolph did invoke the rule when I asked him at mid-year 1963-64 what he was going to do, as I had to make plans for the following year if I were not going to be retained. His decision raised a furor among my colleagues and the students. My office mate that same year had washed out of his Ph.D. program for the second and final time, but at least he had tried, so the chairman retained him against the College’s policy. None of the rest of my colleagues were trying to improve upon their Master’s degrees — I was the only member of the English faculty that was to be terminated.
The students wanted to stage a protest in my behalf, but I talked them out of it. "I don't want to stay here if they don't want a writer," I told them, "and a protest would only make it harder for me to find another job." Still, they wanted to do something, especially Russell Salamon, the student editor of The Fenn Literary Omnibus, the undergraduate magazine, of which I was faculty advisor.
As events unfolded themselves, the furor poeticus asserted itself in me, and I wrote two poems. One of them was titled "Scarecrow," a satire against 'Dolph who was seen in the poem as a scarecrow lording it over a field full of pumpkins, my colleagues in the English Department (listen to Lewis Turco read his poem Scarecrow:
We pumpkins worship you. We orange globes,
harrowed in youth, hollow in our old age,
aspire to your straw. In the darkness
of our swelling and decay, in our days
of rook pestilence and the owl's blight
which scampers among the vines we spin in
furrows and the furbelows of weed, we
do you homage. All honor, Scarecrow! You
there, sunstruck, eminent among us, rag
lord of moonlight, crucified among stars,
sighted as none of us may be. The world
in which we root unrolls unendingly
beneath your gaze, furlongs your province.
We pumpkins worship you, we orange globes.
I cannot see. Buttons for eyes, what would
I see? If I could hear, the crows' whispers
could tell me only of some simple fields,
potato-eyed and corn-eared, extending
to limits that would only barb my sleeve
and rend my cloth, if I could walk to them.
You worhip me? a pole for a spine, a
timber for my extended bone, fingers
of hay stolen by wrens? I bleach and shake,
I shudder in the moon's dark. Pumpkins, crowd
of orange globes, I whistle in the wind.
Scarecrow, we too would whistle in the wind.
The other poem, “The Garden,” later titled "Pocoangelini 15," was specifically about my fellow faculty in the College who were symbolized collectively as a rabbit in a desert full of desks into which surrealistically the rabbit begins to be pressed by the greenboard. The rabbit, his hide and ears caught in the cactus plants of the desert, starts to fall apart. His brain is exposed as a system of "wheels, tappets and cogs, catches." His skin cracks, and out of his split paunch "a cloud of beautiful moths blooms and / dies in the desert air, like dry fire / among the desks."
Behind the great white rabbit a green wall
of petrified moss undulates toward
myopia in two directions at
least, indecisively. Their eyes glares of
shadow, the pupils waver among desks
and aisles. The sunlight, such as it is, sinks
in oily patches into the tiles. On
his lectern a book opens upon a
wilding garden: runes wrestle with birdseed;
weeds fire pods point-blank upon lines that worm
and writhe. Good loam is overlaid with lye
Their eyes glares of shadow, the
pupils waver and wait. The arms of their
desks spread and dune. His nose wrinkling in the
dry weather, his ears limping and folding,
the rabbit nudges aside an old nail,
sinks his lips into the garden before
him, nibbles and notes. The pupils, their eyes
glares of shadow, wait and waver. Their hands
lose themselves like cactuses flowering
in desert places.
The great white rabbit
gazes out toward the dun horizon.
In his garden sunlight strangles among
creepers and split berries. Behind him a
wall of petrified moss undulates and
presses — his tail, whisking among powdered
bodies of calcified molluscs, spreads a
film of nervous dust over rump and rock.
The pupils waver and wait, their eyes glares
Movement. The lectern, garden
and all, glides forward, slowly, over the
oily tiles. The white rabbit, rigid, slides
pinkly into the sand; the pupils, their
eyes glare and shadow, watering, wait.
ear, flailing above the gorgeous volume,
caught in a cactus, tears off revealing:
a small hole. Within, tickings and whirlings
of wheels, tappets and catches. The rabbit,
squealing and flopping among the dunes, is
seared by a finger of sun. His skin peels
and blisters. Out of the cracked hide of his
paunch a cloud of beautiful moths blooms and
dies in the desert air, like dry fire
among the desks. Their eyes glares of shadow,
the pupils waver and wait. In the loam
of the wilding garden lines writhe and worm.
Russ Salamon saw both poems one day lying on my desk. I was busy with another student, so he read them while he sat waiting to speak with me. When I turned to him he said, "May I use these in the next issue of the magazine?" I was reluctant to agree, but he was importunate, so I at last consented to compromise by letting him publish the diatribe against the faculty, but not the one against 'Dolph.
On the day that The Fenn Literary Omnibus was ready at the printer's I was sitting in my office. Russ came in and said, "I have the magazines."
"Okay," I said, "give me a stack and distribute the rest." He went out, and I sat back to look over the issue. Russell went across the street to distribute the magazines in the lobby in front of the large room that was the snack bar of Stillwell Hall.
It was at the moment he set up shop that an ambulance pulled to a stop in front of Fenn Tower. The medics took an elevator up to my chairman's office and removed him on a stretcher — it appeared that he had had another stroke.
Later that day I went to the snack bar for lunch where I sat at a table with a colleague, Bill Cherubini, and it was there that I found out what had happened, as the incident was the talk of the school. Everyone also had a copy of the magazine and had been reading it.
As we were sitting discussing both the chairman's stroke and the magazine Joseph Ink, a member of the history faculty known as “India” Ink because Indian history was his specialty, walked by with a tray of food. "Congratulations," he said. "You got him."
"I got him?" I asked. "Who?"
"Oh, don't give me that," he said, "I read the poem about 'Dolph"
"You mean the poem in the magazine?"
"That's not about 'Dolph, it's about all of you rabbits," I said, for the local A. A. U. P. chapter had conducted an investigation and issued a report in triplicate saying that I ought to have been renewed; one copy had gone to me, one to 'Dolph, and the third had gone into the A. A. U. P. files. No one else ever saw it.
"Oh, sure, sure," he said. "But he's in the hospital, isn't he?" He turned and began walking away.
Furious, I shouted after him, "I thought historians were supposed to deal in facts!"
I turned to my colleague Bill and asked, "What in the hell is he talking about?"
"He thinks your poem caused 'Dolph's stroke."
"'Dolph never even saw the poem!"
Billl looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and leered like a satyr. He said nothing. The import of the situation began to blossom in me like a spray of belladonna. I stared back. "But that's witchcraft," I said. "He's accusing me of witchcraft!" Bill merely continued to smile at me, his teeth beginning to show and his eyes to darken. His black hair fell forward over his brow.
That was when I understood that we haven't changed. It's still the Middle Ages, even — perhaps especially — in academe where at commencement we still wear our robes, hoods, and mortar boards. Science hasn't ousted magic, and the poet is still the priest who knows the Secret Names of things, the formulae that will invoke the powers of darkness, even when he doesn't know he's doing it, even when he believes he's doing something else. Auden's remark that "Poetry makes nothing happen" is merely lip-service to reason.
All of this is ancient history and ought to have been wound in mummy tapes and interred in the graves of Academe, but on Thursday, June 4, 2010, William Becker, archivist of Cleveland State University, sent me this email: “Came across this Cauldron article. It is unlike other articles that appeared the first year [that Fenn College became Cleveland State University] in that it cites a departmental matter that happened back when the school was still Fenn. Apparently ‘Dolph felt that there was still some need to justify his decision, otherwise why would it have been brought it up?”
He attached this article:
M.A. NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR RANDALL
The Cauldron, Cleveland State University, May 11, 1966.
Dr. Randolph Randall, head of the English Department at Cleveland State University disclosed to the Cauldron, in an exclusive interview, the basic English Department policy in regard to the hiring of new teachers of Freshman English. Dr. Randall said that all new teachers are hired on a one year temporary appointment. He said that this appointment can be extended for one year after the initial admission as a faculty member, but after that time, if the teacher is not given a permanent position, he must leave the faculty. Dr. Randall said that any teacher with just an M. A. degree would not be reappointed after the two-year extension.
The basic purpose of such a plan, Dr. Randall pointed out, was that it encouraged teachers to continue their studies toward the Ph.D. Dr. Randall stated that it was his opinion that education was the ideal that all teachers should strive for, and that the American Ph.D. program was best suited to fulfill this ideal. If the teacher has no desire to continue his [sic] formal education, then the university has no desire to continue his appointment as a faculty member. Teachers retained from Fenn College, Dr. Randall said, would not be affected, although they, too, will be urged to continue work towards the Ph.D.
Several years ago, Lewis P. Turco, then an English Instructor and poet at Fenn College, felt that his endeavors in poetic expression took precedence over further institutional education. He felt that his education was adequate and that he was keeping up in his field sufficiently; Dr. Randall felt otherwise, and Mr. Turco was subsequently refused reappointment.
Dr. Randall stated that he felt there is no satisfactory career in college teaching without the Ph.D. He said, furthermore, that he did not feel that a teacher could successfully extend the scope of his education on his own initiative without the support of the educational institution. He qualified his statement by saying that he could not consider a person, without a Ph.D., fully educated until he had shown evidence, perhaps through publication of scholarly treatises, of his knowledge. He pointed out that George Syman Kiethredge [sic, he meant George Lyman Kittredge] at Harvard, has published several scholarly books which scholars generally regard as the equivalent of the degree. Dr. Randall made it clear that the Administration policy demands that he hire more Ph.D.s and that the proportion of Ph.D.s on the faculty be predominant. Such a policy gains prestige for the University and is generally impressive in rating boards, and attractive to other high-grade prospects throughout the country. One major problem, he pointed out, was, as usual, money. To attract talent, the pay scale must be attractive also
Dr. Randall has visited such universities as Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Yale, and Ohio State University, in an effort to appraise their procedures and, at the same time, to gain insights which will improve CSU’s present policies.
I owe the late Dr. ‘Dolph Randall, Ph.D., my gratitude — I truly do — for two things: for giving me my first teaching job in higher education, and for giving me my walking papers out of Cleveland. I retired from the academic life in 1996 after more than three-dozen years of service, thirty-one of them in the State University of New York. Maybe I owe him thanks for a third thing as well: the two honorary doctorates I have since received for my creative and scholarly work.
"Scarecrow" is from
Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
Yaddo is the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs that abuts the Saratoga Raceway. I spent the month of July 1959 there between my stint at the University of Connecticut as both undergraduate and, during the spring semester, grad student-part-time-instructor of English, and my transfer to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the following fall. One of my new Yaddo friends was the artist Roger Crossgrove who, coincidentally, would become a member of the UConn faculty.
Roger and I were having lunch in my room one day, and the conversation turned to how quickly or slowly one might compose a poem or work of art. The evening before he and I, and several others, had gone to a bar located across from the race track to drink and listen to live jazz. We were attended by a young waitress named Lorrie with whom we flirted and exchanged banter.
One of the features of jazz, of course, is improvisation which is no less a feature of poetry composition worldwide, as for instance in contemporary hip-hop and in the qasida or, particularly, the ghazal of Arabic poetry. Poe’s “The Bells” was discussed in the twentieth century as a “jazz poem” written before jazz had been invented.
While we ate our lunch I told Roger how fast I could write. I boasted that I could compose a decent poem in twenty minutes or less. He didn’t believe it, so I said, “Okay, I’ll prove it.” I took a pad of paper and a pencil off the table and said, “Give me a subject.”
“How about our waitress, Lorrie, at the bar last night?” Roger suggested. This is what I wrote (listen to Lewis Turco read his poem Lorrie):
The poem was published in The Carolina Quarterly in 1961; I included it in my master’s thesis at Iowa, Summer’s Raceway, in 1962 and in my chapbook, The Sketches of Lewis Turco, the same year. I read it as part of a poetry reading at George Washington University somewhere around the same time, or perhaps a bit later. Afterward a young black man, a student, came up to me and said, “A white man isn’t supposed to be able to write like that.” I guess it was a good thing I didn’t know that.
Many years later, in 1984 during my tenure as a professor at the State University of New York College at Oswego, my friend and colleague George O’Connell, a printmaker and amateur jazz musician who played the vibes in local combos and orchestras, decided he was in love with “Lorrie,” and he made an Xmas card of it that year, which we sent around.
In 1989 George made an entire artist-book of the poem* and gave it to me as a birthday present in 1996, the year I retired from teaching. I have posted the images on my blog, Poetics and Ruminations. It’s a beautiful production.
*Lorrie, Poem by Lewis Turco, Drawings by George O'Connell, Oswego, NY: Grey Heron Press, copyright 1989, all rights reserved.
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.