Howard Nemerov came to Cleveland early in 1964, as I recall it, and he stayed with Jean and me in our Euclid, Ohio, apartment. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and we got into a conversation about that periodical. I maintained that there was such a thing as a New Yorker poem, and Howard adamantly denied it. If so, he asked, what were its characteristics?
At the moment I couldn’t answer, but when he had gone home I went to the library and got a bunch of past issues of the magazine and went through the poems in them. I made a list of the characteristics of a typical New Yorker poem:
Most of the poems were written in meters, but the rhythms were easy and the diction was conversational on an intelligent and educated level.
There was rhyme, but the rhymes were often consonances, and there was a fair amount of light rhyming; that is, pairing a rising line ending with a falling one.
The settings of many of the poems were spots in Europe.
There was often water.
There were animals and birds, but all of them were small.
The colors were muted, the tone pensive.
Once I had figured these things out I sat down and wrote a poem titled “Pompeii: The Fountain” that had all the qualities I’d listed. I had been to Pompeii while I was in the Navy in the early ‘fifties — I couldn’t remember if it really had a fountain in the square but I needed the water. I sent it to The New Yorker:
the world goodnight: they are furnished with rainbows
for a moment. An
aubade shall issue from them
tomorrow, burnished sparks of matinsong banked now
for the evening in shadows and
dust. The square fills with strollers. In the near distance
night flings a star skyward.
An eruption of silence faults
for a moment this murmurous village of strangers.
In the cafes, lights now — and in
the fountain perpetual rain whose mist withers
among footfall and
laughter. But the girl who leans
against the curving basin, among the gulls, seems
not to hear the curious voices
of the square. No footfall disturbs her musing:
she holds the water's fire. She is beautiful.
In due course I received this letter from the poetry editor of The New Yorker, Howard Moss:
THE NEW YORKER
No 25 WEST 43rd STREET
NEW YORK, 36, N. Y.
10 March 1964
Dear Mr. Turco,
In spite of admiring many things in Pompeii, I’m sorry to have to say that we finally decided against it. We’ve published so many poems on places in Europe, Italy in particular, that we’re cautious about buying others. This may be more of a problem of ours than of yours or anyone else’s, but I did want to tell you so that you would understand our reasons and not think we rejected the poem because we didn’t like it. We just feel that only poems we really can’t resist of this kind should appear in the magazine, since I think that we’ve covered the whole map of Europe over the last ten years.
[An irrelevant paragraph has been deleted here.]
Thanks for sending us these poems, and please keep trying us with others.
/s/ Howard Moss
I thought Moss’ answer was hysterically funny, and I felt vindicated, but I didn’t want to offend Nemerov, so I never told him about it.
There is, however, a sequel. One day while I was in Hillsdale, Michigan, teaching at Hillsdale College where I went from Fenn later in 1964, I wrote another poem that I thought The New Yorker might like, but I didn’t want it to be submitted as an orphan and I had nothing to include in the same envelope except “An Ordinary Evening in Cleveland,” a long poem I’d sent around and around — twenty-two times! I couldn’t imagine The New Yorker liking it for various reasons including its length, its melancholy mood, and its surreal imagery, but I decided to use it as an envelope stuffer anyway:
AN ORDINARY EVENING IN CLEVELAND
Just so it goes: the day, the night —
what have you. There is no one on TV;
shadows in the tube, in the street.
In the telephone there are echoes and mumblings,
the buzz of hours falling thru wires.
And hollow socks stumbling across
the ceiling send plaster dust sifting down
hourglass walls. Felix the cat has
been drawn on retinas with a pencil of light.
I wait gray, small in my cranny,
for the cardboard tiger on the
kitchen table to snap me, shredded, from
Over the trestle go
the steel beetles grappled tooth-and-tail — over and
over and over there smokestacks
lung tall hawkers into the sky's
spittoon. The street has a black tongue: do you
hear him, Mistress Alley, wooing
you with stones? There are phantoms in that roof's trousers;
they kick the wind. The moon, on a
ladder, is directing traffic
now. You can hardly hear his whistle. The
oculist's jeep wears horn rim wind
shields; the motor wears wires on its overhead valves —
grow weary, weary, sad siren,
you old whore. It's time to retire.
The wail of the child in the next room quails
like a silverfish caught in a
thread. It is quiet now. The child's sigh rises to
flap with a cormorant's grace through
the limbo of one lamp and a
slide-viewer in your fingers: I cannot
get thin enough for light to shine
my color in your eyes; there is no frame but this for
the gathering of the clan. Words
will stale the air. Come, gather up
our voices in the silent butler and
pour them into the ashcan of
love. Look, my nostrils are dual flues; my ears are
the city dump; my eyes are the
very soul of trash; my bitter
tongue tastes like gasoline in a ragged
The child cries again. Sounds
rise by the riverflats like smoke or mist in time's
bayou. We are sewn within seines
of our own being, thrown into
menaces floating in shadows, taken
without volition like silver
fish in an undertow down the river, down time
and smog of evenings.
The child cries.
Do you hear the voice of wire?
Do you hear the child swallowed by carpets,
the alley eating the city,
rustling newsprint in the street begging moonlight with
a tin cup and a blindman's cane?
The lamps are rheumy in these tar
avenues. Can you sense the droppings of
flesh falling between walls falling,
the burrowings of nerves in a cupboard of cans?
Can you hear the roar of the mouse?
There is nothing but the doorway
sighing; here there is nothing but the wind
swinging on its hinges, a fly
dusty with silence and the house on its back buzzing
with chimneys, walking on the sky
like a blind man eating fish in an empty room.
And that is how “An Ordinary Evening in Cleveland” became the first poem of mine that The New Yorker ever published. I had proved that there was such a thing as a “New Yorker poem,” but Nemerov was vindicated as well because the magazine also published lots of poems that were not at all typical of its typical poems.
Both poems are included in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2007. I should note that “The Fountain” was recast as a quantitative syllabic poem, like “An Ordinary Evening in Cleveland,” since it was originally published as described above, though all other features remain the same.
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.