Recently an American teaching in Japan, Alzo David-West, wrote to ask me about a book he had found in his college library:
Dear Professor Turco,
Greetings. I am an American lecturer of English in the Department of British and American Studies at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan. In another academic universe, I am also an associate editor for the social science and area studies journal North Korean Review at the University of Detroit Mercy.
I am writing to say that I had the chance to happily discover your Poetry: An Introduction through Writing (1973) at the campus library here at APU. Despite my fondness for reading and writing poetry on occasion, my areas were novels and short stories when I studied for my degrees in English; and as you write in your colorful introduction to Poetry, I too “do not know the different prosodies of poetry” nor have I heard of “dipodics.”
As I am quite eager to learn more about these things, I have found your book to be a useful and friendly guide -- clear language, concrete explanations, and authentic examples -- in helping me become more aware of the types, structures, modes, and genres of poetry. Needless to say, I will shortly be getting a copy of your Book of Forms.
Meanwhile, reading Poetry my other academic incarnation has taken an interest in the chapter “Minor Genres: Didactics.” Basically, I am researching didactic poetry from North Korea, and in a paper I am writing, I describe one such poem as a “verse speech.” Interestingly, you use the term “verse essay” to describe didactic poetry in general.
Again, it is a pleasure for me to read your book, and thank you for writing it. That said, if it is not too much trouble, I hope we can exchange some emails in the future or now and then on poems and prosodies.
Aichi Prefectural University
Aichi 480-1198 Japan
On Tuesday, September 30, 2014, at 9:58 PM I replied:
Thank you, Prof. David-West,
For your very kind message. I'm happy that you found my ancient text and that it was of use to you. I'd be pleased to correspond with you from time to time. You may be interested to know that my Book of Forms contains most of the information in the book you have, and that more material on nonfiction and fiction may be found in two companion volumes, The Book of Literary Terms and The Book of Dialogue, all from the same publisher, UPNE, in uniform format.
Do you know Jesse Glass, an American poet who has lived in Japan for many years? He is publisher of Ahadada books. One of his on-line, free, downloadable poetry chapbooks is my Attic, Shed and Barn.
Dear Professor Turco,
How are you? Thank you for pointing me to your two other books. I will make sure to get all three of the UPNE volumes for my personal library.
Jesse Glass is new to me, but I did read his online edition of your chapbook over the weekend. (It is now Monday morning here in Japan.) “Attic, Shed, and Barn” and “John’s Telescope” are outstanding; “Bikes” reminded me of a similar accident I had as a child, and the vivid scene made me jot down “Yikes!”; “Spiders” communicates an excellent sense of observation; and “Ballpoints” made me ask, “Why so sad?”
All your poems are concrete and real, not abstract and ideal. (Btw, am I correct to describe your poems as “narrative poems”? In Poetry, you say narratives are a major genre.) Several images and phrases stood out to me.
I am glad I had the opportunity to read your poetry. May I ask for your permission to use “Attic, Shed, and Barn” and “John’s Telescope” in some of my English courses this semester?
I guess I haven't mentioned that I have been to Japan, as a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, in late summer and the fall of 1954. I attach a PDF chapbook of poems written in the Japanese verse forms and published back in 1980. Charles E. Tuttle Co., published the anthology I mentioned in my last email message, Japan: Theme and Variations: A Collection of Poems by American Writers.
I don't have a copy of that here in Oswego, NY, where we are spending a couple of months before we go back to Maine, so I looked it up on Amazon and discovered that there is now a Kindle edition of it! Since I own a Kindle, I ordered it, received it immediately, and found that I had won third prize in the Tuttle contest! I had forgotten that completely, as well as two of the poems I have in the anthology. It's amazing to return in time to one's youth!
Dear Professor Turco,
How are you? After reading your two chapbooks [Attic, Shed, and Barn and Seasons of the Blood,] I have decided to get a copy of your Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems, 1959-2007. (Is the title a play on William Blake’s phrase “fearful symmetry”?) There is a lot I am learning from your poetry, and for my aesthetic and literary enrichment, I really should have everything you have composed. I am looking forward to the publication of your epic poem The Hero Enkidu next year. Btw, I very much enjoyed your anecdote about Campbell Black.
About Japan: Theme and Variations, I will place an interlibrary loan order for it with my university library. Meanwhile, I was able to access part of the text at Google Books, and I could read your poems “New Song for Nippon,” “Elegy to a Japanese Garden,” and “Melody for Kyushu.” The second “spatial poem” (a term I have picked up from your Poetry) struck me as verbally and visually exquisite. The work is emotionally and sensorily captivating, and the adverb “prismatically” in the typographic flow simply fascinates me. I am not surprised you won a prize for this poem.
Japan must have been a very special experience when you were in the Navy in 1954. I recall another writer, Gerald Vizenor, who was in the Army in Japan at the same time. He has several collections of haiku, but I have only read his novel Hiroshima Bugi: Atomu 57.
P.S. I read Seasons of the Blood immediately upon receiving the PDF, and I found the artistic persona to be different, more esoteric, than in Attic, Shed, and Barn. Still, there are similarities and resonances despite the differences.
How have you been? Thank you for your last email and the wonderful neologism "pecuniast." I was delighted to learn of "Wesli Court," and I perused some of the available pages of The Collected Lyrics at Amazon.com. The poem "It Goes" seizes me somehow, and the phrase "souls of brontosaurs" is amazing. Who is "leola," by the way? I am constantly impressed by your poems and their range, and I fully agree with your artistic view that "the more one knows how to do, the more one can do."
Btw, here is some cliched and cringy piffle I jotted down a couple of weeks ago while my students were doing in-class work:
Her face is like the sun,
And when she smiles,
I feel so warm.
I kiss her in my dreams,
And my tears fall like rain.
We are doing poetry analysis (most important images, feelings and ideas, revealed truth) in my reading courses this semester, and I needed a simplistic example (alongside the better work) to help the students in one of the classes.
While I told them this bad sentimental poem is "not so good," they found what it was saying (desire, happiness, love, sadness) and how it is saying it sufficiently clear. I suggested "unrealized love."
But to get back to your point of creative knowledge, versatility, and practice, the illustrated limitations of the poem are formularism and tired phrases. Those lines have probably been written thousands of times before, and I was apparently following the six-step formula in Poetry for Rod McKuen's poems!
As [Richard] Londraville puts it in your book, "Formulas pander to those who prefer not to have to use their minds very much. [...] Formulas demand nothing except that one respond to them in superficial, automatic ways" (p. xix). Unlike formula poetry, true poetry allows us to "express or understand what is deepest inside the human mind and spirit" (p. xix).
Several of my students do not yet grasp the aesthetic significance of true poetry, and a few of them respond to emotionally searching and thought-provoking work in the most small-minded and egocentric ways. Here are two such cases on Langston Hughes' "Problems":
* "This is bad because it is not easy -- difficult."
* "This poem is not good because I can't understand it."
Comments like this, which are fortunately in the minority, say more about the reader than the poem.
“Leola” is no one, Alzo, a fictive character.
The poem is written in the form of a triversen. It's very early; I wrote it while I was in the navy.
Thanks for your newsy message. It sounds as though you're having a good time in the classroom. That's as it should be. I greatly enjoyed teaching myself.
I am very happy to learn about the triversen form. I looked up pages 95 to 97 in Poetry for the explanation and examples. I will have to make a closer study of accentual prosodies.
On "It Goes," it is to the merit of the poem that it made me ask who "leola" is. Perhaps a mimetic element in the fictive poetic world compelled the question. What is the authorial intention in the poem?
it goes away, leola,
as the rabble hooves have gone:
the prairies linger.
none, no, none may know
the sable mane for long,
nor the stallion’s great desire.
The souls of brontosaurs may run
their feathers course
for all I know, leola.
this is true, though:
between the continents.
look through a hollow rush,
leola; sight is limited
and vaguely dry.
peer through your flesh
or mine, leola —
what do you see?
Apologies for the delayed reply. I hope all has been well. Thank you for posting the selections from our 2014 correspondence. Writing last year was a great joy for me. That said, I am happy to inform you that I assigned six poems from your Fearful Pleasures for out-of-class reading and reading reports in two of my reading courses this semester:
(1) “The Looking-Glass,” (2) “Sturgeon Moon” (a wonderful poem from a wonderful series), (3) “Ginger,” (4) “An Amherst Pastoral,” (5) “Burning the News” (a most relevant and topical poem today), (6) “The Girl You Thought You Loved”
At the end of the semester, the students will do presentations on a poem of their choice, any that they feel is most emotionally and intellectually interesting. I personally hope to write a paper on “Burning the News” in the near future. When I read the poem, it immediately communicated to my intuition that the subject was the Vietnam War:
BURNING THE NEWS
Listen to the author read his poem "Burning the News."
The fire is eating
the paper. The child who drowned
is burned. Asia is in flames.
As he signs his great
bill, a minister of state chars
at the edges and curls
into smoke. The page rises,
glowing, over our neighbor's
roof. In the kitchens
clocks turn, pages turn like gray wings,
slowly, over armchairs.
Another child drowns, a bill
is signed, and the pen blackens.
The smoke of Asia
drifts among the neighbors like mist.
It is a good day for burning.
The fire is eating the news.
Although the trope is “Asia,” the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk in Saigon in 1963 was the first (received) memory the work evoked in me. I now see that “Burning the News” was published in 1968; yet what is notable is that the poem is not out-of-date. As long as there are great-power conflicts and wars in Asia, the poem remains current.
Btw, I read your reminiscence, “Horneteers,” a few months ago, and the piece struck me as captivatingly literary, indeed much like a short story. Some scenes that I found quite memorable were of the arrival and adventure in Cuba, “Hong Kong: King Kong of the Chinese Coast,” and the fighter plane and the trapped pilot sinking into the sea.
Sometime later, in the last two weeks of March, I accidentally discovered your online story “Silence.” After reading it, I was compelled to gather all your other tales available in Per Contra, Nights and Weekends, and Tower Journal. Up until that time, I was not aware that the famous American poet Lewis Turco is also a fiction writer.
Altogether, there were over 45,000 words on 118 pages that I printed out (two pages per sheet, double-sided). I read the stories on and off while the family and I were vacationing in the Japanese countryside. I see you write comfortably in the speculative- and memoir-fiction genres, and I did enjoy a number of your narratives a great deal.
Six stories that distinguish themselves to me in aesthetic and literary terms are (1) “The Chair,” (2) “The Demon in the Tree” (what a laugh I had at the end), (3) “The Ferry,” (4) “Kelly” (I recalled Asimov’s “The Last Question”) (5) “Matinee,” and (6) “Silence.” They are thoughtful, engaging stories. I would recommend them all to others.
It sounds as though you've been exceedingly busy since last we corresponded. That's an interesting and unusual choice of poems for your classes! I look forward to hearing the outcome of the assignment.
Yes, “Burning the News” was written during the Vietnam War, so-called. It appeared in several anti-war anthologies during that period, and on-line as recently as last year in voxpoplisphere.com/2014/12/14/. .
“Horneteers” [published in Portland (Maine) magazine for April 2015] was, in fact, resurrected from the World Cruise Book of the USS Hornet (CVA12), for which I wrote quite a number of essays. In fact, not long ago I went back to look at the credits listed in that volume, and discovered, I think for the first time, that I was the only enlisted man who wrote for the volume, and that I wrote more than anyone else! I was about 20 years old at the time and just beginning to publish poems in the journals (including Our Navy). The officer who asked me to write was Lt.(jg) Douglas Kiker, who later became a journalist for one of the major TV networks. He is long dead, but I owe him a debt of gratitude.
You didn’t need to search the whole internet to find my stories, there are links to all of them on my blog, “Poetics and Ruminations” at www.lewisturco.net. My stories are collected in The Museum of Ordinary People, and my memoirs in Fantaseers. Just log on to Amazon.com for a complete list of my titles. Save yourself some work.
Best wishes to you and yours,
From The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004, 460 pp., ISBN 1-932842-00-4, jacketed cloth; ISBN 1-932842-01-2, trade paperback. Also available from Amazon.com in a Kindle edition.