Wesli Court Self-Interview Wesli Court is interviewed by Lewis Turco about his new collection titled The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems.
Traveler's Moon Photograph by Adel Gorgy
Three Poems “Domestic Duties Scorecard,” “Leftover Shakespearean Gnomes,” "Tsunami Strait."
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.
Fenn College - School of Arts & Sciences Lewis Turco's first creative writing class, with Loring Williams (left) and James L. Weil (right): the beginning of The Cleveland State University Poetry Center
In the summer of 2012 the Dutch composer
Walter Hekster and his wife Alice van Leuvan Hekster who had been a fellow
classmate of my wife, Jean, and me at Meriden (CT) High School, class of 1952,
came to visit us in Dresden Mills, Maine, from their summer home in Higganum,
Connecticut. The four of us had a fine time, but Walter began to feel under the
their visit we were all supposed to attend our M.H.S. 60th class reunion, but
when Jean and I arrived we discovered that Walter had returned to The
Netherlands to see his doctors because he felt so ill.
I was in touch with Alice all fall, keeping tabs on
Walter -- for whom I had on several occasions been librettist, so we had been
expecting the sorry news of his passing. When I sent our condolences to Alice
she replied, “Oh Lew, thanks. You know how sick Walt was, and it just got
worse. I was with him and his Light just went out on New Years Eve.”
On Feb 8, 2013, Alice wrote, “We are going
to put Walt's ashes into the harbor here on Sunday the 17th (his wish)…. My
Auntie Margy is coming and I hope Marie [Delemarre Ho, also a classmate]. One
of my friends wrote a poem for the occasion, in Dutch. Could you?
Margy and Marie came [from the U. S.] yesterday! I can't believe it. Marie and
Margy and I loved it [the epitaph]! It was a beautiful day and a swan came by
with signets and got covered with Walt's ash.
This is the playlet I wrote that was
first published in Polemic of Western
Reserve University (now Case-Western Reserve of Cleveland, OH) Vol. XI, No. 1,
Winter, 1966; it was used as the libretto for The Fog: Chamber Opera in One Act
commissioned by the Twents Conservatorium, Enschede, Holland; music by Walter
Hekster, libretto by Lewis Turco, Amsterdam: Donemus, 1987. Folio, paper.
FOG: A CHAMBER OPERA IN ONE ACT
personae: Character A, Character B, and a Voice.
lights down, curtain up.
A bare stage. Two figures are seen standing center stage. It is difficult to
make out whether the figures are male or female, for a thick mist rolls in from
both stage right and stage left. One of the figures speaks.
Aren’t we supposed to get somewhere sometime? When are we going to get there?
It’s too soon to tell. Not enough time has passed.
(it is big and resonant). You’re almost there now. Don’t give up. You’ve almost
Who was that? What was that voice?
That was some Being who watches over us. I think it was God.
What kind of Being? It’s hard to make out any shape in this fog. I can heardly
see you, let alone a Voice. You look as though your body is made of shadow.
It’s possible I’m not even here. You could be talking to yourself. On the other
hand, perhaps I’m here and you’re not. Maybe the mist is a mirror.
I’ve thought of that. I’ve given that very thing a good deal of reflection as
we’ve been going along. But I can hear you breathing. Are you making this mist
with your breath? If so, I wish you’d cut it out so I can see God. I’d like to
find out who it is that’s talking to us.
We’re talking to each other. There’s no one else on this road.
But I think I heard a third voice. It came from somewhere overhead, I think.
Pay no attention. Just keep going.
The voice gave me courage. I’d like to hear it again.
What’s wrong with my voice? Isn’t the sound I make enough for you?
Yes.... No. That is, maybe. But what if it’s not your voice? What if it’s just
Then it’s an echo. It’s you giving yourself courage. So what? Isn’t that
I don’t think so. I don’t want to be alone with myself in all this fog. It’s a
frightening thing to think that I have to make it on my own. I don’t think I
could do it.
Where is it you think you’re going? Do you have a map?
No, and that’s why it’s frightening. I don’t trust my sense of direction.
There doesn’t seem to be any direction out here. Every way looks like every
That’s the other thing that’s bothering me. Even if I could trust my sense of
direction, I couldn’t trust the directions themselves.
Then why bother worrying? Just keep going. Follow me and don’t look back.
That’s the third thing. If I follow you, who am I following? And why should I
trust you any more than I trust myself? You might even be myself — we’ve been
all over that. I’d rather follow God. Maybe He can see better from up there — I
wish He’d speak again.
Keep going. You’re almost there.
There! There He is again. Let’s go.
Lead the way. I’m right behind you.
I thought I was following you! I thought you knew the way.
You’re leading now. I didn’t hear Him.
That’s very strange. His voice was clear as a bell.
He must have been talking to you alone. You’re in charge now. Which way?
The way we’re going must be right. He said we were almost there.
We’ve been standing still. We haven’t moved an inch.
That’s the fourth thing. The fog seems to be getting thicker. We’d better hold
hands so we don’t get lost. It would be death to be separated.
Now I’m beginning to be frightened. Here’s my hand.
Something solid at last! You’re not just my reflection after all.
Perhaps not. Anything is possible.
We still haven’t moved. Do you suppose we should try?
bell begins to ring offstage, and it continues to ring throughout the next
I was wondering when you’d get here. How do you do? I’m very happy to meet you
both. This is it. This is the end in view. (The bell stops ringing.)
Did you hear something just then? I thought I heard a bell ringing in the fog.
It was the wind, I think. Perhaps the mist is lifting a little.
Maybe so. Let’s wait here a little while and see if it clears up.
All right. I can wait.
figures stand together in the fog. A bell-buoy begins ringing somewhere
offstage and continues to ring for a while after all stage lights fade out and
all house lights down and out. Curtain.
Top left: Alice Van Leuvan [Hekster]; bottom center: Carolyn Pearson [Nelson].
The year 2012 ended badly for everyone
– I don’t need to mention all the storms and shootings, of adults and children, everywhere
in our nation, from coast to coast – but for my wife Jean and me and our high
school crowd, of whom I have written in my book Fantaseers:
A Book of Memories, and elsewhere, last year ended particularly
On Christmas Eve Carolyn Pearson Nelson
died out on Cape Cod after a long illness. When we were fellow members of the
Meriden, Connecticut, High School Class of 1952, I used to phone Carolyn almost
every evening to chat with her instead of doing my homework. Carolyn was a
lovely person and a dear friend for life. Like my wife Jean she had been a
member of the distaff wing of the male high school science-fiction reading club
we called “The Fantaseers.” When they got together, the females of our crowd
decided to call themselves “The Reesatnafs,” Fantaseers spelled backwards, and
when we all gathered we were thus “The Fantatnafs.”
Last summer the Dutch composer Walter
Hekster and his wife Alice van Leuvan Hekster, who like Carolyn had also been a
member of the Reesatnafs, came to visit us in Dresden Mills, Maine, from their
summer home in Higganum, Connecticut. The four of us had a fine time, but
Walter began to feel under the weather. After their visit we were all supposed
to attend our M.H.S. 60th class reunion, but when Jean and I arrived
we discovered that Walter had returned to The Netherlands to see his doctors
because he felt so ill.
Friday, January 4th, 2013, another of the Fantatnafs, Georgia Bradley Gast
(who had been instrumental in organizing the Reunion) phoned from Plymouth,
Massachusetts, to tell us that Walter had died in Holland. I had been in touch
with Alice all fall, keeping tabs on Walter for whom I had on several occasions
been librettist, so we had been expecting this sorry news. When I sent our
condolences to Alice she replied, “Oh Lew Thanks. You know how sick Walt was, and it
just got worse. I was with him and his Light just went out on New Years Eve.”
she called Georgia had astonished me by mentioning that the day before,
Thursday, the third, she had had her gall bladder removed. When I told her
that, Alice said, “I didn't know about Georgia; only Carolyn. What a sad time.”
spent the weekend considering what I ought to write to commemorate these
events, but I have decided that I’ve already written enough poems to cover this
universal situation, especially in my recent book of poetry The Gathering of the Eldersand
Other Poems (by my formalist verse alter ego “Wesli Court”), and most
especially in the poem titled “Year by Year”:
Yesterday, June 6, 2012, my boyhood idol and correspondent for more than forty years, Ray Bradbury, died in Los Angeles at the age of 91. One of my (advisedly) old friends in Connecticut — Pierre Bennerup who had been a member of the Fantaseers, our high school science-fiction reading club back in the early ‘50s — emailed me in late morning to tell me about Ray’s demise and provide me with a link, but I had already seen the article in the New York Times on my iPad not long after Claudette McFang, my cat, woke me up at abut 4:30 a.m. and asked me to let her out.
This morning I read Ray’s remembrance, “Take Me Home,” in The New Yorker’s science-fiction double issue for June 4 and 11, 2012, — how serendipitous can you get? His life has always been touched by magic, just as he wrote on his weblog “In His Words,”
It was an encounter with [a magician other than Blackstone] that changed my life forever.
During the Labor Day week of 1932 a favorite uncle of mine died; his funeral was held on the Labor Day Saturday. If he hadn't died that week, my life might not have changed because, returning from his funeral at noon on that Saturday, I saw [a] carnival tent down by Lake Michigan. I knew that down there, by the lake, in his special tent, was a magician named Mr. Electrico.
Mr. Electrico was a fantastic creator of marvels. He sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people, young and old, of Waukegan, Illinois. When the electricity surged through his body he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row below his platform. I had been to see Mr. Electrico the night before. When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, "Live forever!"
Well, he tried, and he came about as close as a mere mortal can come these days.
As a reader of science fiction when I was very young — what is called “speculative fiction” these days, I guess, and of fantasy — “magical realism” now, I soon understood the difference between the two, between, let’s say, the outer space and futuristic fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov or the beautiful, impossible worlds of Ray Bradbury and the terrifying eldritch horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft. (I couldn’t stay away from the Lovecraft book I owned, so when I was in the fifth grade I burned it in the gutter outside our rented home on West Third Street in Meriden, Connecticut…and then I spent years looking for a replacement. It is the only book I ever burned, and it shames me to this day, but one part of me was trying to save the other part of me that was afraid of the dark.) I enjoyed the one genre for its projections of a possible reality, and the other for its imaginary evocations of primal hopes, joys, fears, and sorrows.
Ray Bradbury was far and away my favorite living writer in any of these genres. My ambition, almost from the first moments I could read, was to write fantasy, and I did so, pecking away at them on my father’s old standard manual typewriter just as he pecked away at the same machine in his study, writing his own fantasies, the sermons he delivered from the pulpit every Sunday.
The summer of 1949, before I entered Meriden High School, I won third prize in a short story contest for high school students sponsored by the local paper in which it was published and for which I received actual money! In high school that fall my sophomore English teacher, Mary Flynn, took an interest in my stories and poems, and she was encouraging in every way. She suggested, however, that I put most of my effort into becoming a fiction writer rather than a poet because there was more chance I could make a living at it — those were the days when the slick magazines were publishing stories in every issue.
A bunch of us who were juniors and seniors and SF fans as well decided to establish an extra-curricular “science-fiction reading club” with a library of books that would be kept at my house. We called ourselves “Fantaseers,” and there is a photo of our one-bookcase library in my Fantaseers: A Book of Memories. One of the inciting reasons for starting the club was the founding in 1949 of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which all of us read and that I subscribed to from Issue No. 1. Ray Bradbury was a regular contributor.
Ray’s first book, Dark Carnival, was published in 1947, but I didn’t get a copy of it until I was out of high school and serving an enlistment in the U. S. Navy. The Bradbury books we had in the Fantaseers library were The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, and The Illustrated Man, 1951. When we graduated from Meriden High in 1952 my friend Ray Staszewski, another Fantaseer, and I enlisted; the following year I was assigned to the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier that was still being built in Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. It subsequently embarked on a World Cruise and I had a lot of time at sea to read, write, take USAFI courses and begin to publish work in the “little magazines” and literary quarterlies.
I practically stopped writing fiction, though, because every time I tried to put together a story it turned out to be a fantasy. I was still in the thrall of Ray Bradbury. I desperately wanted to write “main line” fiction, but I didn’t seem to be able to pull off that trick, so I ignored Mary Flynn’s advice and concentrated on learning as much as I could about writing verse, though I also took a correspondence course in fiction writing from the Palmer Institute of Authorship. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but a fellow Palmer student was Ray Carver who would subsequently, like me, attend the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After many years and a number of other books, I finally published one fiction collection - most of the items are magical realism, of course, The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories.
Although all of them appeared originally in periodicals or anthologies prior to my collecting them, none of them, sadly, were ever published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
I was almost immediately successful in my verse writing efforts, however, and the first poems I published in media other than the local newspapers and school magazines appeared in The American Poetry Magazine in 1953 when I was nineteen years old and still ashore in Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. I was beginning to meet people in the literary world. Lilith Lorraine (!), the editor of a little magazine called Epos that had used some of my early work, lived out on Long Island, so one day I hopped on the Long Island Railroad and went out to visit her and her husband. When I arrived I felt as though I had stepped into a Ray Bradbury story, for I found that Lilith had two thumbs on one hand and a parrot that could lie down and roll across the floor.
By the time I had finished my four years of active duty in the Navy I was well published in the literary magazines, to the degree in fact that I had to keep my ear to the ground at UConn in order to hear whether a particular teacher admired me for my early success or resented me for the same reason. I steered clear of the latter when it came to choosing classes.
I continued to write and publish while I went to school, and I continued to meet folks in the trade both in my correspondence and as the director of the UConn Student Union’s visiting writers series. One of the people I knew by the time I graduated, in January 1959, was August Derleth, publisher of Arkham House which had issued Ray Bradbury’s Dark Carnival in 1947. August used a batch of my poems in an anthology titled Fire and Sleet and Candlelight in 1961: its binding and format looked exactly like Bradbury’s book.
Time passes. In 1968 I was scheduled to be a member of the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, and so was Ray Bradbury! I looked forward to meeting him, but when I arrived I discovered that he had for some reason canceled. It was then that I decided to strike up a correspondence with him. We continued as pen-pals for the next forty-plus years, although I was never to meet him. On my computer I still have a few of the letters I wrote him over those years, but the bulk of our correspondence is in my archive at Iowa. However, when one of my books of poetry was published in 1970 Ray wrote a blurb for it:
“Lewis Turco and I share similar worlds. Everything he writes about in The Inhabitant is part of my real or remembered world. There are many riches here. Reading the book is like going up in the attic on an autumn or summer night, to open trunks and fetch out strange images and treasures.”
When I saw [Sam] Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles reviewed in the NYTBR I ordered it right away, and I’m reading it now. Whenever Weller mentions one of your stories, I stop reading, look it up, re-read that first (I’ve read them all if they’ve been published, often more than once), then go back to reading the biography. I haven’t enjoyed anything more than this since, when I was in college in the mid-‘fifties, I sat out on the lawn and read, first, The Alhambra and then Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Coincidentally, my book titled Fantaseers: A Book of Memories will be published shortly (I enclose a proof copy for you). It tells of the adventures of our Meriden (CT) High-school science-fiction reading club of the early ‘fifties. We had a library in my house (there’s a picture of it in the book, page 97), and your work was a big part of our lives back then, especially mine. As I read your biography I think about how our lives often parallel each-other. For instance, when I was nineteen and in the Navy floating around the world on a carrier, the Hornet, I began to publish my poems in the national little magazines (the first one appeared in The American Poetry Magazine in 1953). One of the people I ran across early was August Derleth who was as kind to me as he was to you, though we never met. We corresponded (I bought a copy of Dark Carnival from Arkham House), and he asked me to contribute some poems to his 1961 anthology Fire and Sleet and Candlelight — he took seven! (Not bad for someone whose First Poems had come out only the year before: August reviewed my book on Thursday, April 21st, 1961 in the Madison WI Capital Times. One of the poems he took, “The Seer,” had been first drafted while I was in high school and published in the UConn Fine Arts Magazine while I was in college after the Navy. I collected it last year in The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004 (“Wesli Court” is an anagram pen-name under which I published most of my rhyming and metering poems over the years.)
While I was in high school it was touch-and-go whether I was going to be a fiction writer or a poet, but going into the Navy brought me down on the side of poetry because, though I was a Navy clerk — a “Yeoman”! — I didn’t have all that much time to spend typing up stories, but I could do poems handily. Also, I wanted to write mainstream fiction, but every time I tried a story, it wound up a fantasy. Which perhaps wasn’t all that bad, because I very much wanted to be published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, my favorite of the pulps. At last in grad school at Iowa I managed it — with two poems! One was titled “A Great Gray Fantasy,” which came out in 1960 while I was still at Iowa; the other, "Excerpts from the Latter-Day Chronicle," came out a couple of years later, in 1962.
You were born in 1920, and I in 1934, the middle of the depression. The story of your family’s poverty was similar to mine, of course, as were the stories of millions of other families. As I read, though, I couldn’t wait to get to the year of my birth so that I could see what I was doing and where I was when you were beginning your career in writing. Really, I can’t tell you how much, and in how many ways, I’m enjoying this book.
I have only one regret. You may recall that we were both supposed to be at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference — was it in 1968? When you didn’t show I was devastated, and I am still filled with frustration and rue whenever I think about it.
Well, I still have lots more of your life to read, so I’ll stop here and get back to it.
With all the best, always, from your old fan….
Ray was delighted with my letter, and he sent a copy to Weller who, apparently, was equally delighted. Ray and I had always exchanged Xmas cards, and this is the one he sent me that year:
A month later I wrote,
18 September 2006
In 1974 I wrote a book titled Satan’s Scourge: A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and America 1580-1697 e-book edition, a book of history, a chronicle of the period when the Age of Sympathetic Magic, which had been the system by which mankind operated from time immemorial, was beginning to shift over to the Age of Science, “The New Philosophy,” by which the world would be increasingly governed from then forward. The main focus of the book is upon my mother’s family, the Putnams of Buckinghamshire, in England, from the birth of John Putnam, born in 1580, some of whose descendants would be deeply involved in the last gasp of sympathetic magic, the great witchcraft explosion of Salem Village, Massachusetts, in 1692, which is the climax of the book.
The volume not only looks at all the witchcraft cases in England and New England during the period covered, but it also tells the stories of the major scientists and Adepts of sympathetic magic (often the two were the same) in Europe and America. The effect is twofold: First, the method is strictly chronological, unfolding like a tapestry year by year. As one thread of the tapestry swells and tapers off, others appear and interweave with one another. Second, the history is told from the point of view of common people, the Puritans of England and New England primarily, but also the crystal gazers, alchemists, alleged witches and their accusers, and those ordinary citizens caught up in the webs woven by plotters, liars, “possessed” children and their parents, and, of course, the clerics.
Furthermore, this is the period when America was settled, when Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads carried out their Puritan revolution, and all the politics and machinations of the relevant sovereigns and courtiers of the period are also a part of the tapestry there woven.
Now, 32 years later, I have resurrected the book and rewritten it as I typed it into my computer. The reason I am writing you is to ask whether this person is related to you:
Capt. Samuel Smith of Boston was preparing to voyage to Barbados, and Mary Bradbury of Salisbury went to Boston to sell him two firkins of butter that were put aboard. The vessel sailed, and after they had been at sea for three weeks the crew discovered that one of the firkins had not been completely churned — it had spoiled and was full of maggots. The seamen were considerably irritated, and they mumbled among themselves that they had often heard Goody Bradbury was a witch. It must be true, they inferred — exercising their infallible mariners’ logic — or she would not have dared to sell their captain such goods.
That’s an excerpt from my book, and of course Goody Bradbury gets into trouble later on. Is she one of your progenitors?
“September 25, 2006
“Thank you for your September 18th letter.
“You asked if Mary Bradbury is related to me and the answer is yes, she’s a direct blood ancestor. She was tried as a witch around 1692 but fortunately escaped. The family Bradbury originated outside of London around 1400 and they sailed to America around 1650. I’m so glad that you asked about Mary; I’m very proud of the fact that I’m related to her.
“Good luck with your work and best wishes,
2 October 2006
Thanks for your letter about Mary Bradbury. I was sure you’d be related to her.
I’m enclosing the front matter of my typescript, the material I have on Mary, and my mother’s genealogy.
Do you use a computer at all? If you do, I can send you a CD with the entire book on it, if you think you might like to read it before it’s published (if it ever is. Oxford is looking at it at the moment).
When Satan’s Scourge came out in 2009 and won a prize in The New England Book Festival I sent Ray a copy of that as well. One last item of my old friend that I have kept is a copy of a pamphlet published by the National Endowment for the Arts on the cover of which he scribbled a note:
Jerrold L. Patz, who died on February 17th of this year, 2012, was the brother of Stanley K. Patz and brother-in-law of Julie Patz, parents of Etan Patz who was kidnapped (apparently, though that has still to be proven despite a confession) by Pedro Hernandez on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend in May, 1979. Jerry Patz went on to a successful career in and for his home state, Massachusetts, where he was involved in data storage and internet development. However, nine years earlier, in 1970, Jerry was the co-founder with Richard Littlefield of the Despa Press which was located in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Jerry and Dick were living at the time as students at the University of Massachusetts.
Not long before the Press issued its first book the co-publishers visited the campus of the State University of New York College at Oswego in order to meet the printmaker Thom Seawell and yours truly, Lewis Turco, who, they had been informed, were working on a book and print project. Thom was completing a huge print titled “The House,” and I was simultaneously writing my own “house,” The Inhabitant, a long series of prose poems.
Thom and I had earlier produced three prints titled “School Drawing,” “My Country Wife,” and “Image Tinged with No Color”; subsequently we had applied for, and been granted, joint Faculty Fellowships by the SUNY Foundation to work on our joint project. Jerry Patz and Dick Littlefield had come to campus to consider our effort which Despa published as their first book in 1970. All four of us were happy with the book of poems and prints which was titled The Inhabitant.
Dick and Jerry wanted to publish another of my books the following year, Pocoangelini: A Fantography and Other Poems, which consisted of three sets of poems including the title series, The Sketches of Lewis Turco, which had won the American Weave Chapbook Award in 1962 and been published in that year by American Weave Press of Cleveland, and a short series titled Bordello which Thom Seawell’s fellow printmaker at Oswego, George O’Connell, would turn into a portfolio of poem-prints many years later, in 1996, the year I retired (George had already retired by that time).
The Despa publishers needed a cover design for Pocoangelini, however, and Thom didn’t have anything suitable. Instead, Jerry Patz turned to his brother, Stanley, a professional photographer, for an idea, and he had one. Stanley Patz took a nude shadowed photograph of himself with his head thrown back and his arms and legs spread wide. The back cover was the “negative” image of the front cover. I always thought it was a spectacularly successful cover. Let this be my eulogy for both Etan and his uncle Jerrold:
Stanley K. Patz, photographer, self-portrait, 1971
John Cardi, the Theodore Morrisons, and Robert Frost at Bread Loaf.
A Memoir-Review of John Ciardi
Edward Cifelli, in his 1997 John Ciardi, A Biography, did what a biographer is supposed to do. He captured the spirit and essence of his subject. Nearly the whole man is there: the braggart who constantly boasted of being the richest poet in America, the super-overachiever, the workaholic, the public orator and dictatorial director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the loving but seldom-present father who was what the social workers these days call an “enabler,” one who conspires to enable another person or other people to continue in self-destructive behavior, as Ciardi certainly did with his children, perhaps in an attempt to make up for his non-presence, either physical or mental, while he rambled around America and the world making money or sat alone in his study pouring out columns, poems, articles, lectures, book after book.
If my thumbnail sketch leaves a negative taste on the tongue, it is a deliberate effect, intended to mirror what I think may be the effect of Cifelli’s biography on the reader. I can hear that reader saying, “If this is what he was like, then Ciardi deserved to speed downhill, out of control, after his heyday in the 1960’s. He was clearly out of touch with the times, a personality that mirrors all that was worst about the generation of World War II ex-GIs who came home to make a cozy, unthinking success of things.”
But that’s essentially a false impression of John Ciardi. What I miss in the biography is a sense of his sense of humor. It is utterly true that he did all the things Prof. Cifelli says he did, but Ciardi did them drolly, with an air of self-deprecation and satire. He knew he was acting the boor, but he hated boors, and he let you know it. Cifelli properly noted that Ciardi had many, many friends, but the reader may have a hard time understanding why they all loved him so much, so long and so deeply. I would have liked to see more anecdotes in this book, such as this, for instance:
At Bread Loaf in 1961 Robert Huff, Richard Frost and I shared one of the little cottages near Treman Hall. One night we were sitting around reciting limericks to one another and, of course, laughing and carrying on after each one. We were making enough noise to arouse the ire of some women who lived in another cottage close by, and they complained to John that we were making too much noise. John came by — it must have been after ten p.m. — to do his duty and tell us to quiet down. He asked us what we were doing, and after he had fulfilled his function as policeman he sat down with us and began to recite limericks himself from his prodigious memory, most if not all of them original, just as Cifelli has described Ciardi’s doing on other occasions. All those present became, over the course of the next several hours, hysterical to the point that our sides ached. We were making much more noise with John present than we had been making before he arrived. I have no idea what the women did, or how they managed to get any sleep at all that night.
It is true, too, as Cifelli pointed out, that there was a hierarchy at Bread Loaf, but it was much more malleable than it appears to be in this book. That same year, as one of the Poetry Fellows, I was expected to put in time at Treman Hall with the faculty and the other Fellows. Scholars, such as A. R. Ammons, who were a step below, were not allowed in, nor were the Waiters or the conferees of various types, including Contributors and Auditors.
The evening that Robert Frost came by, he was seated in an armchair with a shawl over his knees on one side of the room. I was astonished at the super-sophistication of the staff and fellows: no one except John seemed to pay any attention at all to him. But that there was great awareness of Frost was clear if one looked at what was happening, for the conversation and drinking and walking about were as usual, but there was a clear line of demarcation over which no one stepped: a semicircle around Frost’s chair. Everyone was careful to pretend indifference to Frost. It was a form of fright.
I stood at the edge of the circle staring at Frost who looked very lonely. John went to him and said something and then came toward me. He said something like, “Why don’t you go and talk with Robert? He’s being ignored.” But I was too timid.
John left, I continued standing until I heard Frost mutter, “Won’t someone talk to me?”
I gathered up my courage and went over to introduce myself. “What will we talk about?”
“You start,” he replied, so I told him a story about a woodchuck that had chased my wife once in Connecticut. He responded by telling me something about his adventures the first time he had gone to England. Soon we were joined by two young women, sisters whose names I forget. We talked with Frost almost the whole evening; hardly anyone interrupted the whole time.
Hardly anyone. During the course of the conversation I told Robert that a namesake of his was at the Conference, the young poet Richard Frost who was attending on a Danforth grant, not one of the official Conference fellowships; thus, he was barred from Treman. I asked Ciardi if it would be all right if I brought Dick in to meet Robert, and Ciardi gave the okay. I went and got Dick and a copy of my First Poems, recently published, which I gave Robert as a gift (I was too shy to inscribe it to him) after I had introduced Dick. They exchanged pleasantries, decided that they weren’t related, and Dick left after an interval.
At one point Ciardi came by again and said, “Robert, the Waiters want to sing a song for you.”
Frost said, “All right,” and Ciardi waved the young people in from the front door where they were clustered.
They came in, gathered around us in a semicircle and sang, to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway,” “Whose woods, these are, I think I know. / His house, is in, the village though. / He will, not see, me stopping here, / to watch, his woods fill up with snow, Olé!”
Those are some of the reasons I had for loving John Ciardi, who was an unstuffy, funny son-of-a-bitch who would do absolutely anything he could for you if he liked you and if you needed help. Cifelli in his book notes that after that same conference he gave the broke Miller Williams and his wife money to get back home. It was the least he could do since he had talked Miller into coming to Bread Loaf in the first place. That two hundred dollar investment was one of the best Ciardi ever made, and he made many — he wasn’t called “Lucky John” for nothing — for after Ciardi’s reputation had run down to a trickle, Miller kept it alive as publisher of the University of Arkansas Press, a position that was the direct result of the contacts and friendships Miller made at Bread Loaf that year, for at the time he was a high school biology teacher. Within the next year or so Miller made the transition to teaching college English, and Williams in 1997 retired as a Distinguished Professor. It is Arkansas that published Cifelli’s biography, the edition of Ciardi’s The Collected Poems that Cifelli also edited in 1997, and many other books including Vince Clemente’s John Ciardi: Measure of the Man (1987).
Even on the public rostrum, which is mainly how he made his money, Ciardi could be very funny in the midst of a serious lecture. In Cleveland in the early ‘60’s he was giving a talk at John Carroll University. He was doing his famous discussion of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in which he pointed out that the form of the poem was an interlocking rubaiyat which should have ended by circling back, in the last quatrain, to the first stanza to pick up the main rhyme again. Instead, Ciardi said, Frost broke the form, and in breaking it made the poem a hundredfold more effective than it would otherwise have been had he maintained the requirements of the rubaiyat.
The house was packed. One of those present (besides my wife and myself) was a woman named “Yetta Blank” (that was really her name), one of those whom Cifelli in his biography characterized as an “arm-grabber.” John recited the first two lines of the last stanza of Frost’s poem, then the third line, “And miles to go before I sleep.” He paused dramatically, looked at the audience and said rhetorically, “Now, how would you have ended that poem?”
Yetta Blank leapt to her feet and called out, “And now I lay me down to sleep?” In the hall, dead silence. Ciardi leaned across the podium, rested on his forearms, lanced her with his gaze and said, “You really think so, huh?” Bedlam. I don’t know how many minutes it was before order was restored, but it is the funniest moment I can recall at a public program, and I have spent a lifetime attending them.
If it is objected that the inclusion of more such incidents (Cifelli does include some) would have unconscionably lengthened the book, then my reply is, cut out some of the many catalogues of Ciardi’s itinerary. They are not exhaustive, but they give the impression that they are. One can only begin skipping and scanning when they arrive periodically throughout the book.
On October 8th 1997 my wife and I went to dinner at a local restaurant with one of our former colleagues at SUNY Oswego, a professor of music. When she asked what I was doing at the moment, I told her I was reading the biography of John Ciardi. “Who is he?” she asked. I could hardly believe she didn’t know. When I told her about the poet’s many books, his magnificent translations of Dante’s great poems, his television program, his “Manner of Speaking” columns in, and his poetry editorship of, The Saturday Review, his radio program on PBS, his books of poetry, of etymology, of children’s verse, his directorship of Bread Loaf, she just shook her head. Then I said, “Don’t you recall that huge flap about Anne Morrow Lindergh’s poetry?” That, finally, rang a bell, but evidently not a very loud one.
John Ciardi was born in 1916 and educated before World War II, first at Bates College which he entered in 1933, and then at Tufts, to which institution he transferred eighteen months later. Edward Krickel, writing in his book John Ciardi (1980), said that at Tufts Ciardi "found in John Holmes, just the teacher one insane adolescent had been starved for." Krickel further observed, "It is a turning point in the development of every budding young intellectual or artist when he finds his first real master. And he is lucky if in his full maturity he can recall the experience with gratitude. Holmes was the first such experience for Ciardi, as Roy W. Cowden of Michigan was to be the second."
Ciardi was loyal to his friends, in particular his early teacher at Tufts John Holmes who wrote personal poems in formal structures. Holmes taught this approach to John Ciardi and to his other pupils at Tufts and elsewhere, including Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, who became known in later years as members of the “Confessional” school of poetry. Like them, Ciardi learned from Holmes how to write the autobiographical poem that told a story or sang a song, but Ciardi was never a breast-beater like Sexton or Sylvia Plath. Nor was Holmes who, during his lifetime, was largely ignored, although a few people (such as yours truly) paid him the compliment of remarking upon his classical New England control over his egopoetic subject matter.
Holmes' Selected Poems was published posthumously, with an introduction titled "A Man's Voice" by John Ciardi, in 1965. In it Ciardi wrote, "Certainly it is a freshet that carries forward the poems of The Fortune Teller ... despite what I feel to be the willful intensity of the title poem. It is still fact that speaks. The instant this voice finds fact to say, it says more than fact. "Order Clearly Asking" might serve as that voice's description of itself and of its purpose: 'It is not style. The design is in the materials."
Holmes was known as a remarkable teacher, but despite his devotion to craft, he too, like Ciardi’s contemporaneous close friend Richard Wilbur and the anathematical Beats, held the creative process in mystic awe and didn't want to scrutinize it too closely. In Ciardi's Mid-Century American Poets (1950) Holmes wrote,
"The fact is that I do not really want to know how and why I write, and I had rather keep my ways and means to myself. A miner, a carpenter knows what he has to work with, and what he can do. Poets don't know; at any rate, I don't. As an additional handicap to my deliberate ignorance, I teach college students how to write poetry. This year-in-year-out gamble is sometimes good for them, sometimes for me. They get the thrill, which I deprecate, of studying poetry with me, an actually published poet, and they get a certain amount of useful suggestion, and not very much severity. I always mean to be severe, and never am."
In his practice, Ciardi made up this deficiency of his teacher, for he could be very severe.
However, this curious example of American poetic double-think, which is far from being idiosyncratic in Ciardi, Holmes, and Wilbur, was the official policy of Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference even before Ciardi became its Director and Defender of the Faith. I think it is one of the reasons why Ciardi’s reputation as a teacher diminished so quickly in the 1970s: “It is impossible to teach ‘creative writing’; therefore, it will not be taught (Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is not a school), but technique will be discussed.” The Beats and the other activists of the 1960s agreed with the first half of this “formula,” but they were more consistent in refusing to teach “technique” either. The split mind of Holmes and Ciardi, it was clear to the younger generation, was hypocritical — either you can teach writing or you can’t; if you can’t, then you must go all the way and abjure craft and formalism. It was a conundrum that Ciardi was unable to resolve, and it led to his becoming more and more irrelevant as time went by. It would have been much better for him if he had not temporized, if he had said, “True, one cannot teach talent, but one can, indeed, give the young poet tools to use in his or her craft.”
In the two years preceding his unexpected death in the spring of 1986 John Ciardi published two books of his poetry. The Selected Poems appeared from Arkansas in 1984; it was Ciardi's first showcase collection since the 1955 As If: Poems New and Selected, and it contained work from that volume as well. The following year, 1985, Ciardi published a book mainly made up of lyrics. He didn't find it necessary to invent new prosodies or forms in order to speak colloquially yet musically — the old forms did very well in The Birds of Pompeii, just as they had done for Ciardi's Bread Loaf colleague of many years, Robert Frost.
When Ciardi wanted to be subjective he understood that he had to sing in order to keep the reader's attention, as in the prophetic "At Least with Good Whiskey":
She gave me a drink and told me she had tried
to read my book but had had to put it down
because it depressed her. Why, she wanted to know,
couldn't I turn my talent (I raised my glass)
to happier things? Did I suppose it was smart
to be forever dying? Not forever,
I told her, sipping; by actuarial tables
ten years should about do it. See what I mean?
she hurried to say — always that terrible sadness.
Well, maybe, I said. (This is good whiskey, I said.)
But ten years, plus or minus, is not much time
for getting it said — do you see what I mean? — which leaves me
too busy to make a hobby of being sad.
He didn’t have ten years.
The one incident that most clearly showed how far from his palmy days as a public figure John Ciardi had fallen took place after his death, at a NEMLA meeting in Boston in 1987. There was to be a session on Ciardi during which Vince Clemente’s book, John Ciardi: Measure of the Man, was to be published by Arkansas. At that time both Vince and I were employed by branches of the State University of New York, and we had both been invited to a conflicting SUNY Writers’ Festival in Binghamton where we were to read and where Allen Ginsberg was to be the featured guest. Vince chose to go to Binghamton to read his poetry instead of attending the NEMLA convention to be present at the birth of his book. I sat with Judith Ciardi and her family while X. J. Kennedy read the main paper of the session. Aside from those people who were officially a part of the program or were associated with the University of Arkansas Press, I was the only member of the audience other than the Ciardis. Judith turned to me and said, “I guess it’s a good thing the family came.”
Here is a limerick I wrote for John long ago, which I have included as his epitaph in the just-published book, Wesli Court’s Epitaphs for the Poets, Baltimore, MD: BrickHouse Books, 2012, 85 pp., trade paperback, ISBN: 978-1-938144-01-1, available from Amazon: Epitaphs for the Poets:
R.I.P. JOHN CIARDI
June 24, 1916-March 30, 1986
The lately great limerist Ciardi,
Whose muse was nigh onto untardy,
Whenever he sang
In his New England twang,
Made rum sounds like, "Paw me a toddy."
"A Friend in Need, a Friend Indeed: A Memoir/Review," was originally published in Voices in Italian Americana, ix:1, Spring 1998, pp. 189-195 and collected in A Sheaf of Leaves: Literary Memoirs by Lewis Turco, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004. ISBN 0965183564, jacketed cloth, $35.95; ISBN 0965183548, paper, $24.95, 254 pages; may be ordered from AMAZON.
HERBERT R. COURSEN, JR., March 28, 1932 – December 3, 2011
Harry Osgood, Herb Coursen, and Lew Turco at the New England Poets Conference at Harvard University, 1985.
Last evening, Wednesday, January 18, 2012, very belatedly I learned of the death of Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., whom I met forty-four years ago here in Maine, at a 1968 Bowdoin College conference on “stylistics.” It was the same year that the first edition of my volume titled The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics was published — Herb would become one of its first and biggest fans.
Herb died at the age of 79 in bed, in his sleep apparently and enviably, on Saturday, December 3rd, 2011. I hope that he had received and seen his contributor’s copy of the revised and expanded edition of The Book of Forms, Including Odd and Invented Forms, which included four of his poems, “National Pastime,” in my opinion the greatest poem about baseball ever written; “The King of Kolchis,” written in a form he invented called the “once” (pronounced “on-say”), “St. John of the Cross,” written in the Spanish form called the “lira,” invented by the title poet, and “Winter Dreams,” written in another form Coursen invented, the dagwood.
On more than one occasion I have written about Herb: I penned the "Introduction" to his book of poems titled Hope Farm (Stratford CT: Cider Mill Press, 1979), and I wrote a lead essay, "The Protean Poetry of Herbert Coursen," published in The Hollins Critic, xxxii:3, June 1995, pp. 1-11.
Herb was a dear old friend, as was Pamela Mount, his companion of two decades, who died last year. My wife Jean and I miss them deeply. I will post “The Protean Poetry of Herbert Coursen” on my blog titled “Odd and Invented Forms” today.
Extraordinary! I thought earlier you were satirizing (or at least exaggerating) the situation, but it's true?! Of course, it's certain that he would "lose the whole," as you say --- everyone is forgetting he got only 38% of the vote. (Here in Vermont 50% plus one vote is necessary to be the winner.)
Thanks for all your work to further Poetry---it is invaluable.
I think you may be missing the puns in the epitaph — they all depend on how you pronounce "analyzing." I'm not exaggerating the situation, but I sure hope I'm satirizing it.
Dear Uncle Wesi,
You're a lucky man! For satirists "Half an oaf is better than none," and here you have a whole one!
Well, as someone said, we do have a "representative" democracy that reflects the people.
I still blame it on the Maine Democrats who elected Libby as their candidate, and the Democrats