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?
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.