Lewis Turco, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: How did you get started writing poetry? Was it a school assignment?
LT: You know, I’m not sure. The earliest “poem” I can remember writing was in the sixth or seventh grade, and it may have been an assignment. But I had been writing stories before that. My father was an Italian Baptist Minister, my mother was a Methodist missionary from a rural Wisconsin environment. They met while they were both working with Italian immigrants in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and I was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1934, the heart of the Depression, though I grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, where (I now realize) we were very poor.
However, both my parents read and wrote and encouraged me to do the same. My dad typed two sermons every week, one in English and one in Italian, and my mother was always reading to me. The house was full of books despite our lack of money, and almost as soon as I could read I wrote. I remember my daughter, Melora, put together her first book before she could read, so either writing is in our genes, or we grew up in a literarily nurturing environment. Probably both. Other children of Italian immigrants had no such luck as to watch their folks typing (my mother had been a stenographer while putting herself through Boston University School of Religious Education) and simply absorbing the fact that composing on a typewriter was a perfectly normal thing to do.
PC: When you wrote poetry in the Navy, did you let your shipmates on the U.S.S. Hornet know you wrote? What response did you get, if any?
LT: "Two-Face" and "Flip," the first poems I ever published in a “little magazine,” appeared around August of 1953 in The American Poetry Magazine, at that time the oldest continuously published poetry periodical in the world. My ship, the aircraft carrier Hornet, was still under construction in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard, so I went over to the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street dressed in uniform, approached the periodicals desk and asked for the latest issue so that I could actually see my poems in a library in New York City. The librarian gave me the once-over and came back with the latest issue of The American Poultry Farmer. Flushing furiously and totally humiliated, I corrected her and eventually got what I asked for, but it was already too late.
By January of 1954, while I was still nineteen years of age and not yet two years out of high school, my poems were appearing more or less regularly in the little magazines, and I’d had several poems appear in Our Navy, a monthly slick, which had begun to publish a poetry column for which I suspect I was responsible — other sailors, having seen my poems perhaps, had begun sending in their own.
About a year later, on the 24th of June, 1954, the Hornet crossed the equator and all “Pollywogs” (sailors who had never crossed before) were charged with various “crimes” and punished accordingly. Charge 4 of the subpoena I was given to appear at the Court of Neptunus Rex was, "Scribbling poetic doggerel on Navy time." All our hair was shaved off as part of the initiation, and we were made to crawl through parachutes stuffed with offal; we were spanked with paddles as we ran a gauntlet, given a vile concoction to eat, required to kiss fat Neptune’s castor-oil soaked belly, and so forth until at last we were graduated from Pollywog status to that of Shellback.
PC: When did you start writing as “Wesli Court”?
LT: I’ve written about this in “My Lyric Twin,” the “afterword” of The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court (StarCloudPress.com, 2004). “Wesli Court” was published for the first time as a reviewer in the “Accent on Fenn College” issue of the Cleveland magazine American Weave, the autumn-winter issue of 1960. Why as a reviewer? My thinking was that I might publish under a pen-name and tell the truth with impunity, without making a lot of enemies. No one, of course, or almost no one, told the truth when they reviewed a book, because one never knew when one would need a favor from someone whose poetry one despised. That practice stopped almost immediately, for I found that the person I despised most was myself for hiding behind a mask just to avoid someone’s animus.
Nevertheless, I went on leading a double life. I was writing quantitative syllabic verse regularly, but I was also working on the manuscript of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, projected as an anthology of examples, descriptions and diagrams of those forms. I needed decently written specimens, and often I couldn’t find them, especially in contemporary language, which meant that I might have to write them myself in many cases, or have Wesli write them.
For instance, when I was in college, before I had conceived of The Book of Forms, I had discovered that there was absolutely no example of a decent chant royal in English literature. I set myself the challenge of filling the gap, and I wrote a short series titled “Poems for an Old Professor” (my Milton professor at UConn) consisting of a chant royal and three sonnets. I remember that, up to then, the lead poem, “The Old Professor,” a chant royal, was the hardest project of my literary life, but when I was through with it, I was sure it was a well-written example of the form, and I subsequently used it in TBoF.
In 1970 Wesli Court reappeared in print, this time as the moderator for a television interview which, during the summer, was videotaped for a classroom television course, "The Nature of Poetry," at the State University of New York College at Oswego, and it appeared simultaneously in the April-May issue of The New England Review. Using three cameras, Court interviewed the Lewis Turco of 1960, and the Lewis Turco of 1968.
PC: Why do you keep Wesli Court’s work separate from Lewis Turco's? You certainly make no secret of the two identities.
LT: Well, I did at first. I had worked on The Book of Forms for eight years, and every publisher I sent it to thought it was a good book, but that there was no audience for it, and indeed, they may have been right, for faculty poets were so bully-ragged by the Beats that they had stopped teaching such things as metrics. In desperation, I took all the examples out of the book to avoid having to pay royalties on them, thus making it a cheaper book to produce, and sent it to E. P. Dutton, which accepted and published it in 1968. My goal, however, was one day to bring out an edition with examples in it. I worked on those examples for the next decade and a half. Or perhaps I should say that Wesli Court did.
Wesli began to provide me with, first, many of his own poems in the traditional forms, especially the ones I needed. I also set him to work on the Welsh and Irish forms as well, which had never appeared in any other book. What Wesli did was to look up English translations of Medieval poems, and then write contemporary versions of those poems cast into the forms I needed; they were not necessarily the forms in which the poems were in fact originally written. After a while Wesli and I had all these poems lying around doing nothing, so we decided to start sending them out to periodicals in the middle to late 1970’s, sometimes under my name, most of the time under his name. To my amazement, magazines began to accept them. In fact, Wesli was beginning to have a better track record than I was with my syllabic poems! What was going on? Clearly, the worm was turning and formal poetry was coming back into play.
PC: You write in free verse and Wesli Court writes in forms. Do you think that it is possible for anybody who puts his mind to it to write competent (if not inspired) work in forms?
LT: Certainly I do, to answer your last question first. I taught young people to write formally for thirty-six years, and some of them became competent poets: my student Ben Doyle won the Walt Whitman Award with his first book, Radio, Radio.
But no, I don’t write in “free verse,” which is a contradiction in terms. “Verse” and “prose” are the only two modes in which the genres of fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction may be written. “Verse,” which is metrical language, is not the same as “poetry,” which is a genre, “the art of language.” “Prose,” which is non-metrical language, is a mode in which any of the genres may also be written. “Free verse” is prose broken into lines after phrases, subordinate clauses, clauses, and other syntactic units so that it will bear some resemblance to “verse.” But the grammatic parallels of prose constitute the oldest prosody in the world, and the Bible is full of them. The repetitions of the grammatic forms of prose can sound like verse.
I do, on occasion, write prose poems, but much of what I write is actually quantitative syllabics, which can sound like prose (though Dylan Thomas’ poems are also quantitative syllabics and sound nothing at all like prose). People simply don’t recognize syllabics as a system of verse, so they call it and other systems like William Carlos Williams’ variable accentual triversen stanzas “free verse.”
PC: When you published the first edition of The Book of Forms in 1968 not many people were writing formal poetry, and it wasn't fashionable. What led you to make this handbook, which has changed so many writers' lives?
LT: Apparently I was born a metrist. I was always interested in the various systems of writing that are available to writers in English. By the time I’d gotten to high school I’d read all the standard verse writers, but I’d also read Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, Carl Sandburg, Christopher Smart, William Blake, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot…. I was always an eclectic reader and writer. One of my favorite early poets was Edgar Allan Poe, and when I read his “Philosophy of Composition,” about how he wrote “The Raven,” I was fascinated. Later I read that some critics thought he was dissembling about his method of composition, but I knew otherwise, because his methods were my own.
Later on in the ‘fifties when the Beats came along I felt it was stupid for them to decide to jettison certain historical writers and methods just because they didn’t fit into contemporary parameters of what was politically acceptable. I was always on the lookout for books and material that could tell me more about my mother tongue, and when I realized that no one had ever written a book that compiled all the forms in which British and American poets had written, I decided to write it myself.
This, too, may simply be a matter of genes. My mother’s family are the Putnams, once spelled Puttenham, and one of my ancient cousins, George Puttenham, wrote the first book about English language prosodics, The Arte of English Poesy, in the 16th century. (A new annotated edition has just been published by Cornell University Press.) The Book of Forms is merely a matter, perhaps, of family heritage.
PC: I was struck by the Welsh and Irish forms you included from the beginning. I understand from the interview you did with Daniel Nester (Poets & Writers On-Line Only, 12.15.04) that luck played a role in that. Would you tell our readers the story?
LT: I had always been interested in the traditional forms of poetry — I was born a formalist, and I wanted a reference book that contained the whole range of them, but I'd never been able to find such a book other than those that contained merely the standard sorts of things: the sonnet, the villanelle, the haiku and tanka, the sestina — mainly the medieval Italian and Provençal forms plus a few others.
But what else was there? Perhaps there weren't enough forms to fill a short book. Then, one day during my graduate school days, while I was browsing through the bargain bin of Iowa Book and Supply on Clinton Street in Iowa City, I ran across a book of poems by Rolfe Humphries titled Green Armor on Green Ground. Humphries had laid out "the twenty-four official meters" of the Welsh bards, and he had written a poem in each of these complicated syllabic forms. I bought the volume, of course — I think I paid a quarter for it, or maybe a dollar — and I took it home. After I'd looked it over a while I got to wondering whether, with such forms as these, I might not be able to gather enough material for a book, particularly if I filled it out with examples of poems written in the forms and with schematic diagrams of the forms, which I had never seen in any other book. I asked Don Justice whether he thought such a volume would be useful. He encouraged me, and I began working on the project.
PC: Is “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas written in a form that I’ve missed in your books?
LT: “Fern Hill,” like most of Thomas’ poems, is written in a “nonce” form — a form made for that particular poem. If you count the syllables in the lines, you’ll see that it’s a quantitative syllabic poem: the corresponding lines in each stanza are the same syllabic lengths.
PC: What advice do you have about rhyming dictionaries?
LT: Well, Wesli for one can’t do without a rhyming dictionary. I doubt I could have written that chant royal we discussed earlier without a rhyming dictionary. When I got my first computer in the fall of 1982 I soon discovered there was a rhyming dictionary available on floppy discs, and I bought it for my Osborne 1. Now I use one that’s on-line.
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