Lewis Turco. Well, here it is September, 2010, already, my friend, and your new book, The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems, is out from www.StarCloudPress.com. It’s your first solo collection since The Airs of Wales back in 1981, if I remember the date correctly.
Wesli Court. That’s right, but you and I did a collaborative book titled The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004 six years ago. Same press, though.
Turco. Twenty-nine years is a long time to wait for a new collection of your rhymed and metered poems.
Court. Don’t I know it!
Turco. Don’t we both? But this blurb on the jacket by X. J. Kennedy ought to make up some for the wait, shouldn’t it? He wrote, “This major collection by the astonishing Wesli Court is an event calculated to shiver all literary seismographs. Readers addicted to poetry, but weary of ill-made poems, can latch on to it with joy. Aspiring poets can seize it as a handbook of models, learning how to write anything from an ode to a sonnenizio, from an epigram to a blues epilogue. While often striking a wistful, wintery tone of hail-and-farewell, there are notes of infectious cheer and some genuine surprises — even a poem to fulfill an unused title that Wallace Stevens left lying idle. With unique skill, Court shows us what a truly good metrical poem used to be, could be, and (in his able hands) still is.” That ought to make you feel pretty good.
Court. You know it does.
Turco. Here’s another one by Miller Williams — as I recall you and I both contributed poems to his handbook-anthology Patterns of Poetry in 1986: “It’s an increasingly rare pleasure to read poems about the real world in language as clear as it is lyrical, with deep roots in the past and illuminated by carefree rhyme.”
Court. Miller may have meant to say, “careful rhyme” rather than “carefree,” but his computer broke down and he sent the blurb to the publisher, Steven Swerdfeger, written out by hand. Steven couldn’t make out that one word, so he scanned it and emailed it to me for my opinion, but it was a tossup as far as I could tell. I thought “carefree” sounded more raffish than “careful,” so that’s what I voted for.
Turco. You voted for raffish rather than literary?
Court. Was I wrong?
Turco. I don’t know. Did he ever get his computer fixed?
Court. I was afraid to ask.
Turco. Here’s another comment by Rhina Espaillat: “The miraculous thing about all these poems is the way they avoid sentimentality and the temptation to reinvent the past, preferring, instead, a difficult blend of affection and detachment, honesty and regret.” The note says that it’s from a review in The Hollins Critic, but I’m a subscriber and I haven’t seen it there.
Court. I haven’t either, but I’ve seen a copy of the review — She sent a copy. It’s a fine review by a poet and critic I respect, as I do the other two as well, of course. The review will no doubt appear in due time.
Turco. You realize they’re all three friends of mine? Miller was even the director of the University of Arkansas Press which published two of my books.
Court. Certainly I know that, and they’re my friends as well, of course. The books Miller published were your The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems in 1989 and before that, in 1986, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry, which won the Poetry Society of America’s Melville Cane Award for criticism.
Turco. Miller and I met while we were poetry fellows together at Bread Loaf in 1961, and that prize pleased him almost as much as it pleased me. But how much can one trust blurbs that are written by friends?
Court. Are you going to ask your enemies to supply you with blurbs?
Turco. Point well taken, but I’d trust these three any day. All are themselves fine formal poets.
Court. I don’t think there are any better writing today.
Turco. Well, then, let me ask you the obvious question: Why are you a traditionally formal poet?
Court. What an outrageous question! It’s your fault, and the fault of that Book of Forms of yours. I’m practically your galley slave. You’ve had me chained to the oars writing formal poems you could use in your “Handbook of Forms” actually for decades. You got to retire from teaching in ’96! Did I get to retire from writing sestinas, terzanelles, sonnets, blues…you name it? Not on your life. You could go on writing your nontraditional syllabics, prose poems, experimental stuff…what have you? But did you? Oh, no! You wanted me to pick up speed instead of retiring. Every time you wanted a formal poem, which was often, I had to write it for you!
Turco. To be fair, my book titled The Green Maces of Autumn: Voices in an Old Maine House came out late, in 2002 — it was nothing but quantitative unrhymed syllabic poems, and Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems 1959-2008 from Star Cloud had all sorts of nontraditional stuff in it, but I had no idea you objected to writing in forms!
Court. I don’t. I enjoy it. It’s a hoot and a ball. I like it very much. No, I take that back. I love it.
Turco. Then why are you complaining?
Court. Because every time I ask somebody how he’s doing he (or she) sayz, “I can’t complain.” I just wanted to prove that it’s possible to complain any time, even when you’re feeling good.
Turco. That seems perverse.
Court. That’s how I get paid sometimes.
Turco. How you get paid?
Court. Yes, “per verse.”
Turco. That’s an old pun. I should have seen it coming.
Court. I’m sure you did.
Turco. What are you working on these days?
Court. I’ve been writing a year’s worth of Epitaphs for the Poets. I hope I finished last month, August.
Turco. I hope so too. I’ve been posting them on my blog at www.lewisturco.net under the title “Uncle Wesli’s Daily Epitaph.” Who is the first poet in the sequence?
Court. John Gower who was born in the year 1330; he was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, who is the second poet. They were both poets of the royal court, and they knew each other.
Turco. How many have you written to date?
Court. I’m not sure, but the manuscript is nearly 80 pages long, and there are two or three epitaphs per page, depending on how long each is. The shortest are couplets, and the longest one, if I recall correctly, is eleven lines long, a roundelay for Swinburne, who was the inventor of the form. I think the average is three per page.
Turco That would make about 240 epitaphs. That’s a lot of writing. How long have you been working on the set?
Court. Well, I wrote the first two or three many years ago, but I started working at it in earnest last August, which is why I think I may have finished, but every now and then I find another poet I think ought to be included.
Turco. How long does it take to write one of these things?
Court. If I’m lucky, maybe five minutes, but I might tinker with one for years. Would you like me to write one for you right now? I just thought of a poet I like but somehow overlooked:
R.I.P. JOHN MASEFIELD
June 1, 1878 – May 12, 1968
He went down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the ships,
And that’s where Charon was waiting
For Erato to seal his lips.
Turco. How long did it take you to write that?
Court. How long were you sitting there waiting?
Turco. I don’t think it was even five minutes. You managed to do a little research on-line, I noticed, and you looked up one of his best-known poems — to paraphrase, almost to quote in your first two lines, but the actual writing took maybe three minutes including those classical references to Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx in Hades, and Erato, the muse of lyric poetry.
Court. Sometimes I write one in my head while I’m lying sleepless in bed in the wee hours, or taking a shower. The problem is remembering it long enough to get it down on paper.
Turco. Does that happen often?
Court. Not often, but sometimes. On occasion a little poem will pop into my head without any effort at all. Once in a huge while I’ve even dreamt a poem.
Turco. And remembered it?
Turco. Any examples you can give me?
Court. This mote:
LINES TO BE EDCHED ON A WINDOW
In memory of Donald Justice
Clearly, you may see clear through me,
As though I were not here.
Turco. What is it you like so much about writing in meters and formal lines and stanzas?
Court. I love to see the language dance and hear it chime. I love to make it do what I want it to do and make it seem easy. I want to make it soar and dive deep into the human situation. I want to be able to do anything at all I wish to do with language.
Turco. That’s not easy, is it?
Court. Maybe not at first, when you’re young and learning how to write, but it gets easier and more fun the more you learn the craft and the more you practice the trade.
Turco. “Practice”? “Trade”? What are you, an artisan or an artist?
Court. Both. If you want to be a concert pianist, you’d better learn how to read music, play the piano, and practice unending hours.
Turco. There are many poets who think that poetry is inspiration, a gift of the gods, a swig from the springs of Helicon.
Court. Maybe it is, but if you’re going to be inspired someday, you’d better be ready for it, like every other artist — if you want to dance, you’d better learn all there is to know about your body and train it; if a sculptor, you better know all about stone and carving; if a painter, knowing how to draw would help — unless, of course, you’re an “abstract expressionist,” in which case anything goes. As far as I can tell it’s only poets who think they don’t have to know how to write. Neither you nor I ever felt that way.
Turco. You are so right. On the other hand, X. J. Kennedy once wrote a poem titled “Ars Poetica” that goes, “The goose that laid the golden egg / Died looking up its crotch / To find out how its sphincter worked. / Would you lay well? Don’t watch.” He’s a formal poet. Do you think he believes that?
Court. Maybe, maybe not, but he surely believes in the pun of his title. Unless I’m sadly mistaken (and I’m not), you would say anything to pull off a pun like that. At any rate, have you ever seen a concert pianist watching his hands as he plays? Joe, as Shakespeare did, just sits down and writes because long ago he taught himself how to do it, he committed what he learned to memory, and now it’s just second nature. It’s the same thing as instinct at this point.
Turco. You seem pretty blasé about the whole thing.
Court. You taught me that.