WESLI COURT: Well, Lewis, it’s been a while since last I interviewed you.
LEWIS TURCO: It has, indeed! The interview was titled, “Interview with a Split Personality,” and it took place on two dates: July of 1960 and November of 1968. It was published in the New England Review, Vol. I, No. 5, April-May 1970, and during that same summer it was videotaped for a classroom television course, “The Nature of Poetry,” at the State University of New York College at Oswego.
I recall it well. By literary sleight-of-hand, the two dates on which that interview took place were telescoped. I sat in a room with Lewis Turco, aged twenty-six, on my left hand, and Lewis Turco, aged thirty-four, on my right. At that time my own name was a pseudonym — and it still is, I might add, a pen-name that is an anagram of your own name.
Exactly, so there were really three of us sitting in that TV studio: a younger me, an older me, and you.
Yes, What I was attempting to do was to confront the elder you — who had passed beyond the pale of your thirtieth year and, by the terms of that period, was no longer to be trusted — with the Young Turk, an infinitely more likely candidate for the laurels of verity. I limited the younger man to remarks he made, upon the publication of his First Poems in 1960, in an interview conducted by Lydia Atkinson and published in the pages of your hometown newspaper, the Morning Record of Meriden, Connecticut, on July 13th, 1960, and on the dust jacket of your First Poems which had just been published.
I then confronted the older poet — who was the author of a poetry chapbook titled, The Sketches of Lewis Turco and Livevil: A Mask (1962), a second book of poems, Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959-1967 (1968), and of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (1968) — and asked him to respond. It was my intention to trap the older poet with the wisdom of his youth. The viewers of the videotape watched you squirm in the toils of compromises you made while you grew older and sold out. What has changed since then?
Quite a lot, actually. That last volume you mentioned, The Book of Forms, set in motion a series of events that led to a movement which, in 1983, I began calling “Neoformalism” in the pages of the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook where I was doing an annual roundup of poetry books.
What became of the Neoformalist movement?
It still exists, except now most people call it The New Formalism. It has its own annual poets’ gathering, The West Chester University Poetry Conference, founded in 1995 and co-directed by Michael Peich and Dana Gioia, who during the Bush Administration chaired the National Endowment for the Arts. Mike Peich just retired from West Chester University this year.
How did you happen to write The Book of Forms?
Apparently, I was born a formalist. I’ve always been interested in all aspects of language art, and when I say “formalist” I don’t mean, as people assume, that all I’m interested in is poetry in traditional forms. Every element of language is a form of some kind. The letters of the alphabet are forms, conventions upon which the members of a culture have agreed in order to communicate; so are words, phrases, clauses, and sentences, whether spoken or written. I’m interested in all of these things, and I’m interested in other kinds of writing besides poetry: I started out as a fiction writer when I was very young — my first short story was published when I was fifteen in 1949 — and I’ve probably published more nonfiction than anything else. I deeply resented it when, in the 1950s, the so-called “Beat Generation” was in the process of consolidating its anti-intellectual stranglehold on a generation, and the self-righteous, self-indulgent decade of the 1960s loomed ahead.
I had always wanted a good reference book on poetics, and when I was in grad school at the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa I discovered that there simply wasn’t one around. With the blessing of my friend and professor Don Justice I decided to write my own. Heedlessly, I plunged forward. Within two years I had a manuscript, a volume that I titled Contemporary Poetry: The Book of Forms built on the skeleton of the “four levels of poetry” that I had invented in a review I wrote as an undergraduate in 1959 (but published in the periodical Voices, No. 171, in 1960). I projected it as a combined reference and anthology with descriptions and diagrams of verse forms together with examples of those forms from modern poetry. I needed decently written specimens, and often I couldn’t find them, especially in contemporary language, which meant that I had to write them myself in many cases.
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 good chant royal in English literature. I set myself the challenge to fill 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 was the hardest project of my literary life, but when I was through with it, I was sure it was well-written.
Is this where I begin to come into the picture?
Just about. You show up in Cleveland where I had my first job at what’s now Cleveland State University beginning in 1960. “Wesli Court” was published for the first time as a reviewer in the “Accent on Fenn College” issue of Loring Williams’ magazine American Weave, the autumn-winter issue of 1962. Why a reviewer? My thinking was that I might publish under a nom-de-plume 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.
I remember that! What became of me after that? As I recall, I went to sleep again for a while.
Yes, but I went on leading a double life. In the summer of 1959, during a stint at the artists’s colony Yaddo, between college at UConn and grad school at Iowa, I had begun writing quantitative syllabic verse regularly rather than poems in traditional forms, and that became my regular practice. Nevertheless, between 1961 and 1967 I revised my forms manuscript over and over again, searching for obscure verse forms that had at some time in history appeared in English literature, sending for books to Europe, rewriting whole sections, paging through volumes of contemporary poetry for examples of poems in the forms and adding them to the volume.
Whenever I submitted some version of my manuscript to a publishing house the verdict was ever the same: Although it was a good book, there was no market for it. I always argued that the book might not sell big, but it would sell steadily, and it would eventually help to create its own market. I was always disregarded.
It turned out that you were right.
But nobody had a Ouija board. In 1967, after many fruitless efforts to find a home for the volume, I deleted the poems in order to shorten the book and limit its reprint permissions costs so that a potential publisher might find it more attractive, for the examples I’d chosen were all by living poets, none of them were by you at the time. I added a bibliography of the missing poems so that people who were interested might search them out.
What a shame.
But my luck was about to change. By a fluke — quite literally by accident, and after more frustrations — E. P. Dutton accepted The Book of Forms in its non-anthology format. Then I discovered that Cyril I. Nelson, the Dutton paperbacks and poetry editor, would have been happy to have the poems as part of the manuscript. It would have taken forever and a small fortune to get permissions for all those copyrighted poems. I wanted the book published without further delay, and so it was, in 1968. Although it did share a full-page ad in The New York Times Book Review when it appeared, it was reviewed only once, by my colleague at the S.U.N.Y. College at Oswego, Prof. Frank Hulme, in the local newspaper, The Oswego Palladium-Times; nevertheless, it began to sell, strictly by word-of-mouth.
In 1970 you reappeared in print at last, this time as the moderator for that television interview — we used three cameras for it, as I recall.
That’s right! One for me when I talked, one for the younger you when he talked, and one for the older you. It worked pretty well, as I recall. But then I disappeared again.
True. My goal, however, was one day to bring out an edition if The Book of Forms with examples in it, examples in many cases that did not exist in contemporary language, that I had to write myself. I worked on those examples for the next decade and a half. Or perhaps I should say that you did.
At last! I know what happened after that, but our readers don’t, so I’ll ask.
What happened is that while I went on writing syllabic poems, accentual poems, prose poems and so forth, you began to provide me with, first, many of your own poems in the traditional forms, especially the ones I needed. I also set you to work on the Welsh and Irish Bardic forms which had never appeared in any other handbook. What my alter-ego did (my dad was a minister, so I like to say my altar ego) was to look up English translations of Medieval poems, and then to 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 you 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, but most of the time under your name. To my amazement, magazines began to accept them. In fact, you began to have more luck with your rhyming and metered poems than I was having with my syllabic poems! What was going on? I thought I knew. The worm was beginning to turn again, and there was a big pile of younger poets who had been using The Book of Forms for almost a decade, writing in the old forms, experimenting with the Bardic forms, publishing in the little magazines, and even beginning new periodicals that published what they were interested in.
You keep mentioning your Book of Forms as though it were the only book available for these people.
There were some old, out-of-print books available in used book shops, such as Helen Louise Cohen’s Lyric Forms from France, published in 1922; Louis Untermeyer’s The Forms of Poetry, published in 1926; Clement Wood’s Poets’ Handbook, published in 1940, and Mary J. J. Wrinn’s The Hollow Reed, published in 1935 — I listed them all in my book’s bibliography, but in fact The Book of Forms was the only book of its kind in print, and it was a paperback original, so it was available almost everywhere. This was the era of the “paperback revolution,” so people could pick up a copy even in grocery stores and pharmacies. There was simply no book like it easily available, and it contained many more verse forms than any other book of its kind that had been published anywhere. Furthermore, no other book in history had contained schematic diagrams of the forms so that a reader could see clearly at a glance how the poem should be constructed. I had invented the system of the diagrams, but Miller Williams copied it in his book later on.
You’ve got to be kidding. Aren’t you overstating the case just a bit?
Don’t curl your lip like that. I’m not bragging, I’m just stating facts. There was no other book remotely like it until Alex Preminger published the expensive and ponderous tome titled the Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics in 1965. My book was cheap, and it could fit into your back pocket. There are still hundreds of copies of the original edition floating around. It had no competition in the field until John Hollander published his Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse thirteen years later, in 1981, also a paperback, but nowhere near as complete a listing of verse forms.
I concede the point. I was pretty busy during this period, as I recall.
You certainly were. In 1977 some things began to happen that required you to step forward. I sent a chapbook manuscript of some of our poems, under my name, to Song magazine, and it was accepted. Titled Curses and Laments, that’s just what it was, a series of alternating curses and laments, some of them against the president of the college where I was teaching.
At about the same time, my friend and former student, the great jazz band leader and composer of the ‘20s and ‘30s Charlie Davis decided to start a publishing company. He drafted me as his editor and asked me to name the firm. I suggested The Mathom Publishing Company. When he asked me what the word “Mathom” meant, I told him it was old English via Tolkien for “useless treasure.” I assumed that’s what we’d be publishing. Charlie agreed.
The Charlie Davis? The composer of “Copenhagen?”
None other. Unfortunately, the first useless treasure that Charlie wanted to publish was a collection of my poems. Not wishing to tell my elderly friend that it wasn’t meet for a company to publish its own editor’s work, I hemmed a bit and then said, “Well, how about publishing a book of poems by Wesli Court?” “Who’s he?” “Me.” “Okay.” So I gathered another bunch of our rhyming and metering poems and put them together in a manuscript that I decided to call Courses in Lambents. I wrote Richard Behm at Song and asked him to change the author’s name of his book to “Wesli Court” also.
So suddenly I had two books coming out! Why do they have titles that could easily be mistaken for one-another”?
This was my reasoning: If someone told my president about the curses I had written for her and she called me into her office to confront me with, “Did you write a book titled Curses and Laments? I could reply, “Why, yes, I did write a book titled Courses in Lambents, and here’s a copy, my gift to you.” When she examined it she would find no curses against her, and she would be forced to the conclusion that her informant was either misinformed or a trouble-maker. Meanwhile, I would be out the door scart free. (A scart is an obsolete word meaning “small scratch”; a Scot is a big Celt. People in Maine would pronounce the word “scart” as “scot.” Maybe the dictionary etymologies are wrong?) This scenario never took place.
It felt really good to me to be able to breathe freely at last.
It happened that Courses appeared before Curses, in 1977, and the latter appeared the following year — I took very good care to make sure no copies appeared on campus for seven years, at which point I figured the statute of limitation on curses ran out. I then donated a copy to the College library. Meanwhile, Charlie wanted a children’s book for his list, so he attempted to negotiate with a member of our Writing Arts staff, Helen Buckley Simkiewicz, a well-known juveniles writer, but she was under contract, so he turned to you again.
I take it that the same strictures against publishing the work of an editor applied here, too!
Yes. I had been making up stories and poems and telling or singing them to my schoolboy friends and my children for decades. One of them was about a pair of caterpillars who spun cocoons, but only one of whom, Mabel, emerged with wings. Murgatroyd instead grew a propeller. I hadn’t written the story down at first, but eventually I’d done so, and it had been rejected by major houses on the grounds that children didn’t like, or at least shouldn’t read, stories about physical distortions (like a flying elephant with ears that were wings, or a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole where her neck grows longer and shorter, or dancing hippos wearing tutus, etc., etc.). Charlie didn’t see anything wrong with such distortions, so in 1977 he brought out Murgatroyd and Mabel by “Wesli Court,” with illustrations by my late neighbor Bob Sullins.
Did anybody like my latest book?
Both before and after it was published. My children did, and my grandchildren, grandnieces and grandnephews still do. Over these few years you had also been publishing your modern versions of Medieval poems in the traditional forms here and there, and in 1981 the Poetry Newsletter of Temple University brought out a chapbook special issue devoted to The Airs of Wales, poems you had written in some of the twenty-four official meters of the Welsh bards.
So by 1981 I’d published three collections of poems and a children’s book.
Yes, and that was it until 2004 when Star Cloud Press brought out our collaborative volume, The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004. However, in 1986 I used a lot of your poems in The New Book of Forms, and Miller Williams used some in his Patterns of Poetry that same year. I used them in the Third Edition of The Book of Forms of 2000 as well, and some have appeared in anthologies here and there.
How did the later editions of your Book of Forms come about?
I told you about the poetry round-up reviews I was doing for The Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbooks from 1983-1986 In which I discussed the fact that there was beginning to be a renewed interest in formal poetry, and I documented the movement with the books I was reviewing. Ironically, it was during this period that Dutton, for no known reason since it was selling as well as ever, decided to drop The Book of Forms from its list.
Dutton’s move gave me the opportunity to revise, expand, and update the book, and because of its reputation as “the poet’s bible” I had no trouble in placing the manuscript as The New Book of Forms with the University Press of New England which published it in 1986 with many of your examples included. (In fact more than one publisher, including Iowa, wanted to bring it out.)
It was an immediate success despite the fact that during the same year, for the first time in almost two decades, other formalist books were published including Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry and Strong Measures, edited by Phillip Dacey and David Jauss, which contained some of my own poems. The following year, when I passed my annual poetry roundup reviewing chore on to Sam Gwynn, another book devoted to formal poetics, Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman appeared. The drought was over and young people were learning craft again.
The New Formalists must be grateful for all the work you’ve done in the field.
Not so much. Although almost every one of them cut his or her poetic eyeteeth on The Book of Forms, they forgot to include it in their New Formalist bibliographies.
You’ve got to be kidding.
I’m not. You can check.
Good Grief! That must have put a crimp in your ego.
Not even in my “altar ego.” I haven’t written fifty books (both yours and mine) over fifty years and not run into this sort of thing before many times. I persist because I’m still deeply interested in what I do and what I continue to study.
What are you doing these days?
Writing more books including fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and blogging. I have two Typepad blogs, “Poetics and Ruminations” and “Odd and Invented Forms” at lewisturco.net. People can download a freed e-chapbook of my most recent non-traditional poems titled Attic, Shed, and Barn, from Ahadada Books, and you have a new book coming out at last.
I know, and I’m looking forward to September first of this year when The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems will be published by StarCloudPress.com.