The Heresies of Turner Cassity

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The Heresies of Turner Cassity

The literary historian of posterity who finds himself sneezing over the dusty tomes of the early twenty-first century may well get the impression that the poet of our era lived a life fraught with peril. Effusions such as “courageous writing” and “brave poetry” appear so frequently in our book reviews and dust-jacket blurbs that even the most conscientious of future researchers might reasonably infer that the American countryside at the beginning of the Third Millennium was teeming with insurgent bards persecuted by the ruthless forces of intellectual reaction. Closer research, however, will reveal a curious paradox: the writings to which such descriptions are most often applied tend to imbibe the prevailing intellectual and literary ethos. Thus, if a volume of poetry is said to contain "language that takes risks," it will almost certainly be filled with pre-approved tropes guaranteed to please the grant committees of the NEA. Eventually, if our rheumy-eyed scholar knows his business, he will realize that such phrases represent nothing more than the critical shtick to which many contemporary reviewers revert when political or social circumstances require them to comment favorably on writing that possesses little merit.

In reality, of course, poets are just as risk averse as the rest of the American populace. They know that the price of genuinely "courageous writing" can be real and immediate while its rewards, if any materialize at all, may well accrue posthumously. Consequently, there aren't many poets willing to buck the literary establishment. But there are a few. Among these is Turner Cassity. Unlike most of the poets who profess fealty to Baudelaire's dictum, "Il faut épater le bourgeois," Cassity is not content to send up the pieties of the nineteenth century while slavishly kowtowing to those of our own time. Cassity has consistently courted critical opprobrium by flouting political correctness, dealing in subject matter deemed insufficiently "poetic" by the literati, and unapologetically indulging his predilection for unfashionable prosodic techniques.

With regard to politics, Cassity is easily the most heretical poet writing today. He gleefully butchers every sacred cow he can find. In "Across the River and Into the Sleaze," from his 1998 collection, The Destructive Element, he tells the reader that "asphalt is just as natural as grass." In "Vegetarian Mary and the Venus Flytrap," from the same book, he mocks the "dietarily correct" with tongue-in-cheek speculations about salads made with carnivorous plants. In "An Attempt to Explain Anorexia Nervosa to Lillian Russell," from his 1991 collection, Between the Chains, he offers a number of passages such as the following, which would certainly have resulted in mandatory sensitivity training had it been written by an undergraduate at any major university:

      There is no remedy. It first reveals
      Itself in an insatiable desire to
      Purchase women's magazines. It strikes
      High-fashion models, who at least die rich.

Although blasphemy such as this is certainly sufficient to raise right-thinking eyebrows, Cassity's heterodoxy is not limited to the taunting of the politically correct. His choice of subject matter also reaches beyond that which most contemporary literateurs would consider proper grist for the belletristic mill. A case in point is "J.P. Morgan," from his latest collection, No Second Eden. In the following excerpt, Cassity suggests that even robber barons have their point of view:

      All you who view me with alarm,
      You are the weak who do the harm.
      Markets are chaos, structures banks.
      Exchanges panic, break their ranks.
      I flog them back. I get no thanks.


It hardly needs to be said that, in an era when “corporate greed” is regularly invoked as the most egregious manifestation of moral depravity, few contemporary poets would have the crust to bring J.P. Morgan back from the dead in order to scold the trust busters. But Cassity does not share the anti-capitalist views expressed by most of his fellow bards. In fact, in "Acid Rain on Sherwood Forest," from Between the Chains, he goes so far as to remind the reader, “It was the Krupps/Who had the world’s first pension plan, and built/Its first real worker housing. Had sick leave.” No ritual bashing of the military industrial complex from Cassity.

In addition to highlighting his unorthodox view of what constitutes appropriate subject matter, "J.P. Morgan" and "Acid Rain on Sherwood Forest" demonstrate Cassity’s rejection of the postmodern penchant for portentous treatment of that subject matter. In an era characterized by widespread poetic hand wringing about the human condition, he tends to regard the gyrations of our species as little more than comic relief. This remains true even when his poetry deals with events of great moment. In the following excerpt from "Man of the Century," another poem from The Destructive Element, Cassity invokes Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who shot Archduke Ferdinand, as a kind of avatar for the ubiquitous violence of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, he resists the temptation to become pontifical:

      His portrait will not grace news magazines,
      This killer of the morganatic wife
      (I write here as a quasi-feminist)
      And of her Archduke spouse, but by the bridge
      In Sarajevo--it is named for him--
      Each shell that falls is warhead to his shot,
      As in Hiroshima (iambic please)
      His is the gesture of the blackened hand,
      And Hiroshima (trochees now; I write
      As a revisionist) itself much more
      A monument to him than any bridge:
      An ultimate in deconstructionism,
      Somme--summation--of a quicker age.

Cassity’s parenthetic comments concerning alternate pronunciations of “Hiroshima” effectively illustrate his refusal to take himself, or the world, too seriously. Moreover, they point to yet another of his heresies: his rejection of the free verse aesthetic. "Man of the Century” is written in blank verse, Cassity's meter of choice for more than four decades. His affinity for iambic pentameter will perhaps seem unremarkable to those whose exposure to poetry dates from some point subsequent to the advent of neoformalism. But, for most of Cassity's writing career, which began in the early Sixties, his consistent use of blank verse represented a significant break with a literary establishment that considered formal verse quite dead.

Even more remarkable has been his persistent use of rhyme. Cassity has been ignoring fashion and using that much-maligned convention since well before the Expansive Poetry movement was even a gleam in the eyes of Frederick Fierstein, Timothy Steele, et al. "Domestic Symphony," in which the speaker discusses his home life with a companion whose primary contribution to the household seems to be ornamental, appeared in his 1966 collection, Watchboy, What of the Night?

      I sell securities, and am artistic.
      Your career is somewhat more elastic.

      Not quite viable but not quite kept,
      Which would you be if I were less inept?

      I pay and cope, deny you, house, indulge.
      You keep in training: swagger, ripple, bulge.

Cassity persists in his heretical use of the rhymed couplet in No Second Eden. The following excerpt from “The Second-Guesser,” offers a less-than-flattering comment on postmodern academia:

      As sort of retro-oracle, I drone
      My might have been. An armchair is my throne,

      Tenure my Camelot On it accrue
      All envies of the do-not for the do.

Cassity's persistent use of such unfashionable prosodic techniques, combined with his penchant for flouting political correctness and affinity for "unpoetic" subject matter, invites speculation concerning the genesis of his heterodoxy. As “The Second-Guesser” suggests, Cassity is not a “professor-poet.” While most of his contemporaries have tended the vineyards of academia, Cassity has traveled widely and made his living outside of the classroom. This has given him a far less parochial world view than most of the university-based poets.  Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in his poems about South Africa. Unlike most of the poets who have written about that part of the world, Cassity has actually lived there. Consequently, he avoids the moral posturing that characterizes so much of the literature that has focused on apartheid. In the title poem of Between the Chains, for example, he combines a mordant reading of what kept the system in place for so long with the suggestion that it is that self-same commercialism that offers the only real hope for a stable post-apartheid existence for that strange society:

      Here is the only city built
      On neither trade nor sand nor silt

      But on the rock itself of gold.
      It is not, it will not be, old.

      It holds much guilt, some hope, all pains,
      Between the chains, between the chains.

This suggestion that good can sometimes come from evil is indicative of a middle class optimism that points to another determinant of Cassity's unorthodox sensibility: his view of his place in society. Although most contemporary poets are members in good standing of the bourgeoisie, they go to great pains to avoid being seen as such. Thus, comfortable Bobo literateurs feel compelled to pepper their symposia with silly ejaculations like "Let us undermine the bourgeoisie." Cassity, on the other hand, adheres to Tom Wolfe's view that there is nothing more bourgeois than the fear of appearing bourgeois, and he unapologetically advertises himself as middle class "by investment, temperament and conviction."

As important as his extra-academic existence and middle class perspective have been in creating his voice, Cassity would not be Cassity without the influence of Yvor Winters. He studied with Winters while in graduate school at Stanford in the early Fifties and the teacher's concerns with rationality in poetry are echoed throughout the student's work. Winters insisted that reason should be the primary motivating force of poetic composition. Implicit in this position is the requirement that the poet preserve a certain emotional distance from his subject matter. This aspect of Winters' influence finds expression in "WTC,” another poem from No Second Eden, where Cassity applies biblical imagery to the 9-11 attack:

      Our Tongues so long confused
      Must fail and be recused

      In face of terror. Base
      To summit, be its place

      The plain of Shinar, Main
      Street, Wall, the Tower vain

      If glorious is downed
      By envy ...

Another important, if less obvious, sign of Winters' influence on Cassity's work involves what the former would have characterized as the moral dimension of the latter's poetry. Winters, of course, did not merely insist on the paramount importance of the rational in poetry, he also caused the knotted and combined locks of his contemporaries to part by insisting that the writing of a poem is a "moral act." This is not to say that he advocated the kind of sanctimonious moralizing that often mars today's "socially conscious" writing, but rather a far more subtle use of form and rhythm to obtain a moral impact. Winters believed that a poet's use of form and rhythm were indicative of his spiritual commitment to whatever notion he was trying to express in the piece. This conviction led him to suggest that T.S. Eliot's "limp versification" pointed to a "spiritual limpness" that undermined the power of his work. By this standard, Cassity's poetry would seem to have a great deal of spiritual or moral strength, for his versification is anything but limp.

Indeed, the adjective that comes most readily to mind when trying to describe Cassity's versification is "controlled" and, ironically, this points to his one besetting sin. His passion for metrical regularity and echoic consistency sometimes overwhelms his sense of poetic propriety. A case in point is the following excerpt from "At the Palace of Fine Arts," in which a number of lines contain distracting syntactic contortions:
You, golden youth of what accomplishment,

Have too that problem. You will not be always
Equal to gilt and tiptoe....

In line two of the excerpt, the words "too" and "be" have been placed in their respective positions for no other purpose than to maintain a steady iambic rhythm. In normal speech, "too" would come before "have" and "be" would come after "always." Toward the end of the poem, Cassity lets this sort of thing get so out of hand that he becomes nearly incoherent:

                                      ....Think, therefore,
      Yours is the ease of working by the rules;
      And if you age, your ruin means. It may
      Not; still, you will not then debase your base.

The problem here isn't that the lines don't make any sense. Cassity always makes sense. The difficulty is that he turns his iambic pentameter into a kind of Procrustean bed in which demotic syntax is distorted almost beyond recognition. He makes a straightforward idea unnecessarily difficult.
The sense that his work is a touch overwrought also reveals itself in some of Cassity's rhymes. In "Of Heaven as Production Number," for example, we find the following couplet:

      And there, a heaped-up female ziggurat
      As perfect summit to transfigure at.
      And it gets worse, as the following couplet from  "Kurt Weill in Curacao" demonstrates:
      Perhaps the ultimate Dutch, the Café Surabaya.
      Does it serve good rijsttafel? Had Maria Ouspenskaya ...

If, as Yeats says in "Adam’s Curse," the poet's goal in constructing a line is to make it "seem a moment's thought," Cassity has fallen far short of the mark in these two poems. Such excesses, however, are atypical of Cassity's work. Indeed, it is their incongruity that makes them so noticeable. Much more representative is the following excerpt from "Across the River and Into the Sleaze," in which he describes Matamoros in a seamless combination of iambic pentameter and demotic verbiage:

      Before we damn it as unnatural
      We might do well to bear in mind asphalt
      Is just as natural as grass. They both
      Come up out of the ground. And as for vice
      It was a garden where the fall took place.
      The double serpent of the interstate
      Hangs high its lighted fruits on either side ....

And it is, no doubt, this kind of virtuosity that has prevented the more fashion-conscious critics from crucifying Cassity for his various heresies. Not that some haven't tried. Although none has had the cheek to suggest that he is anything other than a poet of the first rank, more than one has attempted to damn him with faint praise. John Ash, for example, admits in ACM that Cassity's is an "allusive, highly literary poetry," but goes on to brand him as "insufficiently modern." Jerome McGann advises the readers of Poetry that Cassity "recognizes perfectly what his words and lines can do" but then relegates him to the realm of the "limited poet." Even critics who like his work are made somewhat uneasy by Cassity's crotchets. Richard Tillinghast, in an enthusiastic piece for The New York Times Book Review, recommends his poetry only to those who "enjoy a highly original sensibility you're not quite sure you approve of."

In the end, that willingness to make even one's admirers a little uncomfortable is what constitutes genuine "risk-taking" in literature. Truly "brave poetry" does not parrot pre-approved platitudes in officially sanctioned formats. Genuinely "courageous writing" mordantly examines the pieties of its time and exposes their inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Turner Cassity is one of the few contemporary American poets whose writing does just that.