Turner Cassity’s The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems is a striking collection that will convince skeptical poetry readers of the range and adaptability of formalism. The new poems are followed by selections from Cassity’s earlier books, in chronological order, and an epilogue poem that serves as an envoi. The poems run the gamut of formalist possibility from clear, witty, and brief epigrams to complex, allusion-laden meditative poems. The work clearly defines the trademark Cassity poem. The poet’s distinctive mix of philosophical speculation, irony, nose-thumbing at the current pieties, and complex wordplay is a constant throughout the book.
Cassity’s work is associated with the new formalist school of poetry and is often discussed with that of other formalist poets such as Dana Gioia, Timothy Steele, and Edgar Bowers. Cassity has been around long enough to have been directly influenced by the formalists of the 1950’s, when the rhymed and metered poem dominated in Poetry Magazine and elsewhere. The earliest of the books from which selections have been made is dated 1966, but Cassity was constructing his signature ironic balances for some time before this. At one point he described himself as “the wildest of the students of the late Yvor Winters.” There is some of Winters in this work, including carefully measured metrics and a sense of controlled distance, but irony has replaced much of the elegiac tone of Winters (though Cassity gets in some elegy as well). Some of Cassity’s work has a blend of balanced epigrammatic irony; other poems are apparently more straightforward. It is hard to tell, sometimes, exactly where the poet’s true sympathies lie, as the poems are layered with irony. It is perhaps this in-your-face irony that Cassity is thinking of as “wild.”
The travels that compose much of this poet’s life are the taking-off point for the poems. Cassity’s years in Africa, where he was a civil servant, are reflected in the poems, as well as his time spent in the Caribbean in military service and later jaunts all over the globe. How history and place intersect is analyzed in meditative poems; these may, at first, appear to belong to the (to many readers) unwelcome category of “local color” travel poems but upon second reading prove to be more than scenes noted by the intellectual tourist eye. Rather, they are moralistic considerations on the conflict between beauty and practicality, and the many ironies that result from this conflict. Cassity also looks at the ironic contrast between a place in its natural state and after it has been changed by technology and use; perhaps this kind of reflection is what once led him to call his poems “colonial pastorals.” What attitude the poet really holds toward the profit motive, toward using and spending as opposed to guarding and preserving, would be hard to fathom beneath the layers, and the poet would likely disclaim any position statement attributed to the work.
Whether the reader agrees with any putative politics, there is much to be derived from this poetry. A pleasure is that it is demanding and yet yielding—there is a good deal of background knowledge of places and events expected, but not required, of the reader. Most of the message comes through even if some of the names are unfamiliar. Another delight is the sound—these poems should be read aloud. For those who circle the new formalists warily, the poems are of an appropriate length for the reader who is disinclined to curl up with Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene; most of them are one or two pages in length. They may be enjoyed singly and in groups.
The forms themselves are varied and contain plentiful echoes. “Allegory with Lay Figures” clearly evokes T. S. Eliot:
In dark blue suits intently go
The brisk young men of Tokyo.
They scorn the scooter, purchase cars,
They meet their girls in coffee bars.
Poem and message are Eliot-like—the surprise is in the setting and in the realization that Eliot’s world has not been replaced, just displaced.
Some Cassity poems use other kinds of couplets, often iambic pentameter, end-stopped, with overtones of Alexander Pope. He uses off-rhyme with casual expertise, setting up ironies...