Lewis Turco Essay - Critical Essays

Turco, Lewis


Turco, Lewis 1934–

Turco is an American poet, playwright, essayist, and editor. He is noted for his skillful use of traditional poetic constructions, particularly in Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959–1967, and The Inhabitant, which are generally considered his best works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

[Awaken, Bells Falling] is a full and varied book, showing off the range of Turco's talent and the variety of his mind. His view of things is quiet and dark; he accepts rather than affirms, acknowledges rather than celebrates. But the poems have a solidity beyond acceptance, for he knows the music of the day's events and remembers the way the ordinary can often glow and blaze. Whether he writes of a pumpkin, a Christmas tree, the death of a president or an ordinary evening in Cleveland, he writes with compassion and precision. If death too often overshadows life, and pain, life's joys, nevertheless Lewis Turco finds his singing voice in suffering, finds reason to live and love in despair. These are good poems by a poet of a real ability. (p. cxlix)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1968, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 44, No. 4 (Autumn, 1968).

Hyatt H. Waggoner

Turco as poet has tended to preserve and rework Modernist attitudes in our post-Modernist period, and Turco as critic has—how consciously I don't know—taken on the role of valiant defender of the timeless verities of the poet's art against all those who promote confusion by putting first what is properly secondary, for instance by writing "confessional" poetry or striking a "prophetic" stance. (p. 50)

[In] Turco's latest poems, the effects of a warming trend in the poet's mental weather is evident, so that his next volume may be expected to surprise those who have not followed the newest poems as they have appeared in the magazines. The "new" Turco may well appear to be attired and equipped not with greatcoat and club but more in the fashion of Whitman…. (p. 51)

Images of winter, of silence, and of either a cold darkness or a cold whiteness suggest, and sometimes establish, the prevailing mood of Awaken, Bells Falling. Quite often they seem to echo early Stevens or early Frost, or both at once. In the title poem the climactic passage in "The Whiteness of the Whale" in Moby-Dick is, consciously or unconsciously, drawn upon to enrich the suggestions of the images. Reading "Winter;/allcolor; whiteness…." we can't help remembering how Melville put it: the whiteness of the perpetual arctic snow was "the colorless all-color of atheism." When we read the final lines of the poem—"… Bells fail in the streets;/the hall empties us into ice,//sheeted, sheer as mirrors, unreflecting."—we find ourselves in the not too different world of Stevens, who thought one must have a...

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William Heyen

The Inhabitant (1970) is the collection of poems that Lewis Turco has been heading toward for a long time. As his books have appeared his work has not only gotten better, but has changed. (p. 115)

Most of the work in Turco's First Poems (1960) is too stiff metrically, or too pretty, or too ingenious, or too heavily moral and wise. Depending on your tolerance for "promising" first volumes, you're likely to consider Turco's apprentice work "very pleasant to hear," as did Donald Justice when he wrote a Foreword for First Poems, or as merely a sort of unpromising game "exhibiting the most ordinary of all kinds of skill," as did James Dickey when he reviewed it…. What most concerns me here is the strenuous and irritating morality of the book, something the poet had to grow out of. Nothing is more aggravating in poetry than the presentation of conventional wisdom unless it is the presentation of conventional wisdom conventionally. It is not just that some of Turco's early poems are didactic, poems of statement, poems with some of the excesses of newspaper obituary verse, but that behind them is a sort of puritanical fury that demands that every action, everything that happens to anyone at any time anywhere should and must yield its drop of meaning. Meaning everywhere, but not a drop to think. Turco wasn't willing to allow a poem to well up from its own subtle sense of itself, wasn't willing to allow it to do what it wanted to do.

In any case, apprentice work, it seems to me, does become interesting as its potential is or is not fulfilled with more mature poems, and this is reason enough for its publication. (pp. 115-16)

Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959–1967 (1968) represents a great step forward. This third collection—an impossible-to-get-hold-of chapbook, The Sketches, was published in 1962—has already arrived. Most of the poems are finished and satisfying. Occasionally the sermonic tone of First Poems still breaks through and is offensive, but for the most part skill, awareness, and curiosity brought these poems into being rather than the constant puritanical rage for a sign. Turco's voice is less insistent. Authorial intrusion is at a minimum. The sensibility behind these poems has made an intelligent decision, a decision of the intelligence, and is willing to allow its subjects to Be rather than constantly Become. An example of the book's method and belief is its shortest poem, "School Drawing":

There is a road: no
one is walking there. Brown
paper, black paper triangles
wrangle with the air
to make a windmill
striping a crayon
sun. A black arrow points
away from the blades that turn in
fire. It is burning,
and there is no wind.

This means what it says, no more and no less. Turco has gone back to the innocence of words here. The fire of illumination in this book, as...

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Those who frequent the small world of the little poetry magazines know Lewis Turco as a champion of the classical virtues of form and craftsmanship. In a 1968 essay entitled "Defining the Poet," Turco wrote, "… a poet is an artificer of language, and … a poem is an artifice of language." For Turco, the poet is always primarily the artificer, the maker, not the seer.

This is an unpopular position to defend in light of today's strong neo-romanticism and also in light of America's [Emersonian] poetic tradition…. For Emerson, the poet is the visionary who mystically intuits truth and who then unself-consciously expresses this truth in the form which its inner nature dictates. But Turco, always suspicious of visionaries, attributes much of the inferior poetry of the present popular American poets to an easy and undisciplined adherence to that philosophy.

In The Inhabitant, Turco's latest collection of poems, the inhabitant, in a sense, represents the American poet caught in the classical vs. romantic crossfire. In "The Livingroom," he encounters what may be the visionary muse as it mystically appears as a singing skull. The inhabitant yearns to hear the singing of the skull; but he hears nothing, even though "he is a lover of song." He is tempted "to pretend that he has heard," but he rejects the subterfuge. It is only then that he hears the music. Thus his "inspiration" comes not from the vision but,...

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R. Dickinson-Brown

Lewis Turco's poems get better, book after book. The Weed Garden … is Turco's best. The finest of the twenty-one syllabic poems here are almost as good as anything new I have read in years. But these poems have an elusive and cryptic profundity; to understand them it is first necessary, unfortunately, to understand some of the weaknesses in Turco's work. A good deal of the best poetry of our century is syllabic…. The success of these poems depends in part, I believe, upon the fusion of innovations of rhythmic perception with the almost inherent characteristics of English iambic tendency, stopped lines, rime and off-rime. Turco's practice is looser. It resembles the work of Marianne Moore, and it verges easily into slackness and dullness. As with Moore, Turco's virtues are often not in rhythm…. (pp. 286-87)

In addition, Turco is something of an ornamentalist. He plays with obsolete and invented words: "A twilleter fuzzes/against a burning lamp." And he is given to silly and exasperating puns. In "Mary Moody Emerson R.I.P.," "Ralph Waldo/shrugged and put down to whim this/relative moodiness." This is, doubtless, a love and delight of language, but I confess I find it a waste of time and talent…. [These qualities of Turco's poems] are the junk of experience, done when there is nothing else to do.

Turco's characteristic procedure is built in part, but finally improves, upon these habits. His poems are laid...

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Felix Stefanile

Turco seems to have the whole of the English lyric tradition at his fingertips, and though this is not entirely a good thing—too much tinkle here and there, here a bit of Keats, there a bit of Mother Goose—I belong to the old school, and see in this bravura the commitment of a poet to craft. I trust poets who show clear influences, and I don't trust the groggy, toneless, "spontaneous" mutter of much that goes by the name of verse today among the younger, studiously untutored poets of the confessional school. (p. 297)

I would like to see Turco … return to the inspiration of "The Sketches," the sequence that forms the middle third of [Pocoangelini: A Fantography]. There, in a handful of...

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