Turner Cassity Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Turner Cassity was born Allen Turner Cassity in Jackson, Mississippi. His father, who died when Cassity was four, was in the sawmill business; his mother was a violinist and his grandmother a pianist in silent-film theaters. The family moved to Forrest, Mississippi, in 1933 and later back to Jackson, where Cassity attended Bailey Junior High School and was graduated from Central High School. Cassity was graduated from Millsaps College with a B.A. in 1951 and from Stanford University with an M.A. in English in 1952. At Stanford, he studied poetry with Yvor Winters in a program that he likens to “the strict technical training a musician would get at a good conservatory.”

Cassity was drafted in 1952 during the Korean War and spent the two years of his duty in Puerto Rico, an experience that provides the basis for his sequence The Defense of the Sugar Islands. He received an M.S. in library science from Columbia University in 1956 and served as an assistant librarian at the Jackson Municipal Library for 1957-1958 and for part of 1961. From 1959 to 1961, Cassity was an assistant librarian for the Transvaal Provincial Library in Pretoria, South Africa. Observations from his stay in Pretoria and Johannesburg frequently appear in his poems. In 1962, Cassity accepted a job at the Emory University Library in Atlanta, where he remained until his retirement in 1991.

Cassity’s travels took him to the desert and the tropics, and he spent much time in California. He referred to his poems as “tropical pastorals,” but this description conceals the sense of amusement and horror with which many of his speakers perceive the past. Cassity also described himself as “a burgher” in temperament and conviction, and this label is also somewhat misleading, for his poems seldom reveal a complacent attitude; his scrutiny of colonialism, while not obviously polemical, often reveals the flaws inherent in the underlying psychology of the colonist more than do more tendentious poems. Cassity died in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 26, 2009.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The career of Allen Turner Cassity has been marked by steady poetry publications since 1952 in numerous American poetry magazines and at small and large book presses. He was born in Jackson, Mississippi, to Allen D. and Dorothy T. Cassity. He earned degrees from Millsaps College (1951) and Stanford University (1952), both in California, as well as from Columbia University (1956). In 1957 and 1958 Cassity was a librarian at the Jackson Municipal Library in Mississippi, and from 1959 to 1962 he worked in South Africa at the Transvaal Provincial Library in Pretoria. Providing support services for numerous villages in the Transvaal, Cassity traveled widely, observing the apartheid culture, which would be a part of his writing material for years. Cassity has visited South Africa since his years in library service. From 1962 through January, 1991, Cassity was a librarian at the R. W. Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, working as chief of the serials division and later, of cataloging. Besides writing and publishing poetry, Cassity has edited and published a poetry newsletter called Drastic Measures and taught courses in the Emory University Community Education Program. A formalist poet who was a student of Yvor Winters, Cassity acknowledges Wallace Stevens and E. A. Robinson as influences on his own style. He has been recognized with awards such as the Blumenthal-Leviton-Blonder Poetry Prize in 1966, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1980, and the Ingram-Merrill Award, 1990, which provides financial support for outstanding writers.

Cassity’s poems are often topical and heavily referential. His most common subject is Western imperialism and explorations of related subjects: greed, self-delusion, exploitation, inhumanity, wealth and poverty, and how the passage of time changes little in human judgement. In choosing subjects for his verse, Cassity first decides on a topic of interest on which he feels confident writing; then the idea is shaped into a metrical poem. Thinking in meter is natural for Cassity, who revises little because he crafts the poem in his mind before he commits it to paper. The metrical style, international scope, and satirist’s voice are the hallmarks of Cassity’s poetry.

Watchboy, What of the Night?, Cassity’s first book, is a collection of fifty-six poems, the majority of which had appeared first in Poetry magazine. The book is divided into six named sections and has a multinational focus; Cassity draws from his life in Mississippi, his service in the U.S. Army stationed in Puerto Rico, and his work in South Africa. He easily mixes French, Dutch, German, and English into many of the pieces. His rhymed, metered verse is a natural extension of conversational speech, and his themes of exploitation, death, greed, and human frailty give his satirical voice its subtle but aggressive tone. Gold, as a subject and a unifying image, dominates much of the collection, and it proves a flexible tool for examination of what a society...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)