(Poets and Poetry in America)

Detractors, and occasionally even champions, of Turner Cassity’s verse argue that while technically polished, the poems are often unrewardingly distant or difficult, and that although the poet’s formal talent was considerable, his range was somewhat limited. A closer reading of Cassity’s work as a whole, however, reveals the complexity to be a necessary outgrowth of the poet’s vision—not merely cleverness for its own sake—and the limited scope to be a false modesty. The wealth of allusion never makes the writing pedantic or pretentious; instead it reflects the poet’s refusal to adopt a single, narrow perspective as his guide.

Cassity wrote terse, elliptical poems in unfashionably strict metrical form. For Cassity, the discipline of writing in meter and rhyme was prerequisite to his creative process: “without it, nothing comes into my head.” However, while traditional, his verse avoids monotony and is typically supple and lively. His poems often include exotic settings or historical figures, juxtaposing them to the tawdriness of the familiar modern world. The combination of this irony with the restrained meter and diction yields a body of poetry that is formal and wittily aloof; the polish and urbanity, however, do not conceal the poet’s ongoing search for a deliverance from decay and loss. Ultimately, the poet returns to his medium, language, and to his craftsmanship to find this deliverance, and in this sense Cassity was truly modern—in contrast to many contemporary poets, who, though severing ties with traditional form, fail to understand the relationship of past to present and their role in defining that relationship.

Clearly, Cassity was to some extent an heir of earlier modern poets writing in traditional modes, especially of Winters, with whom Cassity studied; many critics have also noted similarities between Cassity’s work and that of W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost. Equally evident, though, is the deft, colloquial irony of French post-Symbolists such as Jules Laforgue, and the formal control, epigrammatic wit, and social concern of eighteenth century poetry, particularly that of Alexander Pope. Still, the density of Cassity’s allusions and the complexity of his contrasts—past and present, great and trivial, historical and personal—distinguish his writing from that of the traditional poet.

The growing acceptance of Cassity’s terse, restrained style has led to a greater appreciation of his poetry; still, his work has yet to receive a full, comprehensive critical account. Perhaps only when the historicity of what is now called contemporary poetry becomes clear will it be possible to understand the unique merit of Cassity’s contribution. In the meantime, his poetry may gradually become for the general reader less of a curiosity and more of a hallmark of a complex and significant response to the modern age.

“Seven Destinations of Mayerling”

The fact that Cassity frequently juxtaposes the noteworthy with the mundane may in part account for his being labeled a satirist. Such a strategy, however, is a means more of evaluating the past than of ridiculing the present, a means of understanding change and loss. The poem “Seven Destinations of Mayerling,” for example, relocates the castle of a German baron’s suicide/murder to seven sites: Arizona (across from the London Bridge, which was actually relocated there), Orlando (another Disney World), Dallas (the Budapest Hymnbook Depository), Nashville (an attraction at the Grand Ol’ Opry), Milwaukee (a beer hall), Tokyo (a brothel), and Montana (a hunting lodge). Cassity’s purpose here, in spite of his witty and acerbic parodies, is not to lament the banality of modern culture, for the castle, like Europe itself, is no holy relic to be venerated. Rather, by juxtaposing the contrasting and even conflicting worlds, the poet simultaneously depicts the difficulty of living outside time and change, and the capacity of the imagination, wit, poetic language, and form to create an amusement, which itself becomes the sought-after haven, the refuge.

“Gutenberg as Card Shark”

A key to Cassity’s attitude toward the past may be found in his essay “Gutenberg as Card Shark,” an essay primarily about the cataloging of periodicals. Cassity criticizes the tendency of librarians to efface the traces of a periodical’s original state (such as deleting the advertisements from magazines); he finds these indexes of the ephemeral nature of the publication often more revealing of the time than the verbal text itself, and points out that an emphasis on the more academic nature of the publication simplifies and hence falsifies the text’s reality. Behind this priority lies the preference for the genuine though ephemeral artifact (which may in fact be genuine because it is ephemeral) over the self-consciously didactic and hence derivative and unreal artwork. The article concludes: “The Gutenberg Bible was no doubt a towering achievement, but if we could retrieve entire the cultural environment of those printed playing cards which preceded it, who would not trade Scripture away?”

Watchboy, What of the Night?

Cassity’s first collection, Watchboy, What of the Night?, like most of his works, is divided into several sections. The first section, “Rudiments of Tropics,” consists primarily of scenes and recollections from such places as Indochina and Haiti. These poems reflect on change, chance, and loss, as in “La Petite Tonkinoise,” a monologue by a Vietnamese prostitute who is an object of exploitation but also the force that controls the colonizer: “Yet I and wheel, meek where your glance is hurled,/ Combined, were Fortune, Empress of the World.” The second section, “Oom-Pah for Oom Paul,” extends the analysis of imperialism to South Africa. In “Johannesburg Requiem,” the blacks lament a social, linguistic, and economic structure that is not theirs but which they must serve.

The section “In the Laagers of Burgherdom” celebrates with deft irony the comforts of kitsch: Café musicians complain of having to play the same tunes repeatedly (though they do have steady employment), heaven is depicted as a Hollywood production number, lovers are compared to the Katzenjammer Kids, and elderly ladies find “Grace at the Atlanta Fox” (an art deco film theater in the style of a Turkish mosque).

“The Airship Boys in Africa”

The forty-page poem “The Airship Boys in Africa,” published in Poetry in 1970, is dedicated “To the Crabbes: George and Buster” (a reference to the eccentric early nineteenth century poet who described simple village life in eighteenth century couplets and to the swimmer/actor hero of Tarzan films). Here again Cassity relies on an urbane mixture of kitsch and culture, in this instance to convey the failure that results when one culture attempts to impose itself on another for mere gain; the story depicts the doomed flight of a German Zeppelin in World War I to secure territory in Africa. Interweaving past with present, reality with mirage, the poet presents a wry but frightening vision. The heroism of the German crew, like their airship, is finally deflated, their mission pointless. The first chapter describes a Namibian who, talking and thinking in clicks, watches the airship crash; the poem then, in the in medias res fashion of epics, reverts to the beginning of the story and follows the crew on their mission. The final chapter describes the survivors searching for the last remaining German stronghold, one of them falling back and clicking his tongue against his teeth. This unexpected union of conqueror with conquered is repeated in the epitaph, a conclusion with nightmarish overtones of the Flying Dutchman legend:

Full throttle low above the high savannah; Game running into, out of pointed shadow. Herr, between drummed earth and silent heaven, We pursue a shade which is ourselves.

Cassity’s preoccupation with kitsch, as represented here and in other works, signifies neither an amused cynicism nor a predilection for form over content but an awareness of the liberating power of coming to terms with one’s own culture. While admiring its technical virtuosity, Donald Davie has criticized “The Airship Boys in Africa” for what he calls a tendency toward campiness, in which the poet seeks “to always astonish, outsmart, upstage any conceivable reader.” Though characterized by cleverness and wit, Cassity’s poems do not lack a seriousness or a sincerity, nor are they marred by what Davie calls a lack of shapeliness; rather, they assume a shape that, while unexpected or startling, is in fact the only shape that can convey the poet’s meaning. The reference to Buster Crabbe, for example, reminds the reader of the naïve and ethnocentric assumptions of the Hollywood film about civilization and savagery, progress and technology. However, whereas the naïveté of the Hollywood production obscures one’s awareness of reality, so can culture—the failed Parsifal myth, the Germanic heroic code—stifle with its insistence on the reenactment of the...

(The entire section is 3813 words.)