Turco, Lewis (Putnam)

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TURCO, Lewis (Putnam)

Nationality: American. Born: Buffalo, New York, 2 May 1934. Education: Suffield Academy, Connecticut, 1947–49; Meriden High School, Connecticut, 1949–52; University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1956–59, B.A. 1959; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1959–60, 1962,M.A. 1962. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1952–56. Family: Married Jean Cate Houdlette in 1956; one son and one daughter. Career: Graduate assistant and part-time instructor of English, University of Connecticut, Storrs, spring 1959; editorial assistant, University of Iowa Writers Workshop, 1959–60; instructor of English, 1960–64, and Poetry Center founding director, 1961–64, Cleveland State University; assistant professor of English, Hillsdale College, Michigan, 1964–65. Assistant professor, 1965–68, associate professor, 1968–71, professor of English, 1965–96, poet-in-residence, 1995, and since 1996 professor emeritus, State University of New York, Oswego. Visiting professor of English, State University of New York, Potsdam, 1968–69; since 1975 Faculty Exchange Scholar, State University of New York; Bingham poet-in-residence, University of Louisville, Kentucky, 1982; writer-in-residence, Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, spring 1991. Participant, New York Council for the Humanities "Speakers in the Humanities Program," 1992–95. Awards: Yaddo fellowship, 1959, 1977; Academy of American Poets prize, 1960; Bread Loaf Writers fellowship, 1961; Helen Bullis prize (Poetry Northwest), 1972; National Endowment for the Arts-P.E.N. prize, for fiction, 1983; Melville Cane award, 1986; winner, Silverfish Review Chapbook Competition, 1989; First Place, Cooper House Chapbook Competition, 1990, for Murmurs in the Walls; Distinguished Alumnus award, Alumni Association of the University of Connecticut, 1992; installed in the Meriden, Connecticut Hall of Fame, 1993; Bordighera Bilingual Poetry prize, Sonia Raiziss-Giop Charitable Foundation, 1997; John Ciardi award for lifetime achievement in poetry, 1999. Agent: John Joen, Mathom Press Enterprises, Box 362, Oswego, New York 13126–0362, or (booking agent) Bill Thompson, Briarwood Writers Alliance, 61 Briarwood Circle, Needham Heights, Massachusetts 02194, U.S.A. Address: P.O. Box 161, Dresden, Maine 04342–0161, U.S.A.



Day after History. Arlington, Virginia, Samisdat, 1956.

First Poems. Francestown, New Hampshire, Golden Quill Press, 1960.

The Sketches of Lewis Turco and Livevil: A Mask. Cleveland, American Weave Press, 1962.

Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959–1967. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1968.

The Inhabitant. Northampton, Massachusetts, Despa Press, 1970.

Pocoangelini: A Fantography and Other Poems. Northampton, Massachusetts, Despa Press, 1971.

The Weed Garden. Orangeburg, South Carolina, Peaceweed Press, 1973.

Courses in Lambents (as Wesli Court). Oswego, New York, Mathom, 1977.

Curses and Laments (as Wesli Court). Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Song Magazine Press, 1978.

A Cage of Creatures. Potsdam, New York, Banjo Press, 1978.

Seasons of the Blood. Rochester, New York, Mammoth Press, 1980.

American Still Lifes. Oswego, New York, Mathom, 1981.

The Airs of Wales (as Wesli Court). Philadelphia, Poetry Newsletter Press, 1981.

The Compleat Melancholick. Minneapolis, Bieler Press, 1985.

A Maze of Monsters. Livingston, Alabama, Livingston University Press, 1986.

The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1989.

A Family Album. Eugene, Oregon, Silverfish Review Press, 1990.

Murmurs in the Walls. Oklahoma City, Cooper House, 1992.

Legends of the Mists. Kew Gardens, New Spirit Press, 1993.

A Book of Fears. West Lafayette, Indiana, Bordighera, 1998.

Broadsides, cards, etc.: At Yule, 1958; O Well, 1963; Pocoangelini 8, 1965; The Burning Bush, 1966; Image Tinged with No Color, 1966; School Drawing, 1966; My Country Wife, 1966; Nativity, 1967; The Children and the Unicorn, 1968; The Glass Nest, 1968; Burning the News, 1968; The Sign, 1970; A Carol for Melora's First Xmas, 1971; The Magi, 1972; Nursery Rime, 1973; The Fences, 1973; The Pond, 1974; The Vista, 1975; The House, 1976; Epitaph IV, 1978; Epitaph V, 1978; Gnomic Verses, 1978; The Habitation, 1978; Albums, 1979; The Covered Bridge, 1979; Prothalamion, 1980; Millpond, 1981; The Summons, 1981; Winter, 1982; Lineage, 1983; Company, 1983; Lorrie, 1984; First Snow, 1985; Fading Things, 1986; An Amherst Christmas, 1987; The Birdsong Blues, 1988; The Xmas Blues, 1989; A Voice in an Old House, 1990; Sapphic Stanzas in Falling Measures, 1991; Villanelle of the First Day, 1992; Theme and Variation, 1993; The View from a Winter Garret, 1994.

Recordings: Raceway and Other Poems, Library of Congress Archive, 1959; Poems, Cleveland State University, 1961; Recent Poems, Library of Congress Archive, 1979.


Dreams of Stone and Sun (produced Storrs, Connecticut, 1959); published in Theatre Journal (Oswego, New York), Fall 1971.

The Elections Last Fall (produced Oswego, New York, 1969); published in Polemic 6 (Cleveland). 1961.

The Fog (opera libretto), music by Walter Hekster. Amsterdam, Donemus, 1987.

Ballet Scenario: While the Spider Slept, 1965.

Radio Play: Vincent, 1987.


The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. New York, Dutton, 1968; revised edition, as The New Book of Forms, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1986.

The Literature of New York (bibliography). Oneonta, New York State English Council, 1970.

Creative Writing in Poetry. Albany, State University of New York, 1970.

Poetry: An Introduction Through Writing. Reston, Virginia, RestonPublishing Company, 1973.

Freshman Composition and Literature. Saratoga Springs, New York, Empire State College, 1973.

Murgatroyd and Mabel (for children; as Wesli Court). Oswego, New York, Mathom, 1978.

Visions and Revisions of American Poetry. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1986.

Dialogue: A Socratic Dialogue on the Art of Writing Dialogue in Fiction. Cincinnati, Ohio, Writer's Digest, 1989.

Dialogue. London, Robinson Publishing, 1991.

The Public Poet, Five Lectures on the Art and Craft of Poetry. Ashland, Ashland University Poetry Press, 1991.

Emily Dickinson, Woman of Letters. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1993.

Shaking the Family Tree: A Remembrance. West Lafayette, Indiana, Bordighera, 1998.

The Book of Literary Terms: The Genres of Fiction, Drama, Nonfiction, Literary Criticism, and Scholarship. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1999.

Editor, The Spiritual Autobiography of Luigi Turco. Ann Arbor, Michigan, University Microfilms Books, 1969.

Editor, That Band from Indiana, by Charlie Davis. Oswego, New York, Mathom, 1982.

Editor, The Life and Poetry of Manoah Bodman: Bard of the Berkshires. Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1999.


Bibliography: "Lewis Turco: A Bibliography of His Works and of Criticism of Them," in F.W. Crumb Memorial Library Bibliographies, Potsdam, State University of New York, 1972; in A Bibliographic Guide to the Literature of Contemporary American Poetry, 1970–75, by Phillis Gershator, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1976; in Dictionary of Italian-American Poets, by Ferdinando F. Alfonsi, New York, Peter Lang, 1989.

Manuscript Collection: Wilbur Cross Library, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Critical Studies: "The Formalism of Lewis Turco" by Hyatt H. Waggoner, in Concerning Poetry (Bellingham, Washington), fall 1969; "The Progress of Lewis Turco" by William Heyen, in Modern Poetry Studies (Buffalo), 5(2), 1976; "Sympathetic Magic" by the author, in American Poets in 1976, edited by William Heyen, Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1976; introduction by H.R. Coursen to American Still Lifes, 1981; "Making the Language Dance and Go Deep" by Donald Masterson, in Cream City Review (Milwaukee), 1983; "A Certain Slant of Light: The Poetry of Lewis Turco" by Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., in The Hollins Critic (Hollins, Virginia), XXVIII, 2 April 1991; "The Mirror Image: A Retrospective Image of Lewis Turco" by De Villo Sloan, in Voices in Italian Americana, III(1), spring 1992; "Terra Imaginaria" by Gene Van Troyer, in The English Record, XLIII(2), 1992.

Lewis Turco comments:

I consider that poetry is the genre of language art. The poet concentrates on language as substance, in much the same manner as the sculptor concentrates on stone as shape or the dancer on the body as motion. Like writers in the other literary genres, the poet may use either of the two modes, prose, which is unmetered language, or verse, which is metered language (according to the O.E.D.). Any of the genres may be written in either of the modes; that is to say, there may be prose or verse fiction, prose or verse drama, prose or verse essay, prose or verse poetry.

These distinctions between genre and mode, it seems to me, ought to be obvious, but that people continue to confuse the two is evident in their continued use of the contradiction in terms "free verse" and in the often asked question, What is the difference between prose and poetry? There is only one logical answer to the latter: prose is a mode, and poetry is a genre. And of course verse cannot be free if it is metered language.

It is always my intention to know as much as I possibly can about all the genres and about both the modes, so that I may write whatever I please, however I please, shaping the language as well as I am capable of doing for any purposes I wish. I am not interested in a style; I am interested in all styles. Not in one form but in every form, including the experimental. I do not care to inhabit a conceptual or artistic prison by limiting myself to techniques agonists approve for some reason of literary theory or manifesto of poetics. I will throw nothing away before I discover what I may do with it.

But these are pragmatics and rationalities. All worthwhile writing has emotional and irrational imponderables as well. I tried to address these in

for John Brinnin and Don Justice,
on a line by Joel Sloman
If it is true that
"the sea worm is a decorated flute
  that pipes in the most ancient mode"—
  and if it is true, too, that
the salt content of mammalian blood
    is exactly equivalent
to the salinity of the ocean
at the time life emerged onto the land;
and if it is true
that man is the only mammal with a
  capacity for song, well, then,
    that explains why the baroque
  worm swims in our veins, piping, and why
    we dance to his measure inch by
equivocal inch. And it explains why
this song, even as it explains nothing.
—from The Shifting Web
*  *  *

Lewis Turco has been cited by many as his generation's best practitioner of formal verse, a distinction that from some is an honor, while from others it is an insult. Nevertheless, the judgment is misleading. Turco's work is not a compendium of exercises in poetical technique. In fact, his vision—here dark and brooding, there deceptively light, even witty—has led him into almost as many camps of American poetry as exist.

The more obviously formal period is found in Turco's first two collections. Their less successful work is overly flat and prosaic, as in "Narcissus to His Fleshly Shade," or is too repetitive, which dulls the image, as in the opening sentence of "The Old Professor and the Sphinx." Yet a great deal from this period is strong. The Audenesque "An Immigrant Ballad" wonderfully contrasts the profane and the sacred: "The girl was pleased: she'd saved a soul /(O light a stogie with a coal)." "A Tale of Rivers and a Boy" is at once like a fairy tale and syntactically innovative, while "My Country Wife" is rich in sound.

Turco's second period is mildly experimental. The Inhabitant, the poems of which are allegorical, is made up of alternating prose poems and lyrics. In the lyrics punctuation is often missing and syntax skewed. Throughout, the poet persistently narrows his vision, aiming in each prose poem at the larger picture and then focusing in each lyric on a smaller, but no less important, specific aspect. Many of the prose poems, such as "The Guestroom," are engaging and melodic.

After The Inhabitant Turco published volumes in a variety of styles, from a collection based for the most part on the tarot to the dramatic monologues of the "Bordello" sequence. His group of poems "Pocoangelini" has a folktale flavor, while "The Sketches," more than two dozen related poems, contain some of Turco's most contemporary diction, as in "'scram on home or I'll bop your nose'" ("Gene").

In American Still Lifes Turco's chief concern and metaphor is nature. No longer are humans important—except for those in the poems who perceive nature—and the poems are characterized by a haikulike quality. Even when the poems are about objects associated with people, as in "The Tavern" or "The Meetinghouse," the reader strongly feels the absence of human beings.

The title The Shifting Web suggests that Turco is as aware of the shifts in style, theme, and form as are those who follow his career. In this volume there are hefty selections from eleven of his twelve collections—his first, Day after History, is not represented—arranged thematically rather than chronologically. The section of new poems opens with "Reflections at Forty-Nine," an understated observation from the vantage point of midlife and midcareer. In these poems Turco's voice is controlled, offering a nearly emotionless account of aging and leaving an understanding of what has occurred, although it is neither identified nor articulated. In the following poems the elegiac tone and theme continue, with house, home, domestic scenes, and family situations as Turco's chief metaphors for life and the status quo threatened by time.

Despite the sense of doom that permeates these poems, the section closes with the upbeat "Poem," in which the relationship between poets and poems is likened to that between a child and a kite. Like a kite, the poem is at once elusive yet attached to the poet, able to be held or to escape. In the paradoxical relationship between poet and poem, between child and kite—in short, between the creator and the creation—Turco seems to find relief, if not hope. The poet and poem become one; the child follows the kite in its escape into the sky just as the poet is released from the trials of this world during the act of creating.

In two later chapbooks, A Family Album and Murmurs in the Walls, Turco adopts the personas of various members of an extended family. Together these collections, the poems of which are composed of syllabic verse, reveal not only self-portraits of a distinctly American family, one as old as the nation itself, but also a lyrical record of that family's personal experiences, among them a marriage in which love has died, a celebration of Independence Day, watching bears in a junkyard, and the emptiness of old age.

Turco has composed a series of some sixty centones based on Emily Dickinson's correspondence with her friends and relatives. Collected as "A Sampler of Hours" in Emily Dickinson, Woman of Letters, the centones vacillate from the surrealistic to the contemplative, from the bitingly realistic to the naive. While expertly retaining Dickinson's voice and principal themes, these experiments bridge the gaps between the past and present, the female and male, and prose and poetry, and the best of them reveal a passionate contemporary sensibility at work despite the nineteenth-century prose on which they are based.

—Jim Elledge