Sunday, October 27, 2013

`Maximum Ground in Minimum Space'

“My family on both sides were sawmill people for generations, and we still think that stumps are prettier than trees.  I am not a nature poet.” 

Turner Cassity (1929-2009) was a consummately witty poet and man. We don’t read his lines in search of sensitivity or Big Ideas, thank God. He never confuses writing a poem with self-expression or an interview with an opportunity to moan or preach, so his work is not tainted by fits of oracular self-righteousness or self-revelation, the curses of the literary world. In the 1980 interview quoted above, I hear the idiosyncratic rhythms of another independent Southerner, Guy Davenport, a native of Anderson, S.C., and longtime resident of Kentucky. Cassity was born in Mississippi and lived much of his life in Georgia (birthplace of Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Bowers and Madison Jones – freethinkers indifferent to literary fashions, and a large part of the reason we can’t imagine American literature in the twentieth century without writers born south of the Mason-Dixon Line). Here’s a sampler of Cassity’s mots from the previously cited interview: 

“People ask me why I write in meter and rhyme and I can only give one answer: without it nothing comes into my head.” 

“You can write in any manner you please if you are not particular what the result sounds like. In the most successful poetry it seems to me that the structure is the art; just as in successful engineering. Not that I have any theoretical objection to free verse, although I myself could not possibly write it. Many free verse poems are interesting and beautiful. Many more are not, of course, and in any event the reason free verse is popular is that it is easier. That is, it is perceived as being easier. In actuality it is harder. It is much more difficult to write really good free verse than it is to write good metrical verse. The temptation to looseness is too strong. One can remain moral in a bordello, but it is likely to be a struggle.” 

“I don’t think you can have a great novelist who writes bad prose, and a great deal of that prose [Faulkner’s] is flat out awful. You can have a great novelist who writes indifferent prose; after all, we presumably have to read Tolstoy in translation. Out and out bad prose I can’t take. The prolixity of it! It is the determination of people who ordinarily have no one to converse with to make the telling of the tale as long as possible.” 

“The next—dare one hope, the last? – great Southern novel surely will be written about Detroit or Los Angeles or Dayton; Bakersfield, perhaps. Places full of White Southerners who have uprooted themselves and made another life.” 

“For me the great breakthrough came with the realization I was not interested in writing about myself, which, believe me, sets me apart from most other poets, who do not write about anything except themselves.” 

“How often have you ever read a poem about a bank? Yet think how large a part of our lives economics is. I have written poems about banks, and, though I say it, they are rather good poems. If you cannot make money interesting, you had better give up.” 

“I try to cover maximum ground in minimum space. The poet as narrator occupies a great many lines and contributes nothing.” 

“Even when I was young it was obvious to me that the worst poets are those who devote all their time to it. What sort of life have they? What is their contact with the real world? They socialize only with other writers, most of whom certainly are not real, and have in consequence no subject matter.” 

“Hobbies are for children and mental defectives. Poetry is an art. It is what I do. I produce poems as a fruit tree produces fruit. Not every year will be vintage, and individual specimens may fail. Nevertheless the crop can be depended on.” 

“I usually try to write happy poems when I am depressed and depressed poems when I am happy. I hope to bring to the writing more detachment that way.” 

“Writers have writer’s blocks for one reason only: they have nothing to say.” 

“How can the general exist except through the particular? It may not exist at all.” 

“The poems exist to convey information.” 

“I should like to be a disappearing poet. I should hope that after reading my poems through, a reader would not have the least idea what sort of person I am, but would have derived very clear ideas on the places and people I have written about.” 

“I do not try to improve people. I was raised a Calvinist, and have the great advantage of never being surprised by the wickedness of the world. Do not allow them to put on my tombstone that I worked for a better world, because I didn’t. There is not going to be a better world. Unless we are careful there is not going to be one this good.” 

“At the risk of vanity, I shall say I think of myself as a capitalist Brecht.” 

“The great loss to American poetry was the death of Louise Bogan. What a hoot to see the feminists taking her up. Better than to have her remain obscure, but I hardly think that her feminism is the point.” 

Go here for a brief biography and generous selection of Cassity’s poems. The poet’s literary executor, R.L. Barth, shared with me another of Cassity’s apothegms: “You will learn more about America by sitting two hours in the cocktail lounge of any Holiday Inn than by reading all of De Tocqueville.”

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