Saturday, January 12, 2019

'The Myriad Appeal of Wit'

In 2007, two years before his death, Turner Cassity reviewed A.E. Stallings’ first collection, Hapax. The reviewer was seventy-eight, the reviewed thirty-eight. She was born in Georgia and he lived there. His review begins: 

“A.E. Stallings is a classicist, and would be if she never used a Greek or Roman reference. Intelligence, balance, an unerring sense of which form will further the material: these are classicism's characteristics, and hers. She makes you realize how much poetry is simply a mess. In some cases a striking and imaginative mess; still . . .”

The ellipsis, characteristically, is Cassity’s. There’s no need to make the rest explicit. Most poetry, past and present, is a mess. Anyone reading Stallings or Cassity would know that. The enumerated qualities of a classicist, beginning with intelligence, are, of course, his own. Without exception, his poems are about something, dense with historical, musical, geographical, pop-cultural allusions, but they mean something and often help tell a story, unlike the flotsam that clutters The Cantos. Cassity's prose and verse are tight and flabless. One could acquire a respectable education following up on every reference in every Cassity poem. He is, as he says of Stallings, “absolutely contemporary and recognizably classicist at the same time.”

Cassity was a student of Yvor Winters at Stanford in the nineteen-fifties. He remained loyal to his one-time teacher and his strict metrics, while becoming the most wayward of the Wintersians. Cassity’s contribution to Poems in Memory of Yvor Winters on the Centenary of His Birth, a chapbook edited by R.L. Barth in 2000, is “Exclusions Not of Rhyme”:

“Much I omitted. What is left
Let recompense the loss.
Detail . . . denial, flanking theft,
Add nothing to the Cross.

“The myriad appeal of wit
May tempt to overlong.
It is not easy to omit.
The press of fact is strong:

“Variety has wealth to burn.
Tight focus one must earn.
Confront the many and be done.
Face into death: the one.”

The title no doubt alludes to The Exclusions of a Rhyme (1960), a collection of poems by another independent-minded former student of Winters’, J.V. Cunningham. Nearly every line is an aphorism and an apologia: “Much I omitted.” “Sitting behind Ben-Hur” is one of the new poems in The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems (Ohio University Press, 1998):

“The drumbeat sets the oar-stroke, cruelly;
But then we do not choose our heartbeat.

“Manacles confine us. Who, however,
Can be really said to venture?

“If in the battle it is row or drown,
We row. The lash is often on us.

“It is an incentive, in its way.
The rowing builds up shoulder muscles.

“I’ve a tan. I look at backs a lot.
I deeply understand teamwork.

“I live in filth. Was I fastidious
When I was free?  Here sharks will have us;

“It’s not as though elsewhere there are not jackals.
Bear up. Hand and heart grow calloused.”  

Cassity is no nihilist, though his poems revel in human vanities and our bottomless capacity for self-deception. The oarsman-slave starts out as a well-tanned, well-muscled Pollyanna, but judging by the final line, he seems to have learned something. According to my count, three of Cassity’s books come with epigraphs borrowed from novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which makes perfect sense. Like her books, Cassity’s poems mingle lightness of touch with solidity. At the end of his Stallings review he writes:

“[She] reminds us that poems are structures. The best, like hers, are rational structures. Too many are like those of the notorious Winchester House in San Jose, where the only principles were vanity, intention, and addition. Curiosities may survive, but only as curiosities.”

Cassity was born on this date, Jan. 12, in 1929, in Jackson, Miss., and died on July 26, 2009 in Atlanta at age eighty. His work reminds me of an entry in Abram Tertz’s prison memoir A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward, 1976): “Art is insolent because it is so clear. Or rather, it is insolent in order to make itself clear. First it sticks a knife into the table and then it says: there you are – that’s what I’m like. (While listening to Haydn.)”

Look for Cassity’s poems and read them. He is one of our best and will never insult your intelligence.

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