A Poet Fond of Stumps

Turner Cassity s sly, rigorous writing gives depravity its due.

March/April 2008

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A Poet Fond of Stumps

Lara Rossignol

Poet Turner Cassity, MA ’52, is a wickedly funny man. But not only. That’s the trouble with the award-winning poet: he is always on the verge of sliding into a convenient pigeonhole.

See how Swallow Press publicizes his latest book: “As he approaches eighty, Turner Cassity may finally be out of control. His hatchet has never fallen more lethally. . . . One looks forward to Mr. Cassity’s posthumous poems, when he is beyond the reach of libel. For now, at least, we have Devils & Islands.”

Devils & Islands, Cassity’s 10th collection, reinforces the image of the dapper Southerner as a satirist, and, in the words of National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, ’73, MBA ’77, perhaps “the most brilliantly eccentric poet in America.”

But the image runs the risk of reducing an insightful poet to another of the world’s smart alecks. Colleagues offer a more nuanced view. “People use the word ‘eccentric.’ I can’t come up with a better term except ‘extremely independent,’” says longtime friend and fellow poet Helen Pinkerton, ’48, MA ’50. “I’ve never known anybody quite like him. He is the most witty man in conversation I’ve ever known.”

Pinkerton’s acquaintance with the poet goes back to the circle of writers who collected around Stanford’s controversial poet and professor, Yvor Winters (1900-1968). She considers Cassity “a morally responsible poet—in the Wintersian sense. He’s serious about poetry. He doesn’t write poems just to make people laugh. There’s always more to it than that. Even for his friends, his poems are difficult, dense.”

Cassity deflects the occasional charges of obscurity: “I tell people I do not think that my poems are obscure; they may be arcane.” Arcane indeed, for those who may not know that Ilse Koch was the wife of the Buchenwald commandant or that Gutzon Borglum whittled Rushmore. It helps to know opera, too.

Cassity was born in 1929 in Jackson, Miss. Calvinism formed a crucial part of his upbringing. Did it influence his choice of subject matter—all the poems that, as he puts it, limn “the wickedness of the world, the depravity of the world”?

The unyielding creed—“You just should not expect too much of people”—gave him intellectual backbone in a world where rigor of all kinds is dissolving. One poem, “Calvin in the Casino (He apostrophizes a roulette ball)” whimsically toys with the influence:

Sphere of pure chance, free agent of no cause,
Your progress is a motion without laws.

Let every casuist henceforth rejoice
To cite your amoralities of choice…

Chance and serendipity play a large part in Cassity’s background, a shaping force for the odd juxtapositions that are the hallmark of his poems. In his family, 1929 was remembered for more than the stock market crash, and more, even, than the birth of young Turner. His mother, a violinist, and his grandmother, a pianist, were movie accompanists, performers who made the “live” soundtrack for silent films. “Al Jolson was a dirty word in our house,” Cassity recalls; 1929 marked the end of the silent movie era.

His grandparents on both sides were in the sawmill business. According to Keith Tuma, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Cassity’s fascination with engineering and technology as well as his highly self-conscious meditations on aesthetics and use-value, on poetic artifice and statement, can probably be traced to an early understanding of his family’s work as involving the exploitation of natural resources for human needs.”

Cassity puts it more succinctly: “I still think stumps are prettier than trees.”

The family mill “cut its last log in 1929. We had cut all the timber. There were no trees left.” He still has an income from the land’s minerals and petroleum rights, however—a useful baseline for a poet.

Cassity’s father died when he was 4, and Cassity began managing his inheritance as a teenager. “When I was 16, my mother turned over the financial management to me. She said, ‘Either you will learn to manage money, and that will teach you something, or you will run through the money, and that will teach you.’”

As a result, Cassity is one of the few contemporary poets not afraid to write about money and economics. The smell of the dollar, rand, yen or Euro suffuses his poems: “Tourism shows decline can be an industry/Like any other...” he writes in “Free Trade in Mitteleuropa.”

He attended Millsaps College in Jackson (“founded by Major Millsaps, a sawmill millionaire”), graduating in 1951. After he read Winters’s In Defense of Reason from the Jackson Public Library, he enrolled at Stanford so he could study with Winters. “He was a great metrist, and meter was what I was interested in.”

Cassity distinguishes himself among his Winters circle peers as “one of the few who got away from the West Coast.” The Army got him first: he served in the Caribbean during the Korean War. Later Cassity worked as a librarian, first in his native Jackson, then in the Transvaal Provincial Library as a civil servant in South Africa’s provincial administration, then for nearly three decades at Emory University in Atlanta. Now retired, he lives in Decatur, Ga.

Cassity eschews autobiography and insists, “I have no real interest in writing about myself. I’m a great traveler, as the poems show. I’d much rather write about what I’ve seen.” Yet his own story lurks a little in the corners of some of his poems. “He Whom Ye Seek” concludes:

Wall, coffins, keys, was it a stunting or a growth?
It was the risk of so much safety. It was both.

“I’m proud of it,” he said. “It’s hard to encounter a poem about a bank anywhere.” But he’s dodged the question: was his life too safe? “I’ve had an unstressful life,” he says. “I’ve planned it that way. I’ve had it easy. I’ve been cushioned by a small but dependable private income early on.”

According to poet Suzanne Doyle, MA ’78, a longstanding friend, Cassity “likes to think he’s more wicked than he really is. His ‘destructive element’ seems to me relatively mild.” She characterizes him instead as a sober survivor. She cites “Soldiers Three in the Big Easy,” in Cassity’s characteristic six-foot lines:

The Pfc. who rhumbaed with the Argentine
Before he punched him out died long ago of drink;
The Corporal who ripped a passing halter off
Re-upped and vanished in Korea. I survive,
Rise early on Ash Wednesday, and do not repent.

A survivor, and in not only the literal sense. “He published his ‘collected,’ and two books since then,” Doyle says. “While his output might be described as epigrammatic, he hasn’t stopped. He’s writing better today than he ever has done.”

On this point, Cassity agrees: “I have no sense of being written out. I may be deceiving myself—but it’s nice to have the feeling.”

Read a September 2010 update on this story.

CYNTHIA HAVEN is a frequent Stanford contributor.

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