Monday, August 17, 2009

in memoriam Turner Cassity and homage to surviving writers

Randall Jarrell wrote, in an epigram I used as an epigraph to my first published essay, something to the effect of "The poet in America has a unique relationship to the general public: it doesn't even know he is there." (Jarrell wrote this a fair number of years pre-1970, so the masculine universal was the grammatical norm.) He also wrote that publishing a volume of verse in America is like throwing a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the echo.

So I suppose it is not surprising that Atlanta Review should be world-esteemed and largely unknown in its eponymous city, its editor Dan Veach the creator of Flowers of Flame, the first anthology in English (I think) of present-day poems from Iraqi writers, a book that has not gotten all that much press in his hometown. In previous decades, Veach has been able to coax contributions from Nobel laureates without getting much credit for it.

It is, then, also not surprising that in spite of his having lived in a city that sponsors art and literature festivals both at the beginning of summer and at the end of it, the recently deceased Turner Cassity's books are largely unavailable both in local bookstores and in the public library.

Cassity was no self-published wonder, but an idiosyncratic, deeply learned and deliberately irritating writer with decades' worth of volumes from university presses. He went against the trends of his day and of almost any day one cares to think of, writing vastly cynical verses alongside loopily-titled looks at forgotten aspects of twentieth-century history (or outright fantasy; "The Airship Boys in Africa") and giving his first volume of collected poems a title so politically incorrect that I blush to write it even now.

I suppose anyone who set out to be so consciously, wittily offensive would not have been the sort of fellow who received or accepted frequent offers to perform his poetry. But he co-founded a monthly forum for poets that survives after three decades, one that gave me an early moment of visibility alongside many other emerging writers— the majority of whom, like the majority of Atlanta's visual artists, remain emerging to this very day. And he was genuinely generous to writers who did not share his point of view, though it helped if they could comprehend the perspective of a poet who could return from North African travels praising the quality of Morocco's art deco architecture.

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