The HyperTexts

Lewis Turco

Professor Lewis Putnam Turco is widely published American poet, critic, teacher and scholar. While he is one of the best-known poets of the school of Formalism, also known as New Formalism, he also writes free verse. Turco is the Founding Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (1962) and the Program in Writing Arts at the State University of New York at Oswego (1968). He was chosen to write the major essay on "Poetry"―as well as a dozen other entries―for the Encyclopedia of American Literature, and was included himself as a biographee. His poems, essays, stories and plays have appeared in many major literary periodicals over the past half-century, and in over one hundred books and anthologies. Turco's classic The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics has been called "the poet's Bible" since its original publication in 1968. A companion volume, The Book of Literary Terms, The Genres of Fiction, Drama, Nonfiction, Literary Criticism and Scholarship, received a Choice award as an "Outstanding Academic Book" for the year 2000. A third book in the series, The Book of Dialogue, appeared in 2004. Turco's first book of criticism, Visions and Revisions of American Poetry, won the Melville Cane Award of the Poetry Society of America (1986), and his A Book of Fears: Poems, with Italian translations by Joseph Alessia, won the first annual Bordighera Bilingual Poetry Prize (1998). His poetry book The Green Maces of Autumn: Voices in an Old Maine House won both the Silverfish Review Chapbook Award (1989) and the Cooper House Chapbook Competition (1990). In 1999, Turco received the John Ciardi Award for lifetime achievement in poetry sponsored by the periodical Italian Americana and the National Italian American Foundation. Turco has also published as "Wesli Court," a rearrangement of the letters of his first and last names.

"The Inhabitant is the best new poem I’ve read in something like thirty years—profoundly satisfying to me, speaks my language. Such a relief to have WHOLE meaning again instead of this pitiable dot-and-dash splinter poetry, or sawdust cornflakes which we usually get. You give me the courage to read again, and even to believe again in myself. So you see how handsomely I’m in debt. Thank you!" — Conrad Aiken

"Lewis Turco and I share similar worlds. Everything he writes about in The Inhabitant is part of my real or remembered world. There are many riches here. Reading the book is like going up in the attic on an autumn or summer night, to open trunks and fetch out strange images and treasures." — Ray Bradbury

"Lewis Turco is a realistic poet with a shrewd eye on the world. He depicts and embodies his world in resourceful poetic language. His poems please and delight." — Richard Eberhart

"He has the gift of seeing things and the gift of words and a mind to feel with." — John Ciardi

Lewis Turco's books can be purchased by clicking here.


On a sculpture by Ivan Albright

      There is a door
            made of faces
faces snakes and green moss

      which to enter is
            death or perhaps
life which to touch is

      to sense beyond the
            figures carved in
shades of flesh and emerald

      the Inhabitant at home
            in his dark
rooms his hours shadowed or

      lamp-touched and that door
            must not be
attempted the moss disturbed nor

      the coiling lichen approached
            because once opened
the visitor must remain in

      that place among the
            Inhabitant's couches and
violets must be that man

      in his house cohabiting
            with the dark
wife her daughter or both.


The Inhabitant stands in his hallway. A long way from the door,
       still the gentleman has a distance to go before he can leave, or
       enter, or simply resume.

Here there is small illumination. The only window is of squares of
       stained glass, in the door behind him which is closed.

Things wait in the narrow aisle. Objects beguile him — each has its
       significance, in and beyond itself; each is an obstacle in a way
       to be touched and passed:

Touched and repassed, and with each touching to become more
       than the original substance. The Inhabitant stands in his
       hallway, curiosities looming ahead and behind.

It is as though, almost, this furniture had become organs, exten-
       sions of his body. If he listens, the gentleman may find his
       pulse booming in the hallseat, under the lid, gently, among
       artifacts and mathoms.

Let him proceed; let his footfall say clum, silence, clum. Let the
       stained light lie amber on a black umbrella in its stand, fall
       scarlet on the carpet, make a blue haze of a gray hatbrim ris-
       ing in shadow to the level of his eye to rest on an iron antler in
       the hall.

The Inhabitant is home. Let him go down the hallway, choosing to
       pass the stair and banister this time, pass these things of his,
       levelly, moving from light to light, shadow to shadow.


In the kitchen the dishwasher is eating the dishes. The Inhabitant
       listens to the current of digestion — porcelain being ground,
       silver wearing thin, the hum and bite of the machine.

His wife does not hear it — she is humming, not listening. But the
       Inhabitant is aware of movement in the cupboards, of the veri-
       est motion — the cast-iron skillet undergoing metamorphosis,
       perhaps, becoming its name: the wives' spider spinning be-
       neath the counter, weaving and managing, waiting for the
       doors to open.

Each cup has its voice, each saucer its ear, and the thin chant
       planes between the shelves, touching the timbres of glass
       and crystal as it passes. The gentleman listens, is touched
       to the bone by this plainsong — he feels his response in the
       marrow's keening.

But the women do not — neither the elder nor the child — sense
       the music their things make. Their lips move, a column of air
       rises like steam, and there is something in a minor key sliding
       along the wall, touching the face of a plastic clock, disturbing
       the linen calendar beside the condiments.

It is as though, the Inhabitant reflects, the women are spinning. It
       is as though, while he waits, they weave bindings among the
       rooms; as though the strands of tune were elements of a sis-
       terhood of dishes, the ladies, the spider in the cabinet, even
       of the dishwasher, done now with its grinding, which contrib-
       utes a new sound — a continuo of satiety — to the gray
       motet the kitchen is singing.

the Inhabitant

for Lewis Turco
by Michael R. Burch

who is the Inhabitant, we wonder ...

is he the living remembering the dead,
reanimating their corpses in his cranium’s mausoleum?

or is he the dead shambling among the living
like an affectionate but discombobulated zombie?

or is he an extraterrestrial like heinlein’s Stranger —
a christlike seeker of knowledge and truth,
as yet unable to grok earth-life?

or is he a prophet sent to remind us what we know—
that we can never understand: Dishes, Kitchens,

Lewis Turco's "The Inhabitant" can be purchased by clicking here and selecting Fearful Pleasures, his collected poems.


For Miller Williams, on his retirement

It's time to start to think of growing old.
We've put it off as long as is feasible,
Perhaps. When one is young, the impossible
Is what one sings of: love and death, the bold
Clasp of the ideal mistress and the cold
Grasp of the grave: romantic cock-and-bull.
One seldom writes of the Unspeakable
Although its avatars are manifold.

So now it's time to think of what we see
Staring at us over the bathroom sink
Each morning. Here's the fellow we've defied
All our lifetime long. We perfectly
Discern the Shadowman beyond the wink
Of hours in the glass. We cannot hide.

FROM A Letter from Li Po

There is a silence lying on the air
And on the carpet of muted hue and weave
Beneath the desk.Upon the desk there lies
A letter long as time and deep as love.

Whom is the missive from, to whom addressed?
What are these words that one can scarcely say
In the dim room of dream, glimpsed in a flare,
That lightning-stroke which in your dream you saw?

Have I directed these syllables to you,
Or are they yours addressed to me? A glove
Has fallen on a page to contemplate
Dust on the doorsill or an ink-stained sleeve.

The moon pours through the window streaked and cracked,
Flows over a ragged dike of books to lave
The pen of shadow spinning its spider thread,
And with it all its local web of love.

Beyond the window, in the meadow there
Where entropy dissolves the evening chord
Against the sky, the letter comes to life:
The song is in the peach tree and the ear.

The room sinks farther into stillness where
It mulls the meaning of its monotone.
Night has written itself upon the leaves;
The singer holds his phrase, the rising moon

Which scratches its arc among the hieroglyphs
Scrawled upon the dark. What is the word
The world attempts to sing in letters, leaves?
Among the leaves we are the hidden bird;

We are the arching moon, the night descending
Among our limbs throughout long ages starred,
Destined to wither sere and still at last,
And with the falling leaf the falling bird.


Ontario was calm that afternoon,
Still as the photograph of a summer day.
The beach was a fall of stones sloping down
To the water's edge. It was no day to drown,
The sun in the sky like a hazy red balloon.
Your father had been watching you at play

In depths that reached your waist and touched his knees.
The other picnickers sat on the shore
Or waded lazily not far away,
Watching you and the other children play.
The sailboats on the lake moved by degrees
Almost too small to note. One might ignore,

On such an afternoon, the shadow on
The imperceptible swell — the scudding cloud
That threw its umbra there, casting color
Along the lakeside. One might well ignore
The picnickers, the children in the sun,
The hazy heat that settled like a shroud

Impalpably on the water. Then,
Without a word or sign, summer faltered.
The silence you became still echoes loud
Upon Ontario's stones, under the shroud
Of haze and scudding cirrus. We hear it often.
The quality of stillness has been altered.


Bluejays fall calling jubilations
upon the peanuts I have
placed in a basket and hung outside
the door. Other jays descend, of course,
the loudmouths, the greedy things.
They can’t talk any more — their beaks are
jammed. Well, they’re like that all year long here
in the coastal north. Other
birds have more sense, though some not much.
Yet the jays survive, somehow, wax fat
in the snow, growing louder,
jabbering as though we understood.


            Here, music
      is martial. Wars and their rumors
echo among these cold walls. I recall
            one who kept

            the beat with
      his shoe — the cadence of its heel
used a desk in a way I could not have
            dreamed. A world

            speaks in so
      many tongues, it is difficult
to hear truth whispering out of Babel.
            Even so,

            one must try.
      At least, I believe so, and one
will be chastised for daring to believe:
            the single

      must stand against the myrmidons
of truism and rumor — must prevail
            at last, or

            there is no
      hope. But flesh tires; the mind will
wear it out if the drums don't wear it down.
            Even the

      need not fight forever. Where are
the young men?  There is music I should like
            to hear; for

            a while, I
      would just like to sit in the shade
with a glass of wine in my hands, and watch
            people dance.


II. November 22, 1963

Weeping, I write this: You are dead. The dark
animal of the heart, the beast that bides
stilly in its web of flesh, has stolen
flight again out of the air. What is there
to say? That I wish we were gods? That the
mind of man were equal to his lusts? It
is not — not yet. You were a man, but more:
you were an idea dreamt in a sweet
hour while the spider slept. We make our
web; its habitant makes greatness of its
prey. We are ourselves victim and victor.
You were and are ourselves. In killing you
we murder an emblem of what we strive
to be: not men, but Man. In mourning you,
good Man, we grieve for what we are, not what
we may become.
                          Sleep, my heart. We will try
once more. Sleep, sleep now. We will try again.


              Like a fleet thief, this sparrow has
            stolen stillness. He keeps it in a
      purse of bones. The aperture in which he
quit quickening is thin: an airy dimness
            between our house and its false shutter.

              Here's a sparrow that couldn't fall.
            I cannot even pry him loose. The
      shutter has been stunned with bolts; the wall won't
drop its trophy. For certain, bird, you did not
            fly diving into quiet. It is

              your tail that caught you up and will
            not let you down. How in heaven did
      you back to your demise?  This December
sky seems somewhat grimmer for your defection.
            The overcast will not be cast off.

            So this small absence is noted and
duly recorded. His mate impatiently
      waits near the crack into which he crept for
            warmth. It will be a cold day elsewhere,
              my lady, before the midwest

            wind hovers about his flight again.
One feather works loose. It falls. The overcast
      is cued: a flake has launched an avalanche.
            My sympathy is for both your songs,
              but less for the live, for at least

            (for all and any hurt a sparrow
feels) when winter learns to thaw there's always spring.
      Death will shrink to due proportion: a bird's
            eye view of a worm, perhaps. But right
              now, be vigilant with your grief,

            wife. Snow is vital too. It sucks what
            warmth was left today when wings hung fire.


Where is it we think we’re going?
There are 72 virgins
waiting for you — and for me, all
my cats, if there is a heaven.


The gray rain, like mice scurrying about the house,
nibbles the edges of a moldy afternoon.
      Sunday's trap is set for us to trigger.
      The doorbell. The door. The whole hall hungry,
its yellow stairs snapping at our laces; the old
      lady mewing in the parlor, arching
her aching back — O! The same old tom in the same

armchair rising, dragging his sagging tail
over the carpet to welcome us back.
      The cool cat gone, off in his Olds down the alley,
      the motor purring convertibly; seduction
sloshing contentiously in the gas tank:
      gone, man, gone. Sunday rustles in the walls. We four
sit lapping the skim of our duty call.

This is the way the old folks seem at last. Death sprawls
on the couch to doze an age. But metaphor will
      not suffice to crystallize aversion;
      nor simile, our compassion. There is
nowhere to go, nothing to see, little to do
      here in childhood's hall of mirrors. Backward
and forward, reflected in each-other's vision,

distorted images of our common
love separate, then merge, then fade and fail.
      We talk. Quietly at first, for fear of shadows.
      Days, like mice, have overgenerated. They now
outnumber the old folks' hungers. Soon we
      will leave, and no one will reflect on anyone
for very long. Nor too deeply. Nor far.

Conrad Aiken, Magus by Lewis Turco is a personal reminiscence and review of one of the best and sweetest "singers" among American poets.

Lewis Turco's books can be purchased by clicking here.

The HyperTexts