In the world of hip-hop, Lewis Turco would be considered an “Original Gangsta,” an “O.G.”—a title given to someone who started it all. In the more genteel business of poetry writing, however, Turco would be called an “Institution,” and what he started was nothing less than a renewed appreciation of poetic forms. Since its first edition in 1968, his reference book The Book of Forms has become a standard text for poets of all stripes. A cross between The Joy of Cooking and According to Hoyle for poets, Turco’s text remains a rarity: a reference book with personality. Turco’s lucid, empathetic entries on every form under the sun continue to serve many poets writing their first pantoums or settling drunken bets on the rhyme scheme of the rimas dissolutas (abcdef abcdef ghijlk ghijlk ..., if written in sestets).
In person, Turco speaks with the same approachable learnedness. He’s taught writing workshops for 36 years, handing out “poetic licenses” to his students at SUNY Oswego. As a critic he falls squarely in the Emily Dickinson camp, favoring the Belle of Amherst’s innovative work over Walt Whitman’s “gush.”
But there is more to the kind professor than meets the eye: Turco leads a double life. Page through The Book of Forms and you will see examples of forms by Wesli Court (an anagram of Turco's name). Turco and Court have shared the same poetic body for more than 50 years, the former writing largely free verse and prose poems, the latter a rather rigid formalist, largely by necessity. In October, Star Cloud Press published The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco/Wesli Court, 1953-2004.
Poets & Writers Magazine asked Lewis Turco how it feels to know poets everywhere use The Book of Forms as a standard text on poetics and prosody.
Lewis Turco: It’s gratifying, of course, but writers seldom get a real sense of what something like that is like because we get very little direct feedback. Over the years, though, in the case of The Book of Forms, it’s become slowly obvious to me that a lot of people use it, and a fair number write to me about it, asking questions, as you did.
P&W: How did The Book of Forms come into being?
LT: Before I enrolled in the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1959, I had for quite a number of years been searching for a book that had all the traditional verse forms in it, but I had never found one. One day I went over to the bookstore there in Iowa City—the Iowa Book and Supply—and they had a table full of cheap books. Ten, twenty-five cents, something like that. While looking through it I ran across a book called Green Armor on Green Ground by Rolfe Humphries. It was filled with poems he had written in the 24 official meters of the medieval Welsh bards. I bought it, took it back home, and read the poems, including descriptions of the forms. Up to that point I hadn’t really thought about how many forms one would need for a real handbook of forms. There were French forms, Italian forms, a few of the Japanese forms in various texts, but I had been unable to find any book in the history of English literature that listed all of the traditional verse forms that had been used by writers in English over the centuries.
I had no idea how many such forms there might be, but I thought that, with the addition of such things as the medieval Welsh, and perhaps Irish and Scottish forms—if they existed—I might find enough material for a book. So I went to Donald Justice, my teacher, and I asked him if he thought a Book of Forms might be a good idea. He encouraged me. So I started working on it that year I was in Iowa; eight years later the first edition was published by E.P. Dutton.
P&W: Let’s talk about sestinas. What was your intention or motivation in updating the entry in third edition of The Book of Forms?
LT: The third edition needed to be done. I had more forms, and I had written more essays on prosody, and I wanted to get all that in. But specifically to the sestina rewrite, it was brought about by my going to the AWP conference in 1994 in Tempe, Arizona, where I saw Annie Finch, one of the New Formalists, who asked me if I would be interested in editing a chapter on the sestina, “The End Game,” in her and Kathrine Varnes’s projected book An Exaltation of Forms (University of Michigan Press, 2002). I killed two birds with one stone, so to speak.
P&W: What motivated you to include that mention of iambic pentameter or decasyllabics in English, as opposed to lines of a regular length chosen by the poet?
LT: When I wrote the original Book of Forms, I said that in the sestina “Lines may be of any length.” I didn’t say “various lengths.” I meant “any single length.” Then, one day, I picked up a copy of the London Times Literary Supplement and found a villanelle with lines all over the place. It was then that I realized I was responsible because I had used that original description in many of the forms. In subsequent editions I changed that sentence in all the places I’d used it, not just in the case of the sestina, to be as clear as possible.
P&W: In your essay “Masculine and Feminine in American Poetry,” from your book of criticism Visions and Revisions of American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 1986), you make it rather clear that given the choice of Whitman or Dickinson, you are in the Emily camp. Is that still true?
LT: I’ve hated Whitman since I was a high schooler—all that gushy crap. Dickinson is the real poet. She had a mind as rich and sharp as it could be. A marvelous imagination. A wonderfully idiosyncratic way of putting things. Dickinson is responsible for the Imagist movement. They didn’t do the rhyming and metering she did, but they did all the image stuff she showed them how to do. By the way, no one should assume I have anything against “free verse.” I wrote a book, The Inhabitant (1970), that’s nothing but prose poems. I’m just against cant and slop.
P&W: Getting back to sestinas, it seems as if its appeal is just that it’s a maddening challenge.
LT: Exactly so. I think it is the form par excellence to challenge people who write metrical verse. It’s very tough to deal with. You’ve got two basic tactics with those repeated end-words: You can try to hide them or you can use them as hammers. The Wesli Court poem “The Obsession” in The Book of Forms uses the end-words like hammers, emphasizing the obsessive quality of the poem.
P&W: Do you write sestinas yourself, under your own name?
LT: I’ve written four or five. There’s one, “The Forest of My Seasons,” hidden in my book of quantitative syllabic poems Awaken, Bells Falling (University of Missouri, 1968). One or two people have spotted it over the years. I began writing another one when you first called, and I’ve since finished it. It’s titled “The Vision,” and it tells the story of how I first decided to cast my lot as a writer. The end-words are eyes, tiles, white, time, blank and crapper.