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
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
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 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
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.
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.
ELEGY ON EIGHT LINES BY CONRAD AIKEN
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.
LETTER TO A THREE-YEAR-OLD
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.
LINES FOR MR. STEVENSON
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.
one must try.
At least, I believe so, and one
will be chastised for daring to believe:
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.
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
from TRILOGY FOR J.F.K.
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.
HOUSE AND SHUTTER
Like a fleet thief, this sparrow has
stillness. He keeps it in a
purse of bones. The aperture in which he
quit quickening is thin: an airy dimness
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
drop its trophy. For certain, bird, you did not
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.
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
about his flight again.
One feather works loose. It falls. The overcast
is cued: a flake has launched an avalanche.
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
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.
MICE IN THE SUNDAY WALLS
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
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
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
Days, like mice, have overgenerated. They
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