Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lewis Turco & The Workshop System - A Test

In my sojourns around the country hunting for collectible books to trade, I recently happened upon a copy of the poet Lewis Turco's first book, First Poems [Francestown, New Hampshire, The Golden Quill Press, Publishers, 1960]. I knew Turco's name well, having encountered his poems in countless periodicals over the years. He seemed to be the darling of poetry journals, such that it may have seemed that Turco had mastered the metier of the ideal magazine poem. Not the perfect New Yorker poem, or the perfect Paris Review poem, perhaps, but the poem of the academic quarterlies, which once constituted the platform of acceptance in a system of trial and initiation. 


Turco's work--and this book--its format, its neat politeness, its formal presentation--with its brief "Forward" by Donald Justice, no less (who, I must presume, was one of Turco's teachers at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop)--indeed, Justice had hardly published his own first trade collection, The Summer Anniversaries [Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1960], at the moment he was writing the ''Forward"--as Justice, certainly one of the greatest stars in the Iowa Workshop firmament of graduate-teaching-assistant-poets--would certainly represent the true spirit of that institution--its purpose, its meaning, its expression, its perpetuation as a social/political/literary/academic vehicle--so seeing this book of Turco's brought me immediately face to face with an artifact of literary history: A moment in which the hegemony and influence of the Iowa Workshop as a literary and academic force in the world of letters may have been--oh, surely, was!--at its height.    

First Poems, as an artifact of a certain set of presumptions and cliches, not just of poetry, but of book-making and presentation of text, has a characteristic purity and specificity which captures a whole period and style of literary activity, one which from this perspective, circa 2009, might strike one as extraordinarily dated. As opposed to "timeless" against which the temporality of a "living literature" might be posited. 

As an exercise--or a demonstration--of the modes of formality, let me quote the jacket blurb of this book, in its entirety:

   These poems, modestly labeled "first," certainly will not be the last from Lewis Turco. He notes that they reflect an experimental period in his development, emphasizing his concern for "technique, sound, thought, language, and the host of detail which any craftsman must master." In spite of his youth--he is only twenty-six--he has already mastered that technique and acquired a virtuosity which glides easily over the intricacies of ancient verse forms, and the subtleties of modern ones, besides inventing a few of his own.
   Yet there is much more to his verse than mere technical proficiency. He insists that facility with language should be subservient to clarity of meaning; and what is meaningful to Turco concerns people, their lives and emotions. Hence the moving quality of his character sketches, in which a caustic wit, and sometimes youthful impudence, are softened by genuine compassion.

   This winnowing of his best early poems marks the synthesis of his technical experimentation, the development of a style of his own, and the direction of his future work. "Crow," which he calls a pivotal poem of his collection, hints the trend of his next book, Raceway and Other Poems, already written and recorded for the American Poets Collection of the Library of Congress.

   The Editors of the Book Club for Poetry are excited over this young poet and his predictable future.  Indeed, anyone who is not excited after reading this book does not deserve a real poet!

   Readers curious about the person behind the poems will find his vital statistics comparatively unexciting:--Born in Buffalo, the son of an Italian Baptist minister, he grew uup in Connecticut, enlisted in the Navy, and after his term of duty (which he seems to have spent mainly in learning the technique of verse writing) married Jean Houdlette, a hometown girl, and entered the University of Connecticut. Graduating in three years, he taught a term there, and then went to the University of Iowa as a graduate fellow, where he is now a member of the Writer's Workshop and studying for his M.A. in English.

The Book Club for Poetry, it turns out, was an organization of the publisher, Golden Quill Press, comprised of a committee of three, which chose the books for publication from among submissions--presumably in the manner of a contest. 

As an exercise, it's useful to note the underlying presumptions behind the implied judgments in this blurb--"mastered that technique" "acquired a virtuosity" "glides easily over the intricacies of ancient verse forms" "technical proficiency" "the synthesis of technical experimentation" "the development of a style"--all descriptive phrases which originate in a concept of poetry which takes the imitation of traditional forms and patterns as a given, at least for the beginning apprentice. Turco's "mastery" of traditional form was acquired through "experimentation"--not an experimentation with new or different form, but with rhyme and meter as numerical or linguistic variation, a preoccupation that would characterize his poetry and his thinking about poetry for the rest of his life (Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms, University Press of New England, 1986--a compendium of the categories and variation of poetic techniques).

Let's quote the full text of Donald Justice's "Forward" to the book, to see what it might tell about the meaning of Turco's talent, as seen through the eyes of his mentor/teacher at Iowa:

   These are the poems Lew Turco wrote in his early twenties, while he was trying out his talent, seeing which way it wanted to go, and one of the interests they are likely to have for the future is that of a literary record, the record of a poet's initiation into the rites of the craft.

   There is a good deal here of what some people call versifying, meaning something unpleasant, perhaps. It is as if the poet had come across a handbook on versification and set himself to working out the problems there, as the student of mathematics might do, a process sure to appall the tender-minded. The models to be found in such handbooks are, to be sure, appalling enough, clever at best and very soft. But Mr. Turco is not soft and he is very clever. One is reminded less of the H.C. Bunners of this world than of someone like Hardy, that great versifier who was also, at times, a great poet. There is something of Hardy's approach to poetry here, not that of the gloomy philosopher, but of the poet who set himself repeatedly the most trying technical problems and in solving them took and gave pleasure both.

   For part of Lewis Turco's exuberance, which is everywhere in evidence, is a matter of technique. No reader can avoid noticing the variety of forms here. There are sapphics, several of the French forms, sonnets, syllabics, and a number of what this young poet, who originated the form, calls "triversens," or triple-verse-sentences; curiously, no villanelles, no sestinas--fashionable forms at the moment. The result of all this is, on occasion, a highly agreeable kind of showing off, not far from the young Rimbaud's when he chose to make a refrain out of that impossible line, Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques.

   A bright and productive future is the easiest thing in the world to predict for Lew Turco, who is just turning twenty-six. Meanwhile, reading this book is a little like listening to a gifted musician practicing scales, arpeggios, and the sonatas of Clementi. Very pleasant to hear, of course, and I think most of us will want to take tickets for the concert.

   Donald Justice
   Iowa City, Iowa
   April 3, 1960

By the age of 26, then, Turco had managed to place his poems in dozens of the then reigning periodicals of the day, including Antioch Review, Carleton Miscellany, Kenyon REview, New Orleans Poetry Journal, San Francisco Review, Shenandoah, etc. Dozens and dozens more would follow throughout his life. Justice's short note, as always, is ironically diffident, damning with faint praise, while placing Turco, alongside himself, in the company of poets for whom a knowledge of complex and varied traditional forms is at least a prerequisite to serious composition. In short, Turco was one of the Workshop's prize students of that day (1960), the inheritor of a critical and editorial brand of writing which had dominated American (and British) verse since World War II. Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, W.D. Snodgrass, John Berryman, Anthony Hecht, Mona Van Duyn, Philip Levine had all taught or been students there in the 1940's-50's. It seems fair to say that the dominant trend of poetic theory and writing in the 15 years leading up to the publication of Turco's First Poems was primarily formalistic. The Formalists had won the day, though their time would soon come to a close, as the 1960's ushered in a disintegration of this hegemony of publication, editorial opinion, and academic preoccupation. It was in 1960 that Donald Allen's New American Poetry hit the stalls, a harbinger of convulsive change. 
Here's a poem from Turco's book, typical in many respects of the collection as a whole, both in its formal play, trite tone, and in its showy, knowing manner. 
Sophia chatters.
  Time goes down in mirrors,
For nothing matters.
Horace listens while
  Sophia chatters.
    Time goes down in mirrors,
  For nothing matters;
Hence, his worldly smile.
The phonograph spins out its tune.
  Horace listens while
    Sophia chatters.
      Time goes down in mirrors,
    For nothing matters.
  Hence, his worldly smile:
The pair will love each other soon.
Outdoors, the shadows listen as
  The phonograph spins out its tune.
    Horace listens while
      Sophia chatters.
        Time goes down in mirrors,
      For nothing matters;
    Hence: his worldly smile.
  The pair will love each other soon,
Their movements metronomed by jazz.
        Sophia chatters.
      Horace listens while
    The phonograph spins out its tune.
  Outdoors the shadows listen as
Time goes down in mirrors.
  Their movements metronomed by jazz,
    The pair will love each other soon.
      Hence! his worldly smile...,
        For nothing matters. 
I think it would not be too much to claim that the workshop system of the 1950's actually encouraged this kind of writing, inasmuch as the emphasis upon the mastery of "traditional forms" was deemed to represent both a useful qualification and a healthy exercise for the poet bent on achieving public recognition, and the possibility of academic placement. Once you'd mastered (demonstrated) an ability to "fill" empty forms with grammatically correct speech, and managed to make some kind of resonant sense (however trivial), you were then "ready" to talk of important things, and to "say" what you'd now be entitled (and trained) to say, in verse. As Justice says in his Forward, "one of the interests they [the poems] are likely to have for the future is that of a literary record, the record of a poet's initiation into the rites of the craft." In other words, the correct path of approach to the role of poet in mid-Century America, is by way of an "initiation" into the "rites of the craft" (i.e., the proper imitation, the practice and performance of formal patterns from the history of poetry).
Is it an exaggeration to suggest that the workshop system, as well as the periodical and publication editorial establishment (along with the grants/awards/contests systems), have always functioned together, mutually reinforcing each other, in a tacit combination of judgment and encouragement designed to preserve a narrow definition of the kind of poetry which a master-apprentice relationship sets up? 
The narrow definition of English verse which comes down through the university and college system in the 20th Century--for the first time, really, in an academic, as opposed to an aesthetically "secular" medium--dominates our literary scene, certainly until well towards the end of the millennium. Isn't it possible, too, that the very institutional habits which produced apprentice-work, like Turco's (in 1960), exists today? We tend to think that our age, our era, is enlightened by comparison with earlier times and styles. Fashions do change, but do they change according to influences and discoveries from within, or without the dominant institutional channels which govern public taste and awareness? 
With Jorie Graham and Lyn Hejinian recently instructing at the Iowa Workshop, we tend to think that there has taken place a turnover, of an attitude and an approach to composition, which these poets' presence and position suggests, demonstrating (signifies) a dramatic change in the way that literature, as an activity and practice, is perceived. But does it? Institutional systems like the Iowa Workshop are designed to function as continuing programs, self-contained, self-referential, in perpetuity. The superficial styles of writing considered as models may change somewhat, but the meaning of the process does not. 
True original writing does not require a workshop setting. As the example of Turco shows, his discrete, playful interest in formal shapes--"practicing scales" like Clementi--preceded his participation in the workshop, but he was cycled through it precisely because his approach was formalist, not formally experimental. What workshop writers "look for" in probable applicants--as in probable faculty--is a "demonstrated" skill. That skill may be in writing palindromes or haiku or villanelles--or even in making "accidental" poems from chance methods (which often look and sound quite predictable), but the criteria under which such a system functions doesn't change. The means by which formal innovation is carried out, does not, cannot, by definition and practice, occur within an institutional setting. All these facilities do is capture available stereotypes of established use, perhaps offering convenient opportunities for comparison and evaluation of the past. Whatever is "taught" at a place like the Iowa Workshop isn't new writing--it's old writing, writing of 10, 20, 50, 100 years ago. As much as we might like to think that this year's workshop instructors and students are struggling against the confines of the given, to achieve an originality of expression and utterance, to "make it new" (in the famous injunction by Pound), it's inevitable that the system under which they labor legislates against any kind of innovation. That's why the avant garde and the classroom forever repel each other.        


Conrad DiDiodato said...

Agreed, "True original writing does not require a workshop setting"; in fact, if I can generalize from the Canadian experience, you can bet the least original writing will result from the type of closely academicized & theorized productions that stream out of the myriad 'writing programs'. The Canadian novelist Nino Ricci is a case in point: his Governor-General award-winning first novel "Lives of the Saints" was, as my sources tell me, very heavily scrutinized and edited by his teachers,almost to the point at which it represented more their than his own efforts.

"Skill" is everywhere, and at all times,a necessary condition for good writing, and that's something that can't be gleaned from texts and profs.

Curtis Faville said...

To be somewhat redundant, skill, like originality, is where you find it. A talented young poet may indeed find him- or herself in a writing program, but there is no necessary connection implied by that fact. Most of the more successful writers in such programs use them as stepping-stones to personal advancement, not as "workshops" to develop. They're just marking time. At least that was my take on it.

My caution in discussing Turco was that, as dated as Turco's work sounds to us now, and as quaint as the system which produced his early work and career seems to us, the system that made him exists, today, in basically the same form as it did then. What does that tell us about the products of these programs today? Might they look as quaint and dated in 20 or 30 years as Turco's work does to us, today? Turco was writing an amalgam of Ogden Nash and Louis Untermeyer in 1960. Today's graduates are writing like [ take your pick ]. What is the common thread?

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Robin Blaser, in the essay "Among Afterthoughts on This Occasion" says "The arts...commove". By which he meant the vital cultural interchange that always exists between past and present literary "paradigms" (my word)Blaser's intention was to prevent more of the loss of cultural memory he detected in his students.

Turco's work may have suffered (and continues still to suffer) from the prescribed 50s or 60s "sameness" of professorial & editorial diktat but that's not to say it's a poetry without lively, original authorial undercurrents of its own. I happen to have enjoyed the poem posted.I see in it a vital memory of lyrical styles I still admire. Didn't Nemerov say something about the reader's duty to tell the poet what s/he meant? And doesn't that call to read transcend the always pesky contingencies of time and place?

I look at a poet like bpNichol, the 60s posterchild for poststructuralist poetics in Canada, and notwithstanding my own criticisms, have to acknowledge the interesting tectonic forces, most of it American-made, that broke the Canadian literary landscape and unleashed a style that dominates the literary scene to this day.Something I lament deeply for both lyrical voice and history were bludgeoned in the process.

Ours was (is) a nation of imitators but they've managed to find a praiseworthy intention & design to pass on in their own teaching/writing practices. Our 60s (Simon Fraser University) poetry rebels today virtually dominate both academic and publishing world.

Kirby Olson said...

It was interesting to see Turco's name again after 30 years of near silence on the name. He had a book way back then about how to write in different poetic formats. It may have been a best-seller, as it was everywhere.

Garbage tends to float to the top, being full of air, I suppose.

Nobel prize winners, American Book award winners, winners, winners.

The biggest losers of one period may suddenly resurface later on. It amused me much when I was rereading the wonderful Molesworth biography of Marianne Moore two weeks back when he said that her first complete poems published by Faber & Faber as I recall sold a grand total of 28 copies.

Molesworth also argues at great length against her as a superficial poet of precise allusiveness without deeper content.

At any rate, I don't believe in progress. Shakespeare is still our contemporary, as is Homer.

Curtis Faville said...

Turco may be my unfortunate whipping-boy specimen for the maligned 1950's literary cliches. But I think he may deserve it because of the almost grating triviality of his voice. If this is how workshop students were encouraged to write in the late 1950's, then Hallmark Card verse must constitute important art.

Re: the poem in question. I can't imagine that you admire the sentiment in Ode For the Beat Generation. Cheap Auden-esque condescension. What in god's name does "Time goes down in mirrors" mean? The poem imagines some kind of non-descript scene in which two people are listening to jazz, preparatory to going to bed with each other--and this is the occasion for a glib "worldly smile"? Yuck.

Blaser is right about cultural memory. Each generation only remembers part of what's important, and then fills up with its own "living" memory of event and notoriety. Each older generation mourns this process, but it's continuous, not unique to ours; though rapid obsolescence, so much a characteristic of our modern media-mad world, probably accelerates the process.

Ultimately, workshops keep our attention focused upon the past, though we often tend to forget this fact, as we advance into an uncertain future. Clark Coolidge and Ted Berrigan and Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac didn't need workshops to write their work. Can anyone explain to me what the connection should be between the works these men wrote, and the MFA combine?

Curtis Faville said...


Tom Raworth and I once had a conversation over lunch about the idea of progress. We both believed, I think, that time itself is a kind of illusion, that we do not in fact "move" forward, or sideways, or wherever, and that a sort of simultaneity occurs with respect to things we "save" from the past. We can become our own posterity. We are time travelers, and we know it.

The best thing you can say about the Turco poem quoted is that it fulfills the demands of its form. This was patently important to the generation of which it's a part--and a damning assessment. Even Justice, who wrote the Forward, seems to be saying this, between the lines.

Kirby Olson said...

The poem struck me as grating almost beyond belief.

Raworth once wrote a book with Corso. It's the one Corso book I've never managed to find. He's a British guy with his own blog.

Is he well-received in England?

I don't know what's going on in English poetry circles. That's a world apart over there. I know a few of the younger novelists like Stewart Home (he's in his 40s).

Turco was a big name even into the 70s. It's amazing how precipitously he's fallen since. There's been total silence for at least 20 years. Thanks for bringing him back up. His ideas terrorized me as a kid -- I foiund it difficult to evaluate things when I was 20. I liked Lord Dunsany at least as much as Hemingway, and Marianne Moore back then didn't strike me as being very different from Turco.

Time sorts things out. I don't know if I believe in it either.

I love it when Kant argues that it is however a constituent of the human mind, and allows us to communicate together. I'll meet you at eleven.

We both know what that would mean, even if eleven is more or less arbitrary.

Best, Kirby

Kirby Olson said...

There's a lot of bad writing in the NAM anthology, too.

Go through and find the worst stuff you can, just for balance.

Curtis Faville said...


Lewis Turco said...

I was considerably amused when I read, "Turco was a big name even into the 70s. It's amazing how precipitously he's fallen since. There's been total silence for at least 20 years." If readers would like an update on my career, they may go to Wikipedia, or; if they are interested in experimental work, try and, for a free new downloadable e-chapbook of my work, take a look at -- as for "Ode for the Beat Generatioln," its actual title is "Time Goes Down in Mirrors" (as in infinite regress); I used that title back in 1960 just to get some topical attention for the poem. Its most recent incarnation is at

Curtis Faville said...

Mr. Turco: There is always the possibility that someone will actually read the entries about him on the internet, as you have done here.

I didn't know your later career well enough to discuss it with any authority. I merely--as is obvious--used your first book to make a point about the workshop system. I attended it between 1969 and 1972, and Justice was one of my teachers. This was actually only a decade later than you had been there. I think a lot of changes had occurred in that brief span, yet some fundamental structures--of approach and procedure--didn't. I think they're endemic to the workshop system.

In any case, I hope none of what I said did any permanent damage to your ego.

Paul said...

Doesn’t it feel like you just got caught masturbating?

It’s apparent that you don’t like the workshop system. I have suspicions that you’re not fond of formalist poetry; that you harbor some ill will for anything that requires submission to certain rigors; and you probably loathe the pedestrian in anything. That just oozes out of your prose.

I’m not real fond of the workshop system, either. Sitting around listening to other hacks like me tell me that I don’t know my own characters, that my images are incomplete, and all sorts of other ethereal bullshit kinda turned me off. So I became a programmer, and I learned something along the way about the usefulness of peer review.

Science needs peer reviewers. Software engineers need them. Journalists need editors. And writing students need a little reality check now and then or else we’ll all be listening to every third little moron’s crappy, incomprehensible blather because his ego, inflated too much from mommy’s senseless praise for anything he wrote as a child, went unchecked.

I have it easy in my job. If my code sucks, my newly built system barfs up a 4M line dump and I save myself the embarrassment of publishing code that doesn’t work. Workshops provide that reality check for writers with the hope that their books don’t fall off the press into a garbage bin.

Not being machines, workshops don’t always work. And that might be a good thing. I understand that there may be many different schools of thought in workshops. There would have to be with the number and diversity of them. That’s a good thing, too. Why fault Iowa for continuing their traditions as others invented or continued their own?

Because, it seems, you have some problem with formal poetry. It’s drab cramming stuff into iambic pentameter, trying to get all my rhymes straight in a villanelle, making my repeated lines fit in a pantoum.

It’s also a pain in the ass trying to get a soufflĂ© to properly rise and not collapse. You have to follow all sorts of rules, measure things properly… but when you do, man does it taste great.

What could that analogy possibly have to do with writing? There are rudiments in writing, just as there are in cooking. There are rudiments in poetry. There are rudiments in music – even Jazz, for which I see you have a great affinity. But it’s rare that anyone wakes up one day, grabs a piano and hammers out a brilliant, completely new, and groundbreaking piece of music – or culinary masterpiece, or poem – without first learning their chops.

Jazz musicians, for all that freedom and newness that they seemed to have, knew their chops. They didn’t let any old hepcat into the band if he didn’t know his chords, scales, rhythms and – egad! – standards. If you ever want to see an effective workshop-like environment, go check out a good jazz band rehearsing. Even the illiterate Charlie Christian knew his stuff.

So what’s the point? Avant-garde, for all it’s worth – and I do think it is worth something – relies on le garde. What else is it going to be ahead of? If everyone tries to be avant-garde, what are they ahead of? It’s just monkeys throwing shit around and we’re all calling it art. It’s every art student dripping paint, thinking he’s going to be the next Jackson Pollack. And they all go and pee in fireplaces, too, thinking that’s what it’s all about.

The gamut of workshops & schools from the fireplace brigade to the strict formalists servers a purpose, and that’s diversity. Shit is produced all along the scale. So is the good stuff. Don’t knock a few schools for teaching the rudiments, still.

Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for the long, thoughtful post, though I would appreciate a somewhat less--shall we say--gauche attention-grabber at the beginning of your spiel.

My taste in verse is fairly eclectic. If you disbelieve that, pay attention and you'll find out. I wrote very traditional poems in my first year of workshopping at Berkeley in the 1960's, then I fell under the influence of a wide range of styles, across the spectrum. Writing in formal styles was fun, and challenging, especially after I'd immersed myself in the Metaphysicals, or Tennyson and Browning, or Eliot and Moore. The modern world, however, didn't present itself in terms that would have inspired Wyatt or Campion. As Creeley once said, we no longer dance the gavotte, so if you're going to dress up in costume, try showing a little irony, lest people think you're cross-dressing on purpose (no slight intended to those who enjoy doing that).

I attended the Iowa Workshop for three years, so I can speak with a little authority about what it meant, then. I've come, over time, to believe that its influence on its participants was mostly negative, for reasons that I'll explain in more detail in the future. But it basically boils down to this: I believe the best writing is done outside of institutions; that would include, as well, the best innovative writing. Despite this, people slog away in workshops across the land. Some talent finds its way into them, and some writers come to depend on teaching as a way of making a living.

The writers I most admire either never were a part of the workshop system, or their work was so powerfully necessary in their lives that the teaching part really had no effect. For most of those who scumble along in the workshop scene, it's a mild compromise between producing mediocre work and trying to be helpful to well-meaning, but mostly untalented students. Sad but true. The very best writers don't need instruction, and everyone else will never "learn." And that applies to conservative as well as innovative scribblers.

So there you have it. I'm naked, but not abusing myself. Have at me.