Authors: Turner Cassity

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Watchboy, What of the Night?, 1966

“The Airship Boys in Africa,” 1970

Steeplejacks in Babel, 1973

Silver Out of Shanghai: A Scenario for Josef von Sternberg, Featuring Wicked Nobles, a Depraved Religious, Wayfoong, Princess Ida, the China Clipper, and Resurrection Lily, with a Supporting Cast of Old Hands, Merchant Seamen, Sikhs, Imperial Marines, and Persons in Blue, 1973

Yellow for Peril, Black for Beautiful: Poems and a Play, 1975

The Defense of the Sugar Islands: A Recruiting Poster, 1979

Keys to Mayerling, 1983

The Airship Boys in Africa: A Dramatic Narrative in Twelve Parts, 1984

The Book of Alna: A Narrative of the Mormon Wars, 1985

Hurricane Lamp, 1986

Lessons, 1987 (with R. L. Barth)

Between the Chains, 1991

The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems, 1998

No Second Eden: Poems, 2002


The career of Allen Turner Cassity has been marked by steady poetry publications since 1952 in numerous American poetry magazines and at small and large book presses. He was born in Jackson, Mississippi, to Allen D. and Dorothy T. Cassity. He earned degrees from Millsaps College (1951) and Stanford University (1952), both in California, as well as from Columbia University (1956). In 1957 and 1958 Cassity was a librarian at the Jackson Municipal Library in Mississippi, and from 1959 to 1962 he worked in South Africa at the Transvaal Provincial Library in Pretoria. Providing support services for numerous villages in the Transvaal, Cassity traveled widely, observing the apartheid culture, which would be a part of his writing material for years. Cassity has visited South Africa since his years in library service. From 1962 through January, 1991, Cassity was a librarian at the R. W. Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, working as chief of the serials division and later, of cataloging. Besides writing and publishing poetry, Cassity has edited and published a poetry newsletter called Drastic Measures and taught courses in the Emory University Community Education Program. A formalist poet who was a student of Yvor Winters, Cassity acknowledges Wallace Stevens and E. A. Robinson as influences on his own style. He has been recognized with awards such as the Blumenthal-Leviton-Blonder Poetry Prize in 1966, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1980, and the Ingram-Merrill Award, 1990, which provides financial support for outstanding writers.{$I[AN]9810002014}{$I[A]Cassity, Turner}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cassity, Turner}{$I[tim]1929;Cassity, Turner}

Cassity’s poems are often topical and heavily referential. His most common subject is Western imperialism and explorations of related subjects: greed, self-delusion, exploitation, inhumanity, wealth and poverty, and how the passage of time changes little in human judgement. In choosing subjects for his verse, Cassity first decides on a topic of interest on which he feels confident writing; then the idea is shaped into a metrical poem. Thinking in meter is natural for Cassity, who revises little because he crafts the poem in his mind before he commits it to paper. The metrical style, international scope, and satirist’s voice are the hallmarks of Cassity’s poetry.

Watchboy, What of the Night?, Cassity’s first book, is a collection of fifty-six poems, the majority of which had appeared first in Poetry magazine. The book is divided into six named sections and has a multinational focus; Cassity draws from his life in Mississippi, his service in the U.S. Army stationed in Puerto Rico, and his work in South Africa. He easily mixes French, Dutch, German, and English into many of the pieces. His rhymed, metered verse is a natural extension of conversational speech, and his themes of exploitation, death, greed, and human frailty give his satirical voice its subtle but aggressive tone. Gold, as a subject and a unifying image, dominates much of the collection, and it proves a flexible tool for examination of what a society values more, people or commodities. Haiti and South Africa are compared frequently throughout the book to underscore the expense and human costs of imperialism, as the short poem “Servant Problem (Johannesburg)” shows. The poem’s speaker is confronted with an ironic inhumanity as a sixty-five-year-old African sweeper, perpetually a “boy,” preserves gold, the commodity that ensures his servitude.

Nature is used descriptively in many of the pieces to provide lush backgrounds and to create a visual quality that makes each poem separate, satisfying, and complete. For example, “The Lumber Baron” is a highly imagistic poem that guides the viewer around the fenced-in, shady grave of a nameless entrepreneur, who is also the poem’s speaker. This poem, along with “Cemetery (San Juan),” “Allerseelen,” “Janus Redemptor,” and “Kings,” is organized around death as a theme, while others take a playful look at popular icons Buck Rogers, Tarzan, and Charles Lindbergh. The title poem, with its sentry before the fire burning in the night, draws attention to the poet, “Protector, danger, oracle,” who sees, guards, and predicts the outcomes of human experiences.

Between 1966 and 1986, when Hurricane Lamp was published, Cassity brought out seven more books of various sizes, some in limited editions with small presses noted for their exceptional book design and quality crafting with special papers, types, and bindings. In 1977 the six-line poem “Two Are Four” was issued as a poem card, and in 1979 “Phaëthon,” a twenty-four-line poem, was published as a broadside commemorative of a reading Cassity gave in Binghamton, New York. Both were printed by Stuart McCarthy of the Bellevue Press in Binghamton, who cosponsored the reading. These poems were later reprinted in Hurricane Lamp. In 1983 Cassity published Keys to Mayerling with Robert L. Barth, a poet and small press publisher in Florence, Kentucky, who produced The Book of Alna and a second printing of Keys to Mayerling in 1985. In 1987 Barth and Cassity collaborated on a sixteen-page limited edition collection of verse entitled Lessons, and in 1988, Barth, Susan Barth, and Charles Gullans compiled a descriptive bibliography of Cassity’s publications from 1952 to 1987.

Hurricane Lamp and Between the Chains were published in the Phoenix Poetry Series of the University of Chicago Press. Hurricane Lamp has fifty-eight poems and was written with the aid of the 1980 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. This volume shows how the most unusual bits of ordinary experiences can become topics for poetry, as Cassity draws his subjects from travel guides, annual reports, a bar drinks guide, newspapers, air travel, and books. As in his previous work, the metrical form allows him to create interesting and different rhymes, such as “mesh” and “Marrakech” in “Presence Française” and “fuselage” and “Taj” in “Death and the Bush Pilot.” “Imputations,” like “Domestic Symphony” in Watchboy, What of the Night? and “Between the Chains,” the title poem of his 1991 collection, draws on financial imagery, here used to describe a blooming garden as a stock market of nature where all things in it are of value to someone, somewhere.

Between the Chains features forty-five poems on island life, art, architecture, history, imperialism, and the power of knowledge. Of these, “Prometheus in Polynesia,” in which a fire dancer’s act is vividly described, stands apart for its visual language and picturesque power. Likewise, the poems “Against Activism,” about how concert musicians must play together, not as soloists, “Method,” “An Attempt to Explain Anorexia Nervosa to Lillian Russell,” “One of the Boys, or Nothing Sad About My Captains” (a parody of Walt Whitman’s “My Sad Captains”), and “Laying It on the Line” wittily challenge readers’ assumptions about what they can know about poetry’s composition and meaning, taking a unifying cue from the ideas raised in “Knowledge Is Power, but Only if You Misuse It.” The Destructive Element comprises both old and new poems, the selection unified by the theme of travel, especially the time Cassity spent in South Africa and the Caribbean. No Second Eden perpetuates Cassity’s ironic view of the world, including a deflation of the pseudopatriotic effusions that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, in “WTC.”

Between the Chains is dedicated to the poet’s cousin, Mary Davenport Spiva, who with her husband encouraged Cassity’s writing career, endowed the Turner Cassity Workroom and Archive in the Woodruff Library at Emory University in his honor, and provided an unrestricted financial gift for the purchase of rare books and materials for the library’s special collections. The archive will provide a home for Cassity’s papers and other materials pertaining to his career.

BibliographyAsh, John. “A Brash Yankee and a Southern Dandy.” Review of Hurricane Lamp, by Turner Cassity. The New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1986, 19. Appreciates this work’s juxtaposition of the ordinary and the exotic. Remarks that Cassity’s insistence on formality does make for rigid and monotonous reading. It is, however, never self-indulgent or maudlin. Comments that Cassity combines at his best “elegance with an attractive pungency.”Barth, R. L., Susan Barth, and Charles Gullans. A Bibliography of the Published Works of Turner Cassity, 1952-1987. Florence, Ky.: Author, 1988. Useful compendium of Cassity’s titles.Flint, R. W. “Exiles from Olympus.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 5 (Spring/Summer, 1977): 97-107. Reviews Cassity’s works, in particular Yellow for Peril, Black for Beautiful, and Steeplejacks in Babel. Sympathetic to Cassity inasmuch as Flint values his taciturnity and declares him a poet to watch. Quotes from Watchboy, What of the Night? and compares his work to Nadine Gordimer’s uncompromising style.Gioia, Dana. “Poetry and the Fine Presses.” The Hudson Review 35 (Autumn, 1982): 438-498. Gives extravagant praise to Cassity by calling him the “most brilliantly eccentric poet in America.” Clearly, Gioia enjoys Cassity’s poetry but regrets how “few of his poems really show all he is capable of.” Notes that The Defense of the Sugar Islands: A Recruiting Poster makes a real breakthrough for Cassity. According to Gioia, these poems have as much emotional and intellectual force as technical virtuosity, and Cassity’s full range of talents come into being.Steele, Timothy. “Curving to Foreign Harbors: Turner Cassity’s Defense of the Sugar Islands.’” Review of The Defense of the Sugar Islands: A Recruiting Poster, by Turner Cassity. The Southern Review 17 (Winter, 1981): 205-213. Outlines the structure of the retrospective poem. Argues for its success on balance but acknowledges some reservation, notably the “frequent density of Cassity’s syntax” and the fact that important details are withheld.Tillinghast, Richard. “Poems That Get Their Hands Dirty.” The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1991, 7. Compares Cassity’s Between the Chains to Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991) and Philip Levine’s What Work Is (1991).
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