Turner Cassity was a poet whose rigorously formal and wickedly satirical poems take aim at the hubris of human nature. Born 12 January 1929 in Jackson to Allen Cassity and Dorothy Turner Cassity, Allen Turner Cassity grew up around his family’s sawmill businesses and in movie theaters, where his mother played piano during silent films. Cassity received a bachelor’s degree from Millsaps College in 1951 and a master’s degree from Stanford University in 1952. While at Stanford, he learned from poet-critic Yvor Winters to eschew what Winters described as the irrational emotionalism of twentieth-century imagistic free verse and to master traditional poetic forms. After serving in the US Army (1952–54), Cassity earned a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1956. Cassity worked at the Jackson Municipal Library (1957–58) and in South Africa at the Transvaal Provincial Library (1959–61) before beginning his long tenure at the Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta (1962–91).
Cassity’s poems offer an unusual combination of Winter’s classical moral austerity and Wallace Stevens’s playfully punning exoticism. Cassity’s sardonic wit skewers the persistent folly of human judgment throughout history, from the grandest of human aspirations to conquer the globe to the latest popular culture trends. Among his greatest themes is the role of chance. In “Calvin in the Casino” in his first book, Watchboy, What of the Night? (1966), the theologian of divine election says of the roulette ball, “By whose autonomy one apprehends / The limits where predestination ends.” In “Why Fortune Is the Empress of the World,” from Hurricane Lamp (1986), Cassity asks, “What then is human wholly?” Regularity exists in nature, but what characterizes humanity is our reliance not on reason but our turning “to Fortune, as a mindlessness of mind,” knowing that “the random that we create creates us.” Combining themes of chance, religion, and history in “When in Doubt, Remain in Doubt,” from Between the Chains (1991), he wrote that Delphi never gave “a competent response. / No oracle does, ever. That is why / Great men consult them. Oracles are doubt / Objectified, but left ambiguous, / So as to force a choice.” Here “Harry Truman / Hears exotic dancers speak in tongues. / The meaning is not clear, but just may be / ‘Waste not, want not,’ of which one must assume / H. heard the first fourth only, as he wastes / Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The predestination that awaits all human vanity is the topic of “WTC,” from No Second Eden (2002). Cassity’s obsession with fate, the ubiquity of self-love and evil, and the ruins of great cultures zeroes in on New York City, 11 September 2001: “Against the best advice, / We put up Babel twice”; as the twin symbols of economic might fall, we realize that we never relinquished the dream of the Tower of Babel or learned its lesson, remaining “unschooled as to response.”
Cassity’s ten volumes of poetry are represented in The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems (1998). His work garnered numerous awards, among them the Blumenthal-Leviton-Blonder Prize, the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse, and the Levinson Prize.
Turner Cassity died in Atlanta in 2009.
- Robert L. Barth and Susan Barth, A Bibliography of Works of Turner Cassity, 1952–1987 (1988)
- Leon Stokesbury, The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (1987)