Looking back,I must have first met Mr. Cassity -- he always called me Mr. Mayeux -- at the excellent Callanwolde poetry weekends, once a major part of Atlanta's literary life before they fell victim to pre-Olympics budgeting. The weekends allowed local poets to meet and receive instruction from an amazing array of talent. I remember Amy Clampitt laughing at my statement that Keats was my "main man," and Paul Muldoon, before he became such a big deal, brushing his hair back from his brow and rolling those Irish eyes. Rosemary Daniell's energy and passion also stand out. My most cherished memory is sitting at a table with Mr. Cassity and James Merrill during lunch at a tavern in Toco Hill shopping center. Mr. Merrill ate a sandwich of some kind, and might have had a beer. Of course, I spoke too much, but Mr. Merrill and Mr. Cassity graciously accepted me. That night, Mr. Merrill gave one of the best readings I've every attended. Electricity pulsed through me as he stood in the half light, reading poems about his refined New York childhood. The only other readings that captivated me so were Howard Nemerov at Sewanee and Bill Matthews at Indiana.
Mr. Cassity's voice retained the lilt and cadence of his native Mississippi. His speech was like the discovery of a lost historic artifact. The voice of the early 20th century Southern educated upper middle class was mixed with a clipped, world-weary tone, giving it the quality of a a mixture of bourbon and vinegar. He was a most opinionated man, with unconventional, rather caustic views, yet he delivered his pronoucements with such warmth and good spirit that they were never offensive or threatening. He was generous and encouraging, no matter how unskilled the poet. I also took his poetry writing class at Emory's evening program, and loved his comments about craft and the knowledge he imparted about technical matters such as meter. Every poem he wrote, except for one (a love poem), was in meter, and he frequently used rhymed couplets, although he avoided writing in forms like the sonnet and the villanelle.
Probably the last of the celebrated students of the Stanford curmudgeon and poetry controversalist Ivor Winters, Mr. Cassity with his 'wit and learning was like being with Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde. Each casual sentence sounded as well-crafted as a line in one of this poems. A good many of his poems will stay permanently on my list of favorites. I particularly loved his narrative poems with historical settings, such as his evocation of German sailors visiting New Orleans in the 1930s after piloting their U-boat up the Mississippi.
I last saw Mr. Cassity about two years ago, at a reading he gave at Callanwolde. I once published an article on his work, and wanted to write a book on him, and mentioned this to him. "Well, do it," he said. I also pitched an article on him to Poets and Writers, the self-proclaimed nurturer of writing, but I suppose he wasn't trendy enough. At the reading, Mr. Cassity shocked me at how much he'd aged, but he was still full of energy and enthusiasm and gave a strong reading. Unfortunately, he had to share the billing with a lesser Atlanta poet. Afterwards, I told him farewell, thinking I would surely enounter him again. I kept putting off the book as other projects and daily concerns popped up. This week, I was stunned to find a meager paid obituary on him in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He deserves much, much more.
Mr. Cassity was a strong influence in my development as a poet, critic and lover of literature and I will cherish my memories of him. It's too bad that I never conducted a Southern Bookman interview with him. Over the years, I have tracked down nearly every book he published, some at library book sales or discovered on rarely visited shelves. He will always be a poet to whom I will return. And, I still have that book to finish.