Charles North


from Tony Towle’s New York Poems

Out of print for much too long, these beautiful lyrical poems represent the half-decade, 1965—1969, when Towle’s early experiments with form, voice, language, tone, etc., came together to define him as a poet. They are not, at first blush, easy poems to grasp. Intensely personal, even Romantic, they are simultaneously modernists through and through. They pay lip service, as it were, to a number of poetic conventions (unlike so much contemporary poetry, which makes a point of jettisoning conventions entirely) while ultimately flouting them: their cohesive look masks a pervasive and frequently enigmatic disjunction featuring surreal and cinematic jumps, dramatic shifts in voice, narrative that doesn’t add up, strings of participial phrases that don’t clearly refer, false parallels, and the like. Yet the poems have an extraordinary depth of feeling. Another New York poet remarked to me some years ago that of all the poems he continued to read, Tony’s were the ones that invariably moved him to tears.

Towle has a Keats or even a Shelley side which sets him well apart from his contemporaries. These are New York poems, by a witty and highly sophisticated New Yorker whose sophistication takes in grubby local politics as well as the history of poetry and history in general: but in true Romantic fashion their true locus is the poet’s Self, writ large. They are self-conscious in just about every sense of the term, even to self-indulgence. Moreover they have an uncanny way of treating fundamentally vague and ethereal matters as though they were concrete. Towle’s decidedly un-William Carlos Williams-like predilection is for elevated tone, lush imagery, extravagant metaphor, and ornate syntax. But he can descend, in the space of a single line, to a pure Williams (if not Jimmy Breslin) colloquialism, as in the poem "Daybreak" where the Muse — who makes few if any appearances these days — enters the poet’s bedroom "stuttering." The poems’ Romantic flights are undercut by the poet’s knowing wit. Both texture and flavor seem to me unique in modern poetry.

Although people don’t cease to complain about it, difficulty so-called is with us to stay, if we care about contemporary art. Some of the difficulty in grasping Towle’s work is unavoidable, as it is, for example, with Góngora, who stands somewhere behind these poems. (On the other hand and much to the point are the influence of Whitman and O’Hara. Towle clearly operates on colossal "nerve" — O’Hara’s term. Whereas O’Hara sometimes wrote what he called "I do this I do that" poems, Towle’s procedure is something like "I do this I think that, now I am that, now that has become this, now I’m considering what I just thought and felt about that, etc.) A good deal of the apparent difficulty vanishes with the understanding that the poems aim at other things besides discursive meanings alone. T.S. Eliot once acknowledged that his poetic decisions were "quasi-musical" ones. I think the same is substantially true for Towle. Music in fact permeates his poetry. In one poem he compares his work to that of Poulenc and Satie (though his own wit strikes me as darker and less playful). More importantly, he organizes his materials much more in the manner of music than in the manner of either discursive prose or conventional verse, from his word choices and syntactical structures to cadencings and transpositions and counterpointing. Frequently a new stanza appears to begin the poem anew, the way a movement does a symphony.

It would be hard to say that these New York poems are happy poems. For all their wit and genuine humor as well, the predominant tone is elegiac. They confront the human condition, in particular its darker aspects — restlessness and restless desire, intermittent disorientation and frustrations, even despair — in a much more direct way than most current poetry, which characteristically limits itself either to dailiness (one of the strains in Towle’s work) or to language-play. And yet the poems are exhilarating, some of the most beautiful to come out of a genuinely exciting time in American poetry.