Paul Violi


Tony Towle in the ‘70s

For many New York poets the Seventies were an especially lively time, rife with experimentation and innovation, and fervid if not overblown factionalism. One reliable way for some of us to keep our bearing in all the commotion was to read what Tony Towle was writing in an increasingly impressive stream. He was always topping himself. And then, with the publication of two brilliant, compelling poems of imaginative depth and formal invention, "Autobiography" and "Works on Paper," he provided an inspiriting alternative to the dry, lifeless linguistic exercises into which some experimental poetry was beginning to sink.

It feels odd to think of his poetry in a chronological context; their freshness and immediacy quickly override that kind of consideration. Even now, decades later, these poems – poems I thought I knew inside out – still surprise me, still give me new reasons to admire them. However, with this book’s contents laid out chronologically, it is impossible not to appreciate how Towle’s style evolved and culminated in his finest achievements. To what degree a poet can be conscious of his own development is hard to tell, but Towle seems to have known what he was after all along. He came (back) to New York, looked around, found the first generation of New York School poets and – drawn to their originality and expansive scale – jumped in:

            I know from Frank O’Hara that the poem and its setting
            are completely at your disposal,
            from Kenneth Koch that the resources of language
            are greater than oneself and thereby liberating,
            from John Ashbery that the mysterious and beautiful
            are still supremely possible
            and supremely inspiring –
            and James Schuyler’s blinding exactitude of observation,
            its serene and tremendous burden . . .


Somewhat nervy? Yes. And accurate. But Towle’s going on a lot more than his nerve. He adapted the conversational, inclusive techniques of those poets, most especially O’Hara, in a way that gave free rein to his own temperament. The result: droll, detached, complicated and heart-wrenching poems marked by his own brand of wit and irony. Marianne Moore once said (reviewing Wallace Stevens), "One’s humor is based upon the most serious part of one’s nature." Towle is an incorrigible, inveterate ironist, but it’s an ironic fist in a velvet glove, drawing the reader into a highly speculative, many-sided game for which he provides a running, self-reflective commentary:

            I explore the language compulsively, like Tennyson,
            and exist in it as a story, like the dictionary,
            told accumulating beneath the sun . . .

                                                                        ("Moral Courage")


            I am always walking out on a terrace,
            always looking at the sea,
            and of course there is no one, the typewriter
            only, speaks; to you, to Stravinsky, to anyone . . .

                                                                        ("Starry Night")


            But remember that you are writing poetry
            quoting yourself as if daffodils spring up
            through the crimson eternity
            blazing behind the vignettes of eruptive words
            as soon as I open my mouth.

                                                                        ("Red Studio")


The "Towle poem" is often an exploratory account of its own making, a search for meaning or, when none turns up, dealing with the inconsequential. The tone shifts, a blend at times remote and passionate, colloquial and eloquent, self-deprecatory and inspired. His freewheeling narrative line encompasses the metaphysical and the mundane, and is open to any possibility in between (his seriocomic images of food are notably abundant and inventive).

In fact, this willingness to consider whatever pops up in his imagination is what makes Towle such an exciting poet (". . . staggering with the implications, / to the hors d’oeuvre of the infinite room / which I have chosen from the swirling elements, // from the actual events, stories, and people. / I don’t see clearly the swirling elements, / I am made up of those elements . . . "). Poems in which invention and discovery become indistinguishable invite two notions to come into play. One is that, as Calvino put it, literature must recognize "a reality of levels," and, by doing so, creates another. And, as a writer on quantum physics recently noted: "The world as we now understand it is ‘a participatory universe’ whose elements we shape by our very observation of it. We are not bystanders, we are part of it."

In Towle’s case, this makes for a very congenial aesthetic. The accidental becomes essential, interruptions are welcome along with the concomitant risks, as the author reminds us in the beautifully solemn "Epigraph":

            but think of why you are cold and strong,
            then trapped and betrayed by natural events,
            shapes, and feelings among the waves;
            walking the earth as though it were useful,
            sweeping through its combinations working as steps –
            it is the history of the invitation.

So, too, are family, friends, revived predecessors, and, via casual personification, Art, Literature, Architecture, History, and, especially, Music, all in a very earthbound allegory of sea- , sky- , land- , and New York City-scapes.

            My mother’s advice for homework
            was to just start writing,
            although I’ve since found you can go crazy that way,
            and that I share with Swinburne
            and with him, further, I share Keats,
            the three of us swooning in exuberant lassitude;
            for almost anyone can be sent into endless raptures,
            washed by unnatural light near some willows,
            silent roots in the bottomless gorge . . .

                                                                        ("Swinburne: End of the Century")

It takes a powerful imagination to pull this off so consistently. Consequently, the poems, full of mixed company and diverse effects, are often propelled by a particular event into a panoramic view of the momentary. The ironic approach, the overlay or interplay of perspectives, allows Towle to intrude or pull the rug out from under himself as urbanely or rudely as the Byron of "Don Juan." He is an extremely personal and direct poet with an elaborate (at times outrageously elusive) technique, and his relationship to his art is as intimate and abiding a subject as his involvement with people. He is an unabashed traditionalist with an experimentalist’s curiosity. In the foreground, modernism and postmodernism, the stream of consciousness and self-consciousness converge. Towle glides along in his glass-bottomed boat, steering with one hand, logging the intricate play of introspection and observation with the other.

I could go on about general aspects of his work but for the sake of brevity perhaps I can suggest them by commenting on a poem that has amazed me since I first read it in Poetry magazine. It is an immensely enjoyable and mysterious work about being a contemporary artist. Of course, the voice belongs to a Renaissance Florentine, an intriguing mixture of arrogance and humility, disdain and magnanimity, who never identifies himself. He’s an architect who speaks to and through the ages from a precarious observation post — immortality. "Works on Paper" is a memorable construct, a conflation of interior and dramatic monologues in loose tercets, but the portrait is so convincing that one might suspect, as one does with similar creations by Browning, Pound, or F.T. Prince, that there is more to metempsychosis than a great technique.

It vies with "Autobiography" as his finest work, and is a reminder that whether I am admiring him as a writer of elegies or satire, or as a surreal regionalist casting his wit on a few decades of life and art in New York, I am ultimately left wondering how rare beauty and imagination are in poetry.