Ron Padgett


A Note on the Early Poems of Tony Towle

The works that Tony Towle wrote from 1963 to 1965 are those of a young man who was learning how to ride and control poems whose surfaces were leaping and shifting even as he wrote them. At this relatively early stage f his career, between the ages of 24 and 26, Tony Towle went beyond writing the kind of poem that is fixed in place, like a butterfly specimen, which might be beautiful but certainly is dead. Towle’s poems are beautiful too, not because they form decorous displays, but because they are alive with intelligence, urbanity, and multiple voices and views, alive the way the real world is alive anytime we are brave or naïve enough to open up and let it be as astonishing as it is:

            Somehow we cannot come up with a clear definition from all this.
            The human mind always works along the lines of a plan, from which
            we may conclude that we are not capable of discovering the truth
            about the universe. There is nothing to avert this suspicion. He’s right;
            I can’t move a muscle. Here, hold the phone next to the carpet. I’d
            like to have this carpet cleaned . . .

                                                                                            ("Lines for the New Year")

The reader owes a debt of gratitude to the young author: he does not allow us to distinguish between the real and the imagined. When the "I" in a poem ponders, say, his health or his feelings, we have no way of knowing if that speaker is Tony Towle, or even partly Tony Towle. "I have glib relationships because there is so much to joke about" ("Lines for the New Year"). Is this an instance of straightforward honesty or of clever irony? We cannot tell, and perhaps it is none of our business! And yet, despite the author’s perpetual vanishing act, he is always there, surrounding the little universe he has created in the poem. He functions somewhat like the confused geography in dreams, such as when you are in "Paris" but it looks exactly like San Antonio: the pleasure of being in two places at the same time. In Towle’s poetry this effect results from his allowing his athletic sense of irony to dilate and contract whenever the poem seems to call for it, with a touch of insouciance added as a coup de grâce. Only in his later poetry does an elegiac tone bleed into the work.

In these early works, however, the author’s fascination with history carries an eerie undertone of sadness: historic personages appear here like figures in tableaux vivants, but ones that have the actual personages! And then they flicker away, like cartoon characters, and we laugh, because they are funny; like many of the collaged fragments Towle uses from pulp fiction, comic books, and advice columns in his wonderfully ambitious "Lines for the New Year." Elsewhere he uses comedy to deflate the posturing of "poetic" language: "We move frontally toward dominion, / which is something I’ve wanted to do" ("Thoughts near the George Washington Bridge" - not included in the present selection [but included here on the EPC website]). Or he uses ludicrous diction: "Mere buffalo were able to stop a train. / I did not know the identity of the animals but I was annoyed with / them" ("Lines for the New Year"). Such lines often lead to others that take a serious turn. To follow such mercurial shiftings, the reader must be as agile as the author.

These are some of the pleasures to be found in these poems. An additional pleasure is that of finding oneself face to face with the utterly mysterious, as in "Prologue":

            The pilgrims are cautious and exact,
            only a trickle comes to the edge.
            I stir slightly.
            The residue, white, is hung
            without sound.

What helps make these lines so mysterious is that they have the feeling of being predestined, each word absolutely "right" where it is, without the slightest trace of obscurity.