The first day of January is the first day
of the New Year. In the north
there is snow and ice and the forest rings
with the sound of the ax.
So this is really a game of tag. Run across it
as if it were a cake, and you were a knife
cutting it right through the middle. At other times
the clouds seem to be pillows. My target
is a cool, tax-free million. I am very calm about it.
I could end up making a good deal more.
In the next stanza the various steps of a method are laid out —
We decided that the sun was a huge plate of gold.
We wanted to pull it down from the sky with a rope,
or across the sky, in a boat. We know how to find
the east. The east is where the sun comes up each morning.
In the morning we begin the work. There may be hundreds,
even thousands, of trees to chop down. It will be long after dark
before we can stop and go home to bed.
The themes of theatricality and of fictionality and schema are sounded again, stanza three beginning —
Later there appears a third major character. If there is a
moral diagnosis to be made he will make it.
Thereafter the poem storms garrulously on — plotless as far as I can tell but continuously surprising, with astounding events narrated as generic and with a calm that embalms and distances as if we are watching old news reel footage. Tautologous axioms are announced in the normative language of an academician, a twentieth-century Bellori. Violence and disaster (flood, storm, tempest, rape and murder) will be followed by such as this:
... Now there is nothing wrong with this as far as it goes.
The poem, then, has its seriousness. All life is charged with
Among the first pages of the book are the poems one first knew Towle by.
We eat and hear as your kiss descends
over the piano and the sky.
The tide rushes out of a box and I am dead.
Prokofiev is dead, as I am.
On the day of judgement, when we are released,
we will hear the rain and the thunder
and miles of cars will stop in their tracks.
The line down the highway is white,
the color of the sky before Prokofiev.
At the beginning I am here behind the typewriter.
I wander off to the cliffs to see the sharks
looking for a finger or some bloody popcorn or a ruined doll.
I throw them a ruined doll.
The camera moves in for a close-up. I adjust my tie
but it focuses on my cigarettes, Pall Mall Filters,
and the shining gold pack that contains them.
The camera goes on across the crowd.
We have five seconds on camera, a daguerreotype,
The room is upside down and objects fall with a crash.
Then a picture of an airplane.
The airplane or the sun is upside down.
It is the sun, which falls like an egg onto a plateau.
The real sun burns it to a disgusting omelet.
The sun also drains the color from the words; the moon
Turns them to chalk and they collapse.
Note, reader, the poem’s self-presentation as scenarios: ‘At the beginning I am here behind the typewriter’, ‘I wander off to the cliffs to see the sharks’, ‘The camera moves in for a close-up’. Note the signalling of change of scene and of continuity: ‘At the beginning’, ‘We have five seconds on camera’, ‘Then a picture of an airplane’. The poem seems also to me to emulate a slightly cubistic painting — abstract, like a de Chirico still-life circa 1919 — severe tilting planes, bits of sculpture, a piece of fruit and a set square, say — the abrupt transitions in Towle’s poem press the reader close up against the picture plane as it were.
‘Poem (“An engineer pushes a button... ”)’ does some of the same things: scene, abrupt, vertiginous change, return to scene — and the equable tone:
An engineer pushes a button in the mountains,
and another mountain lifts itself
and slides into the lake,
revealing a patchwork of interesting minerals.
The air follows us as we walk along.
Look at all this junk. My glass is cracked suddenly.
Look at the punch leaking out onto my sleeve.
That is the way I see things,
That, or locked up in storage bins, alongside one another.
A few lines later the wrenching announcement ‘Back in the mountains’:
Back in the mountains. The engineer pulls a switch,
and a mountain,
making a quiet, sliding sound, lifts itself
and slides into the lake.
There is bound to be a breeze now
Another poem worth quoting in full:
For Irma During April
Now it is April, then the great bull of May,
and then it will be my birthday and time for presents and the beach.
That’s when the poetry of summer descends on you
if you are a poet, and the metaphors emit an enormous heat,
tapering off to the luxuriant melancholy verse of fall.
Then 1968 and my vote for president, and January 1969 and ’70. By
this time my poetry improves, a compliment to the new administration.
I suppose that other people’s poetry will also have improved,
worse luck, and there will be new painters and paintings
and a host of movies I won’t keep track of,
or as Johnson said of Pope, considering the English climate,
what would an Englishman want with a grotto?
As an American I should enjoy a grotto.
The walls would be fragrant with the spirits of the earth,
and in general be like a symphony by Shostakovich,
very entertaining, a vodka and tonic made with Russian vodka.
The clocks’ stopping means I’m waiting for you to get home;
dinner and the television of Sherlock Holmes and Watson
shaping our evening with Hollywood precision.
Beautiful cinematography and the pork chops this April
since they’re yours and with the curtains drawn
spring in the area is a more delightful place in which to be.
The opening lines are great: the first seven or eight: a clarion beginning and then the reduction of the second line, the explanatory, expository tone, the ambiguous spin on the word ‘poetry’ — is it literal or allegorical? his poetry? or life seen as poetry? — the regular inflation of the framing History and its subsequent undercutting. I like the routine bathos of ‘beautiful cinematography and pork chops,’ light and unpointed, almost an equivalence, and Life made small by — but in equal measure mocking — the heroic system of the old calendar. The conventional is adumbrated with a comical equanimity, an ironized complacency. Note the latinisms, reified abstractions, the fruity richness of the high culture/vodka coupling.
Many of the later poems extend and repeat these moves and reflexes.
Up, gracing the void with intellect, I noticed a ring,
encircled by rows of shimmering diamonds,
walking, feeling prosperous and losing weight,
to the Morgan Library. For young people there was a pin,
expressing love in simple cascades of diamonds,
on 34th Street
which we give no relief walking and walking,
looking for something to stick it into,
women and children first, apples, walnuts, melons,
the calm transparency of plastic, the grudging
response of lead, or the rolling fog or even a jar of worms!
I try to be normal, but one is magically altered
in the serene tempest of infinity
Keats Milton Pope
their fragile efforts preserved
at the incomparable Morgan,
and examined with the curator’s indulgence. Shelley
his last poem sitting here over the years
lungs having filled in desperation,
the supreme tempest of personality finishing,
while today America is happy,
from its own romantic exhaustion,
and I am happy
Thus begins 1970’s ‘The Morgan Library’.
I quote the next poem in its entirety —
The Wright Brothers invented the airplane,
and I almost never use it.
I use up electricity, which imitates the sun,
the phonograph and television,
which reproduce our activities;
the Wright Brothers’ contraption
imitates the flights of poetry and divinity
and that is immoral.
Get into the pudding.
No, that is a pudding for dinner.
If you want to empathize with menstruation subscribe to Poetry Magazine,
if you don’t, don’t, or if you’re a woman
then you know;
and you know,
colliding with the small but equally brilliant moon.
(Don’t worry about it, he’s drunk,
the ice just spilled on the floor.)
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.
I am fortunate to know even the alphabet,
my mind sticking to nothing for very long,
leafing through some great books, getting up in agitation,
sitting back down with some paper and life;
my life is barely started, from January 1963,
when I knew it would have to be poetry or nothing.
Since then I have looked mostly like a lawyer, a broker,
but in a struggle with the eternal verities,
and with always the one day to be disposed of;
at time’s in nostalgia for someone’s past — not my own -
I told Frank that his poems made me have it for his,
and I had it for John’s, Kenneth’s, and Jimmy’s,
and Joe’s, Norman’s, Larry’s, Joan’s, Mike’s, and Jane’s as well.
I came to know these people, but I don’t really, of course,
as I go on with my work to some distant point,
with most of the feelings I had before
and the sorrow of literature I learned and I keep.
Another begins -
It was deduced in my mind quite early
that I would be spending my time within its configurations,
and neglect somewhat
the more exhaustive aggrandizements of the body,
even as the natural victim in its whirlpool of references;
and now, perverse in an antidote for human loneliness,
I am reading Swinburne,
who confused these matters to a greater degree,
until he was constitutionally unfit for both,
passing gradually over the hot boundaries
and he has not been seen since.
You must forgive me, it is the weather, a crumpled napkin
about which one hears a lot of foolishness
but from which there is nowhere else to go, on infinite cardboard,
vertically or horizontal, resting on its nearby peaks,
passing through in all its variety
to the weather near where I live.
I live near Spring Street,
Almost from the first Towle’s poems toy with a feeling of belatedness — a kind of tic or grace note from which the poems then push off and make their grab at the ring.
‘Nearing Christmas’ begins with an interestingly conflicted or ambiguous scenario:
A frog croaks continually in the pond below,
and jumps out onto the ground.
I climb through the window and cross the floor
Other ‘like’ events follow.
Before the wingless exasperations of Bloomingdale’s
which already entwine my heels
in intellectual pursuit.
I knew it would happen eventually,
Frank’s poems would come out,
and I would feel the impulse to close up shop,
so I have sat down to write,
evading the personality, like Rimbaud,
jumping into one, like Marianne Moore,
or sitting simply like a sack of raisins in space
as you threaten to become my personal Rachmaninoff.
A page later:
I’m still here, 12:22, perhaps three minutes fast,
Forgetting what I was going to say.
Two more drinks Towle and you’ll say anything.
I haven’t been called Towle since high school.
I had something else to say but I don’t remember what it was.
He considers various titles associated, as enthusiasms, with O’Hara and says he had once thought idly that he would write a novel dedicated to O’Hara.
... in 1964
it occurred to me I might write one for Frank one day
if he ever died before I did, which wasn’t likely.
Well he did and I haven’t.
Irma needs skirts
so I’m going to Bloomingdale’s to look for some,
empty ones that is. I can remember when it could be said
that someone had a dirty mind,
no more hopeless and antiquated than having, say,
the mind of Henry James.
‘the woman’s place is in the novel.’ — Henry James,
who would be sipping something more exotic;
but I have really got to go,
out through the door
to the facts of life.
Which returns him to his theme:
My life at any rate is more oblique than Frank’s.
What have I ever said to the sun for example.
What did I ever say to Frank, for that matter,
brooding on the promontory of my early poetic development,
silent and self-preoccupied,
not that anything’s changed too much
There follows a partial statement of Towle’s poetics, then a demonstration of that aesthetic attitude in action (offered as such by a mere ‘For instance’). The poem itself recalls the O’Hara poem alluded to in the lines above (‘A True Account Of Talking To The Sun On Fire Island’). In this case Towle is addressed by the deceased O’Hara rather than by the sun. ‘Nearing Christmas’ parallels the O’Hara poem — right down to the other-worldly withdrawal into silence at its end —
Finally I have gone to Bloomingdale’s
and I am back.
You call that lyric you big bag of shit?
I am not talking to myself,
or in that manner to a great poet of the past,
that must be Frank, talking to me;
I am at last fully awake in this mortal life,
for the few years in the middle,
and I keep myself opaque and I don’t regret it,
on the promontory.
Frank you’ve got to help me
and there is an answer but not at this moment.
This is from the seventies and in this period the palpable hits begin to come thick and fast. ‘Autobiography’ is the biggun of this era, together with ‘Works On Paper’. ‘Autobiography’ does not bother too much about clarity or even, I expect, factuality in all instances but extends the demonstration of the aesthetic that ‘Nearing Christmas’ announced:
Not to have a mistaken notion of your biography;
no event in your life is of the slightest importance,
but there is nothing you cannot use;
the unceasing events of your boring life
occur only for the success of a particular poem
awaiting your efforts on a horizon.
For instance, it is supposed that I am drunk at a party;
I walk unsteadily into the foyer
where Joe, Jane, and John are putting on their coats.
I stand there for a moment, breaking the alliteration.
‘Autobiography’ is full of fabulously funny stuff — funny, but (it is the particular and more or less unique gift of Tony Towle’s to produce this) at the same time, amusingly beautiful. Here the epithets I began the review with might be again tempted into play: notice the rhetoric whose very classical clarity and orderliness are applied so as to detail (and to dress up) an ordinary subjectivity and Romantic dispensation. (In ‘Lines For the New Year’ Towle had diagnosed himself: ‘I tend to be / skeptical of claims to heroism but I am terribly responsive to them.’) Where the early poems sometimes had me wish to urge an affinity with Watteau, the heroical elaboration of the seventies has me urge (just as uselessly) Tiepolo, and the de Chirico of senators, Roman soldiers, chariots-and-horses and stage-set columns and pediments.
Some samplings from ‘Autobiography’s version of its author’s life —
Yet I hesitate to give myself dramatic location,
Time without place is my usual location,
Someone from the last century thinking to be in the preceding one,
But really mentioning anything specific
That happened in those centuries.
I return to my century and open up Spenser, and the sun,
An elevated plum and a demon from the dim past,
Closes an eye on the ocean at sunset
. . .
You see, most of us do not use our backs properly,
They float unused in the body’s sea,
Retreat like flights of steps in to the earth,
Or mount birds and hurtle through space
In a universe of misuse...
. . .
and by this time everybody is in stitches.
On a smaller scale, a puddle is covered over with boards
and an awning shields several successful men from the sun.
I know none of this is really true,
until the damned car ran over the embankment,
which was also not true;
hundreds of wheels,
and the embankment the diamond border of another state,
the road a river stretching far to the west,
and along the way the slopes leading down beneath the trees,
and from there the clearing I had seen before
from a silent pool of sunlit air,
looking from this spot and from others
to the same imaginary points among the stars.
The landscape is still very pretty but there are too many people
And they obviously have something in common,
But that’s as far as it goes,
A friendly chat or violent debate among civilizations,
Comparing pyramids, admiring one another’s feathers,
While muskrats keep nibbling the grass
And I prop up my feet on a temporary framework.
I again open Spenser
By this time the reader, this reader, had forgotten Spenser. The poem continues:
and would gallop onto the plains,
a distinguished figure on the back of poetry,
non-ferrous castings holding me securely
to the machinery of composition.
But do not jump to conclusions,
I can be entertaining as well as literate,
as well as thought-provoking and lucid,
reflective and supremely melancholy
after relating the fashionable drolleries of the day
‘Autobiography’ is amusing — full of mock afflatus, that, not being ‘meant’ exactly, stands still for our perusal rather than driving furiously. The poem gives accounts of Towle’s development, poetry’s place in America (too ‘left field’ for most Americans, three quarters of whom however feel that that is where they come from, says the poem).
Here is the end —
I break the ice and plunge into bottomless sleep.
I lie in bed and think about life
or get up and go the store;
taking a tentative step on the soft pear of convention
which can lead to sinking into the worst of two worlds,
the world of fashion and the world of bitter hallucination,
where crisis, pain, and emptiness color the imagination,
miles of crystalline glacier,
shafts of sunlight and the haunted fields ...
I gallop onto the plains,
a distinguished figure on the back of poetry.
I relax my vigilance, raise the blind
and observe the sky.
I verge on the maudlin, jump the gun, drag my ass,
have a quick Pernod with other poets,
reach for the sky, turn the screw, and fall out...
... take a powder and hang it up.
I venture into the unknown.
I play by the rules, branch out,
and stay in my place.
I walk into the wind, continually,
have lunch on velvet burgundy tablecloths with friends,
dress for dinner in elegant striped jackets,
or fabulous gray suits,
a pestilent green hat or short furry slippers,
fashion with charm lik a perennial sea
in that it is always pulling at your leg,
or concocting a simple soup.
I enter another year, 1973. I read Verlaine,
feel my pulse and drink some rum,
take some shit, bust some balls, and run like hell,
until sleep-inducing herbs permeate the room
from an odiferous panel, or cylinder.
The sugar softens in my coffee;
I outwear my welcome, always,
harnessed like a horse to a tale,
casting about in an endless mire,
along with the other poets, my worthy opponents,
flying for hours and then some relaxation,
between the sky and the ground,
in our purely hypothetical space.
Among the other terrific poems in this section are ‘On His Name’, ‘Vacations’, ‘Starry Night’, ‘Social Poem’. ‘Works On Paper’ is the other long poem (and by that convention ‘ambitious’) from this penultimate section of the book. It is drier than most of those I’ve just listed. But a deliberate dryness seems to be being cultivated in the late 70s pages. My guess is that this is a move on from the manner Towle had increasingly made his own and perhaps had too much under control for his own sense of formal adventure.
‘Works On Paper’ is long — though not extending to the length of ‘Autobiography’s (they are twelve pages and seventeen pages respectively) — and is in unevenly long-lined triplets.
The speaker is a visionary architect — or, one is encouraged to suspect, a deluded, ‘visionary’, would-be architect — of the Renaissance period in Italy.
The beginning gives some idea —
Columns and pilasters, in general
spread over much of the composition,
then periodically erased, by sweeping reforms,
and when I climbed to the first of the pinnacles of recognition,
the highest tower I had so far caused to be made,
there was all that I could see, and the rest, which I could not
but which I took surely to be not much different,
years and miles from where I confer
with a virtual small army of workmen, who hold strong beliefs,
and who wait with the tools of their trades
to affix themselves to my genius.
And let them wait, like relatives,
knowing the decisions are up to me by what I am wearing,
and by the fact that the aristocracy will talk to me.
and I don’t mind talking to them,
though they have no idea of what I’m talking about,
not even taking a cumbersome guess;
they await the purely visual,
and mutter about the cost,
and the fabled structures of the ruined past.
A page or so later come definite intimations of the speaker’s unreliability — beyond the entertainingly permanent high-handed manner.
An actual visit would become progressively more bizarre
and culminate in an actual room in which to spend the night,
the windows too high to look out from conveniently,
or too low: I would usually go too far in one direction
The speaker seems megalomaniac and to regard Architecture, or his architecture, as an overarching and ordering synecdoche for most of reality. There is an abundance of pleasure, jokes, conceptual humour in the poem.
The harder, drier tone... Well, it existed in the earlier, short poems. But they were not discursive and this property seemed foregrounded there as an element of sybilline inscrutability. In these later poems the tone conveys mood, a testy impatience controlled:
It’s six o’clock, do you know
where you are? I am with my sanity
among the bells
telling me it is six o’clock,
which is more than I need to know.
I seem to want to talk about something,
but it is missing,
which makes it a personal remark
which I stop to listen to
as if the bells had stopped ringing
but I were persisting
This seems severe after most of the poems to date.
I am upset
with my tone of voice,
as if I had climbed the walls
but did not get far enough away,
though in the first place
I don’t know where that would be
and in the second
I know everything else,
which leads to too much news.
Thematically the poem is continuous with the themes I have singled out from previous work — a meditation on poetry, and on his own poetry; poetry’s position, his position; and on belatedness. In the above (‘Social Poem’) the speaker meditates on the artist Jackson Pollock, his paintings, and the Cedar Bar, while himself crossing the road to a bar that has been his local for many years.
And I still cross Houston Street
in the path of the many drivers from New Jersey
who I am sure are all nice people
when they get back; but in the meantime
they are after me,
since I don’t mind being paranoid,
. . .
where I am thinking about Jackson Pollock
for some reason,
the rumours and rectangles
from the Cedar Bar to the Metropolitan, the legend
half of me would like the other half to be,
though if I could say which half were which
I wouldn’t get any further;
but the real joke is I don’t have a horse,
so that crossing Houston Street is truly pedestrian,
which might be good for the paranoia
but not for the legend
I’ll be nearer to the next time I stop
at the next place I’ll be.
In the book’s final section the classically baroque ornamentation and diction have been discarded, revisited, maybe, in one or two poems. Dry, or not, the poems seem more sporting, less aimed at the paradigm of the grandly quixotic, foolish and heroical. Instead they are playfully facetious and virtuosic runs. Or, though not noisily signalled as such, they are personal.
There are knockout poems amongst them: for my money — ‘Mysteries’, ‘Downtown Song’, ‘Thoughts at Frank O’Hara’s City Poet Party’, ‘Seasonal Ramble’, ‘Notions’, are all very good.
Tony Towle shares more with the elders of the New York School than his peers do and with more of the elders, too: he suggests Ashbery and Koch quite often, O’Hara sometimes, and the younger Schuyler at the latter’s most playfully decorative and Baroque. Towle’s dryness can also suggest Denby. He shares more with the elders in depending less than Ron, Ted and the others — in their early work — upon references to youth culture and regular declarations/ demonstrations of brattish independence.
A few specific poems — and specific devices in Towle — sometimes seem Kochian. One is ‘Vacations’, but of course the poem is dedicated to, and explicitly parodies, Koch’s manner and driven quality — in the last respect ‘Vacations’ recalls Koch’s ‘The Artist’. Another might be ‘Addenda’, but only in part and much less recognisably.
But, as the typical ‘major’ poem by Towle would probably be an extended meditative monologue, of the New York crowd Ashbery is the poet Towle most immediately seems to parallel. Ashbery’s voice speaks for us as ‘we’, a generalizable human subject. But he does so using — as academics love to say — multiple ‘shifters’. Towle uses a ventured ‘I’ as far as the metaphysics go. But there is no shifting. Towle’s persona, patently artificial and comic, anamorphosed, distorted, sometimes in period drag, would seem to stand at a certain (fixed, and close) proximity to himself. Distinct but very near. Ashbery’s personae resemble himself more closely, we might feel, but stand at indeterminate and variable distances from the author’s subject position. And this subject position does not claim them, does not stand by them. Towle, however parodically, at whatever distance, I think does. Perhaps I am confused.
While Ashbery’s mobility in this respect allows his poems to be ‘more’ speculative than Towle’s, we might take Towle’s speculations (and essaying of subjecthood) as more serious. Not, for this reason, in their findings — but in their claiming responsibility. Having said all this I wonder if it is true. But Towle’s poems do lead me to think this way — an index of their strength. Bear in mind the poor quality of my mind and its thinking at any time. Hard perhaps for the reader of Jacket to gauge.
If the original three or four of the New York School can be thought of as opening up a new space in their poetry — revelling in idea, and in lived, mediated, culturally rich urban life; in refusal of the poetic role of Grand Truths (à la Olson), the hectoring Jeremiah (The Beats, Lowell) or the severe high seriousness of Stevens, the dull predictability of academic poetry of the time — then the second generation extended that space: adding rumpus rooms, games room, TV room, bed-sits, decking and lots of take away pizza. The original, impossible room had the first generation drift to different, characteristic corners: Schuyler in a very comfy chair near a good view of Southamptons sand dunes and foreshore (a la Freilicher or Fairfield Porter); Koch’s corner might have table and chair and exercise bike or rowing machine and a trick exit to a Ghost Train ride adjoining; Ashbery would be on a balcony attached to a libraryish living room. O’Hara would be at a telephone table, on the phone, and eating standing up. How I see it, anyway.
Towle might be thought to occupy that same room, extending it a little, redecorating a wall or two — an impossible room, as I’ve said — part library, study, bar, balcony (‘I am always walking out on a terrace, / always looking at the sea’), split level loft and a morphing baroque Versailles or Amalienburg.
There would be a chair in which uncle Edwin would sit, or maybe Denby would drift as the mood took him from spot to spot, room to room, visiting first Kenward, then Frank or Jimmy, Joe or Ron.
Towle is associated now with a number of other poets — New Yorkers, but not usually thought of as New York School, Paul Violi and Charles North. All three write most regularly through personas that disclaim a too personal identification, certainly too personal a function and purpose beyond the literary and aesthetic. And their humour can be tough-minded, even ‘robust’, Violi’s particularly.
An updated Anthology of New York Poets would include Violi and North. But would this be a good move on their part? The ‘school’ tag is a mixed blessing: included, but included out, as the mogul said. Those who dislike the New York School tend to dislike it as an entity, a unity — those who like it tend to like the individual poets in it, the variety. And, while I realize nothing is as simple as this, it seems that a still larger group profess to be somehow ‘simply’ unimpressed — except in qualified ways by Ashbery or O’Hara, or except that they have an opinion about Ashbery or O’Hara.
But even among those professing to like the ‘school’, knowledge extends usually only to portions of the work of Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch and (possibly) Schuyler and to one or two of the second generation.
Tony Towle is one of the major talents of the New York School. He is one of my favourite poets. He is, somehow, not one of the better known among them.
I discovered the New York poets in the mid seventies while myself a beginning poet: first Ted Berrigan and Frank O’Hara and, immediately following, Kenneth Koch and Ashbery. Soon after I was reading the Padgett and Shapiro An Anthology of New York Poets. This gave one an introduction to most of them, but not always an adequate one: it was made when so many of them were still very young. Through 1974 and 75 I read a great deal of O’Hara, Berrigan, Koch, Ashbery, and Padgett; a good deal of Elmslie, Brainard and Brownstein; then Schjeldahl and Denby; some Warsh and Waldman, Tom Clark. By the late 70s I caught up properly with Schuyler, then Mathews.
I was given Tony Towle’s ‘Autobiography’ and other poems by Philip Hammial, another poet, who had guessed Towle might be very right for me. He was right. I was enthused and immediately ordered North, Towle’s first large collection and Lines For The New Year, an Adventures In Poetry mimeo, and bought his subsequent books as soon as they came out. Through the 80s an earlier New and Selected, from Kulchur press, was a longtime companion of mine while I wrote, getting a rest every year or two and taken up again. That volume is long out of print. The History of The Invitation replaces it and carries, in selection, another twenty years’ work.
I had known Towle by a few anthology pieces. They were memorable and intriguing and still are. I returned to them often. ‘Poem (“An engineer pushes a button...” )’ and ‘Poem (“The sky is cut into sections...” )’, ‘After Dinner We Take A Drive Into The Night’ and the ‘Elegy’ (that I always took to be for O’Hara), and ‘New York’ with its typically Towle beginning — the establishing, dragging initial rhyme, the passivity and gentility and violent ructions of mental space — and the maintained equanimity:
A peaceful bite of hamburger and your mind is blown into space,
going on for some time while the long roots of space
dig into your language and the fuel pitches its tents and talks to you.
You escape from this passively and pay the check. Your mind
is occupied, backing across the Brooklyn Bridge,
the serenity of the city to blind you with the sun,
and going through you into Brooklyn Heights.
It is April as you keep from bursting.
These are very distinctive poems. I read them a lot. But had it not been for Hammial’s intervention I might never have got to the body of Towle’s work and its energising delights. I think Towle was not in focus for me because the other poets’ work did not lead to it.
Most of them were close socially — though degrees of proximity varied — and they talk about each other in their poems: Ted and Ron and Joe and Kenward and Jimmy Schuyler mention each other and to a lesser degree mention also Peter Schjeldahl, Tom Clark, Michael Brownstein, Lewis and Anne (Warsh and Waldman, that is), Bill Berkson, Jim Carroll. And their books were available: a remaindered Schjeldahl White Room was available, cheap, for years (as was early and great Kenneth Koch and the Grove Press O’Hara); Clark’s stuff was with Black Sparrow; Berrigan was a powerful enough rumour among young Sydney poets by the early 70s that his titles appeared regularly and, to the mystification and relief of the booksellers, quickly sold. You hunted up the others — or ordered them direct.
By age Towle is of the second generation. He was ‘anointed’, in fact, with the inaugural Frank O’Hara Prize after O’Hara’s death. He had met a little with the revered elders of the first generation. But, amongst the second generation peer group, Towle was one of those not socially tight with the others. For various reasons. The Tulsa group for example (Berrigan, Padgett, Brainard, Dick Gallup and others) were student bohemians — full time poets: cutting classes, stealing books, forging prescriptions, lighting up, listening to records, going to movies, and talking a lot as they endlessly hung out together. Towle was working and, later, married — the straight life — and, I take it, was a little out of that loop. (Though Joe Brainard roomed with Towle for a time on first arriving in New York — and there were other groupings within the developing and fluid ‘New York School’.)
Where Towle comes across as cosmopolitan New Yorker this more central group of out-of-towners read as bowled over by the excitement of the Big City, as brash and as brandishing a legitimizing youth culture and their complementary youthful verve, audacity, precociousness and cool: Pepsi, benzedrine, Apollinaire, Max Jacob and Blaise Cendrars, Warhol and Tzara and The Lovin’ Spoonful — licensed, if not given quite an imprimatur, by O’Hara, Ashbery and Koch. I like all of this. But ‘acting up’ was not a tactic of Towle’s.
My chance finding of Towle’s work, the paucity of pointers to it, may be just an Australian story — but I wonder: he is an important poet, far too little known or celebrated even in the States.
Still, here in The History of the Invitation are the poems: where else can you read things like this? Nowhere. And they are beautiful and enspiriting and, at their frequent best, mysterious and inexhaustible: you will return to them again and again.
The book’s cover is by James Rosenquist, one of the recent tinsel and wrapping paintings. Towle has been associated professionally and socially with many artists over a long period: previous covers have included work by Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Jean Holabird and a knockout by Larry Rivers.
Readers will know the cartoonish but moving Joe Turner lyric that has a chicken (‘I’m just a little-bitty chicken / I’m too young to fly’) ask a hawk to ‘Take me up, Hawky, take me up there in the blue’? Aside from all the talk so far of amusement and beauty there is the utterly elating effect of Towle’s best poems — any of them that are of more than moderate length: the reader is taken on a wonderful ride, scenic, vertiginous, soothing, often ranging through different times, and spaces.