back toJacket2

February 2004  |  Jacket 25  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Leo Edelstein reviews

Memoir 1960–63 by Tony Towle, and
Nine Immaterial Nocturnes by Tony Towle

Tony Towle’s Memoir 1960–63 (Cambridge, MA: Faux Press, 2001) is a slice of autobiography discussing a time many are increasingly curious about. Begun in May 2000 and finished the day before 9/11, it describes the beginning of Towle’s career as a poet in New York City in his early twenties in the early ’60s, and is filled with an array of characters and places that influenced his work. In these few years he meets New York School figures such as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Frank Lima, Barbara Guest, David Shapiro, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Leroi Jones, Ron Padgett and many other poets and artists. We are given insight into Towle’s formative years, his discovery of Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and his revelation of what was being done and could be done, on first reading Don Allen’s anthology New American Poetry, 1945–1960.

The mix of anxiety and humor here is seductive, and the whirring difficulties of keeping afloat emotionally, romantically and financially lead the author to many quite hilarious episodes, not least of which is a thwarted trip to Mexico where he ends up working as an extra in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. We also find him crying in California, not from emotion, but pollution, and later, back in Manhattan, drinking bourbon (‘the house drink’) with Frank O’Hara in the poet’s apartment whilst discussing and listening to Prokofiev at high volume. O’Hara’s friendship, generosity and encouragement resonate throughout the book, and he was instrumental in making Towle think seriously of himself as a poet.

Another moment of quintessential early ’60s New York occurs when Towle, along with some other participants at the New York City Writer’s Conference, gets invited by Gerard Malanga to an artist’s studio in a converted firehouse — according to Malanga the artist ‘was going to become famous.’ The following year at the Stable Gallery that artist first exhibited his Brillo Boxes.

The beauty of this memoir is that what we think of as history becomes, for 90 pages, incredibly alive, and the book is a tribute to the substantial power of memory. Significantly, there’s an almost tremoring sense of an epoch about to change forever, with the assassination of JFK and the looming war in Vietnam. And the transition from the alcohol-fueled, Abstract Expressionist ’50s to the psychedelic, Pop ’60s is there with the symbolic closure of the original Cedar Bar and its irascible but heart-felt scene, and the subsequent opening of Max’s Kansas City.

With an erudite calmness, however, Towle always points us back toward the task of writing poetry, and as such the book is an intimate portrait of a young poet finding his singular tone in New York City. Late in 1963, Towle started experimenting with a 'pop collage' style, a theme that seemed to be in the air at the time, both with poets such as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, and artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, among others, although these painters did not become well-known until the next year, at which time the term ‘Pop Art’ came in. A non-gentrified East Village is evoked as a kind of experimental open space, where parties and apartments, transformed by the occupants’ involvement with art, become settings for expectation and surprise.

Towle’s most recent publication is a limited edition entitled Nine Immaterial Nocturnes (New York: Barretta Books, 2003). As suggested by the title, these poems transport the reader to a dream-like zone — slippages of consciousness and time-travel are embroidered with a cartoon-lightness and paranoiac sub-texts. The New York School street vernacular, a conversational language that was lived, and its coupling of high and low, is here extended toward a highly personalized domain of structural overlays. When reading these often bizarrely funny works one sometimes has the feeling of ideas deliriously circumnavigating themselves in order to arrive at their own particular hearts of darkness. These poems are like channeling devices for an earth about to talk, a ventriloquist’s baroque of cities under stress, embarrassment, love, or a degraded fanciness reinvested, popping up anywhere like Martin Kippenberger’s METRO-Net illusional subway entrances.

Equally so, they promise us a journey somewhere bedazzling, a schizo-train of thought, overloaded and turned inside-out, high-flung hallucinations that they are, ghosting the Capital now that the century has ended.

      Hudson and Worth

As the car alarms disconcertingly
respond to each other’s pitch
I look down the former Anthony Street,
a former Anthony myself, where the moon
is full on the ears of Leon the donkey
and the hibiscus tree remains untamed
but picturesque and leaning a little forward
as if to peek between the curtains to the asphalt below
where a diagram of the 1943 Battle of Kursk has been laid out
in myriad notations of red and orange.
Notice the arrows near the parking lot. They
are Rossokovsky’s T-34’s, which will pierce the German salient.
At sunrise, faculty from the military college
will utilize jackhammers to simulate the clamor of battle
and trace the route of the attack. We ruminate in our bunkers
until the lesson is complete.

The latest Pataphysics, Holiday Resort issue contains an interview with Tony Towle (online at and a selection of his recent work. Other books by Tony Towle: Some Musical Episodes: Poems & Prose (Hanging Loose Press, 1992), and The History of the Invitation: New & Selected Poems 1963–2000 (Hanging Loose Press, 2001).

From Jacket’s Tony Towle author notes page, you can link to half a dozen or more Jacket pages where his work features or where he is reviewed or interviewed.

Jacket 25 — February 2004  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Leo Edelstein and Tony Towle and Jacket magazine 2004
The URL address of this page is