BY THOMAS MOODY
As I returned to the city at the end of this Labor Day weekend, the latest and perhaps last heatwave of the summer slowly passing through, it was difficult not to think of the opening lines of one of my favorite poems by Tony Towle, “Out and Around”:
The streets have never been more profligate
with automotive self-assertion. The sun
has its instructions: keep up the heat. Nouns
float about like paper. Some of them orate
While Towle never specifically refers to summer, or indeed New York, the simplicity of the sun’s instructions, mixed with the unmistakable noise and clatter that the heat seems to bring out in the city — the streets being “profligate / with automotive self-assertion” is one of the most inventive and appropriate phrasings for loud traffic I have come across — means that we can assume the speaker of the poem is “out and around” on a hot August day, somewhere in New York — most likely, somewhere in Queens.
If the New York School of Poets were to nominate a representative for each of the city’s five boroughs, then surely Tony Towle would take up the mantle for Queens. Towle, who grew up in Rego Park in the 1940s and ’50s, has consistently visited the borough of his youth throughout his five decades of writing poetry. Take this from 1973’s astonishing long poem, “Autobiography”:
I had always found my thinking inexplicable
and then, on July 15, 1960, I began writing poems,
which oddly enough has made me feel gradually more comfortable,
at least an improvement over when I was nine, in Rego Park,
slowly ripening beside the great asphalt ladle of Queens Boulevard
which led a broad trail of starry lights
to the distant elegance of a visible Manhattan
The disordering and entwining of thought and action within the lines of the above fragment is typical of Towle’s writing. His poetry is at once rooted in place and lost in thought. Added over these perspectives is a voice considering and commenting on what has already been thought or acted upon. The interlay and overlay of perspectives allows Towle, in the words of fellow New York School poet Paul Violi, “to propel a particular event into a panoramic view of the momentary.” In the beautiful poem “Epigraph” he writes the following:
But think of why you are cold and strong,
then trapped and betrayed by natural event,
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.
Growing up with the “distant elegance of a visible Manhattan” has affected Towle’s poetry in interesting ways. It has imbued it with a kind of wonder that sits comfortably beside the routine and quotidian. In his poem “New York,” a “peaceful bite of hamburger” leads to a mind-blowing experience 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.”
Always experimental in form, Towle’s poetry rebounds between the deeply personal and the enigmatic; the satirical and the sublime. In “After Dinner We Take a Drive Into the Night” from North, which won the prestigious Frank O’Hara Award in 1970, the speaker interrupts a moment of true intimacy with an exposition of inspiration that borders on the ridiculous:
The record slows down;
sweat falls on the instruments;
the musicians are bored.
A hand comes from the clouds to give me a poem.
I accept it and we shake hands.
There is a charisma to Towle’s poetic voice that is a constant throughout his work, no matter what mood it takes. It is a knowing irony. In Noir, his most recent collection of poems, published this year by Hanging Loose Press, he writes, “If you still have charm / you are being underutilized.” Perhaps this is true of Towle’s poetry: that a part of the astonishment of reading his work — and there is much — is that it is not read more widely. The great John Ashbery once referred to him as “one of the New York School’s best-kept secrets.” Towle prized poets such as Ashbery and James Schuyler for their originality, wit and expansive visions of poetry, and has always recognized the debt he owes them:
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…
But Towle’s poetry has not merely rested upon his influences to produce a lesser mimesis; rather, he has developed and expanded their virtues within his own voice.
The poet and critic Charles North sees the great English Romantic poets Keats and Shelley in Towle’s work, and of his New York poems, written in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he writes, “These are New York poems, but 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 ever sense of the term….Moreover, they have an uncanny way of treating fundamentally vague and ethereal matters as though they were concrete.”
The poetry of Tony Towle is worth discovering because of this. Rarely has such beauty and imagination been invested into the everyday and ordinary.