PRINT November 1984


I have a book in my pocket
that contains a list of all the countries in the world.
But those islands now, as I walk near the Hudson,
quite frankly heartbroken,
have taken the aspect of a deserted forest,
and with in it I am walking,
open to his great abstractions,
which are not seen abstractly;

and which carefully, from his point in this world,
Barnett Newman distilled from the heroic sublime.

He used to ask me with a confidential twinkle
if I were sure I weren’t just a little bit Jewish.
I said that anything was possible and we laughed.
On July 4th he became silent,
and closed an access to the sublime blue.
It is difficult to breathe
in his triple air of sublimity
and difficult not to embellish our lives.

Tony Towle

IN 1960 I’D BEEN LIVING in Washington, D.C., for three years, which was how long my first marriage lasted. Then I came back to New York. During the week before I came back I began writing poetry. In 1961 I bought Donald Allen’s anthology, New American Poetry, 1945–1960 [1960]. The poets I responded to most in that book were the ones known as the “New York School.” In 1962 I worked in the New York University library and read lots of Pound and Stevens. One day, during the summer of that year, I saw that there was going to be a series of six readings at the New School. But inertia set in, and I didn’t go until the fifth reading, which was Kenneth Koch. It was the first reading I’d ever been to. I noticed that everyone laughed.

The next week I went to hear Frank O’Hara. This time no one laughed. I thought, “Oh, poor bastard.” Anyway, a week later I saw O’Hara in the Cedar Bar. He was talking with an elderly gentleman who I later discovered was Edwin Denby. I walked up to O’Hara and told him how much I had liked his reading. After Denby left, we started talking. As luck would have it, he ran out of money. The new bartender wouldn’t cash his check, so I lent him some. It was one of those rare days when I had some.

When he left later that night he told me to look him up in the Hamptons and gave me the painter Mike Goldberg’s number. I never did. Instead, I tried to get to Mexico and ended up in L.A. While I was there I bought a book of Koch’s poems, and one of O’Hara’s. It was Second Avenue [1960]. his most dense, impenetrable poem. I knew Koch was teaching a course at the New School, which I decided to take. I also knew that I didn’t need a college degree to take the course. Shortly after I got back to New York I ran into O’Hara again at the Cedar Bar. He told me he too was teaching a course at the New School. I managed to borrow some money from my grandmother and enrolled in both classes.

Koch wasn’t social, while O’Hara was. After class anybody who wanted to could go to the Cedar Bar with Frank. The conversation was usually about everything but poetry. O’Hara was my entrée into the art world. In 1963 he took me to openings.The art world was smaller then. We’d go to shows, have some drinks, gossip, and look at the art. But I don ’t think I really developed my eyes until I worked for Tatanya Grosman.

In 1957 Tatanya started a lithography workshop, which she cal led Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). In 1964 the Museum of Modern Art was about to reopen after renovations; they were going to have a reopening print show on the ground floor that was to be devoted primarily to the work of ULAE. Bill Lieberman had gotten Armand and Celeste Bartos to buy the first impression from each edition and donate it to the museum. Tatanya figured she would need a secretary to take care of the increased correspondence she would soon be getting. And being an older European woman and personally somewhat eccentric, her idea of a secretary was like Rainer Maria Rilke working for Auguste Rodin. So she decided to hire a poet. The only one she knew was O’Hara. He was aware I was a young poet out of work, and he recommended me.

When you publish an edition, you begin to see the differences, however small between the various prints. And though I did everything but print, I was around a lot. I suppose I’m in a unique position because I’m one of the few poets to have watched artists such as Jasper Johns, Bob Rauschenberg, Bob Motherwell, Jim Rosenquist, and Barney Newman work in that way. Rauschenberg once told me that when you read something, you tend to think in images. But when you look at something, you think of it in words. You can’t help it. It begs to be talked about, and that’s why there’s criticism. Writing about art is something I take for granted. It seems like a logical step when you’ve gone to lots of shows, looked at lots of art. I began writing catalogues, doing interviews and essays, around 1969. But it wasn’t until 1978 that I started writing for magazines.

In my poetry I’ve been more influenced by composers like Francis Poulenc and Sergei Prokofiev; they have an indefinable style. It’s one thing O’Hara and I had in common—a love of 20th-century music. You can be inspired by a painting, but a poem can’t do what a painting does. (Of course, the reverse is also true.) I’ve been accused of being too visual in my poems. Yet how do you get a Barnett Newman into a poem? The one poem I wrote to him was made up of 18 lines. The Hebrew word for 18 also means “life.” The poem is broken down into two eight-line stanzas divided by a two-line stanza or “zip.” But whatever the connections, the poem is not an imitation of a Newman painting. That’s for sure.

I think painters like poets, and vice versa. Lots of poets, as far as I can tell, have the visual equivalent of a tin ear. Besides, I think more and more people are looking at art. Looking at art and listening to music are passive activities, while reading poetry is an active one. You take your basic philistine and place a Matisse in front of them, play Beethoven for a week over breakfast, and they’ll get something. But you’ve got to read poetry. That’s why it’s held in such disrepute.

Tony Towle, interviewed by John Yau.