Thomas Townsley is an important contemporary poet and a creative master of language that deserves to be read. There is a family resemblance between his work and many of the writers associated with the new American Surrealist movement in poetry. Although there is no absolute surreal identity – a pure expression of surrealist philosophy – found within this movement, there is a surrealist sensibility attuning the poetry. Their work is relatable to the American avant-garde movement, which has been described as drawing elements from Language poetry and the experimental New York School. As I argue, it is Townsley’s use of language, his intimate poetic relationship to it, that distinguishes him from the work of such “surreal” poets as Charles Simic (1938-2023), James Tate (1943-2015), and Russell Edson (1935-2014). It was Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, in his 1924 manifesto, who rebelliously declared: “Language has been given to man so that he may make surrealist use of it!” It must be noted that Breton’s original manifesto was essentially written for poets, for early surrealism was above all a literary movement before the artistic exploration of the plastic arts and cinema. Poetry, according to Breton, was concerned with the “linguistic sign” and the merging, or better, collision of seemingly incompatible or incongruent realities, producing shocking juxtapositions of ideas and imagery, which were most often nested within an anarchic context highlighted by bizarre, absurd, and even vulgar humor – a radically reconfigured view of poetry already endorsed by Tristan Tzara in the Dada Manifestoes (1916-1921), a work compiled almost mostly entirely of “free-verse” and “nonsense” (absurdist) poetry. As consistent with the American Surrealist poets, French philosopher Ferdinand Alquie stresses that the early surrealist’s primary objective was the focus on poetry’s power to freely emancipate the spirit through the creative use of language and the experience of the linguistic sign. They were unconcerned with the development of a greater command of formal perfection in poetry.1
Thomas Townsley’s new collection of poems, I Pray This Letter Reaches You In Time (Doubly Mad Books, 2022),2 composed in the style of free-verse and what I refer to as “chapter poems,” is filled to overflow with strange, quirky, vibrant, humorous, and wonderfully evocative imagery; each poem, in its own unique way, is exceptionally thought-provoking, indeed they often deal with life’s most pressing, serious, and existentially exigent issues. They are also challenging in that they demand a careful, attentive, and patient reading, and for investing this readerly care, one is enriched and mightily rewarded. Despite the somber atmosphere enveloping much of this collection, the poems are playful and at times joyful, in the German sense of “fröhliche Treiben” (gay/gaiety), and they tease, titillate, and ultimately expand the imagination, and in doing so, push our rational sensibilities into a euphoric, ecstatic, and blissful state of otherworldly confusion and intoxication. What I have thus described might be thought of as a contemporary reconceptualization of Breton’s foundational notion driving the philosophy of surrealism. For Breton, surrealism “is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations in the omnipotence of the dream.” Poetry works toward the resolution of the states of dream and wakefulness – or dream and reality, “which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Poetry holds the power to transcend the rational consciousness, opening access to and inspiring the rise of the unconscious mind and the creative forces believed to be suppressed in service of producing and enslaving the technical or automatic human.
It is possible to situate Townsley’s poetry within the historical context of what was introduced as new American Surrealist poetry, although as we see, Townsley cannot be so easily constrained within this categorization. For the sake of directness, my discussion of poets sharing stylistic and formal similarities with Townsley is focused on the three poets already introduced: Simic, Tate and Edson. Charles Simic’s poetry demonstrates aspects of the surrealist aesthetic, most specifically the interior turn to the unconscious, but the gloom and visceral maelstrom of violence churning below the surface of many of his poems, e.g., “The Fork,” “Against Winter,” and “The School of Metaphysics” makes his poetry far darker and more brooding – even hopeless and at times nihilistic – than the poetry of Townsley. In addition, Simic adopts a direct approach to language use, which often facilitates the poet’s communication of meaning. Beyond Simic, two American poets that are certainly comparable to Townsley, are Russell Edson and James Tate. The former, taps into the imagination through the use of dark, even macabre humor; there is a hallucinatory quality to many of his poems, and when entering this altered state of consciousness, readers are confronted with unsettling and disturbing ideas, e.g., as in the short free-verse poem, “The Autopsy,” where a post-mortem is performed on an “old raincoat,” the man, with scalpel in hand, is interrupted by his impatient wife asking for “blood clots,” decorative pendants to adorn her necklace. A surreal aesthetic permeates poems such as “The Melting,” “Ape,” and “The Gentleman in the Meadow.” The latter poet, also inspired by surrealism, is drawn to the use of highly imaginative imagery, intertwined with sardonic doses of humor and irony, e.g., “The List of Famous Hats,” “Raid in the Engineering Building,” “Days of Pie and Coffee,” “The Painter of the Night,” “The Wheelchair Butterfly,” and “Goodtime Jesus,” where the resurrected Savior, rising from the nightmare of his crucifixion, searches for a fresh cup of coffee riding his beloved donkey. All of these poets are united in the embrace of surrealism and in their direct, accessible, and clear use of language, which, as stated, facilitates and contributes to the communication of poetic meaning.
This is not the case with Townsley, whose poetry seriously challenges the reader’s interpretive ability, and it is his sophisticated use of language and poetic skill to conjure and animate bold, stark, and uncanny imagery – electric with immediacy – that differentiates Townsley from the aforementioned poets. The meaning or message of his poems that is revealed is often hard-won, for Townsley, although at times playful (spielerisch) is fearless in complicating his work, for his poems often speak through cryptic communication, shrouded in ambiguity and mystery, and the reader, much like the Delphic pythia, is called to the task of divining meaning. This sense of participatory meaning-making on the reader’s part, is indicative of the family resemblance Townsley also shares with American Language poetry – its preference for prose poetry not withstanding – which emphasizes the active role of the reader-as-interpreter, drawn into the activity of meaning construction. There is also a distinct and undeniable expression of erudition in his poetry, for Townsley shows himself as a polymath, and yet the modernist in him displays a humorous disdain for academia; tongue-in-cheek, often through intimation, he lampoons intellectualism in a refreshingly satisfying manner. Townsley also challenges our historical knowledge-store and readers are required to come to the poetry with a robust vocabulary (including at least a passing familiarity with Greek and Latin). References in his poetry include literature, mythology, fine art, music (and its theory), historical figures, geography, international cuisine, and a host of exotic plants/flowers and animals (flora and fauna); such references can at times be obscure and even arcane. For example, Townsley gestures through many comical references to the history of philosophy, and readers encounter the specters of Spinoza (or at least his “toothbrush”) and St. Aquinas (in the refrigerator, “stirring behind the pickle jar”) haunt this collection, respectively, in the poems, “By Any Other Name” and “Frigidaire”.
Moving to explore the themes of his poetry, I incorporate the commentary of Townsley taken from a recent interview conducted by Allen Guy Wilcox for Time’s Arrow Literature Podcast (New Harvard Library). This affords the unique and valuable opportunity to gain crucial insight into the poet’s philosophy and working-process. In addition, as will be shown, from this interview it is possible to glean insight by focusing not only on what is explicitly “said,” but also on what remains “unsaid,” all that resides below the surface discussion. Such comparisons to Dadaism and Surrealism are apt, but it is crucial to note that Townsley’s compositions do not follow the well-known (infamous) methods or techniques of either Dadaism’s “cut-poetry” (découpé) or Surrealism’s “psychic automatism,” a creative practice heavily endorsed by Breton. Indeed, automatism is not often a technique employed by the American Surrealist poets. Due in great part to the rigor in stylistic composition, Townsley’s poems are obviously the result of intensive and creative conscious thought and tightly honed artistic effort. In the Time’s Arrow interview, Townsley discusses the arduous process, from the initial inspiration for the poems to the writing and revision required to hone these creations into the perfected states that find their way to publication, while admitting that he believes poems, and perhaps all works of art, are never really complete. There is undoubtedly an absurdist line running throughout the poems, which includes instances of wildly bizarre imagery combined with dark, sardonic humor. Townsley’s compositions are in fact self-contained “stories” of varying length and complexity. It should also be noted that in conjuring the absurd, producing unexpected twists and turns, readers encounter strange and unexpected outcomes, and these narrative poems often involve readers in what appear on the surface to be highly disjointed plotlines.
In the Time’s Arrow interview that Townsley claims that he does not have or employ a definitive method for creating his poetry, he does not, as he states, “follow a worked out process.” Instead, he attunes himself to incoming stimuli by “dreaming while awake,” and this entails “raising the antennae out there into the night,” waiting for “the signals to come in.” Here, the poet releases himself over to a passive, but highly receptive state of mind, where images and ideas are not invoked as much as they are received with resolute openness. In relation to the surrealists, there is an interesting discussion focused on the manner in which Townsley approaches metaphors. Typically, when considering metaphors we are concerned with similarities, but in crafting his poetry, Townsley often seeks out the radical dissimilarities that exist between two ideas or images, in order to “see how far apart [I] can pull them and still have a ‘spark,’” creating and establishing newfound and unique relationships between the juxtaposition of these seemingly disparate ideas or images.
This description by Townsley calls to mind Breton’s favored use of the electric metaphor of the “spark” in poetry, which is created when a new idea is produced with shocking brilliance due to the collision of what appears as antithetic imagery, and, as Breton contends, it is from out of “the fortuitous juxtaposition of the two terms that a particular light [springs], the light of the image, to which we are infinitely sensitive.” Indeed, the value of the image, according to Breton, “depends upon the beauty of the spark attained,” and as related directly to Townsley, it is “a function of the difference of the potential between the two conductors.” As opposed to creating a union between terms grounded in similarity, Townsley engenders a counter-striving (agonistic) relationship between them, which is highlighted by a tension that infuses the poetry with a reverberating sense of frenetic energy, and as Townsley observes, this serves to render “the strange familiar” and vice versa. Encountering this “strange” comingling of ideas within Townsley’s phrasing has poetic shock value; it is surprising to such a degree that we momentarily transcend or see beyond the monotony of every-day modes of waking consciousness. Through the experience of and participation in the poetry, common modes of perception and experience are transformed. Indeed, this aesthetic/poetic occurrence brings to mind the surrealists’ original project.
Moving beyond the comparison to surrealism, for as stated, Townsley’s work does not lend itself to simplistic or straightforward classification, it is also possible to make the case that Townsley’s poetry leans towards a unique conception of “absurdist” art, which includes the incorporation of gloomy and absurd humor, questions concerning the privileging of reason over affective modes of perceiving and knowing the world, and the inclusion of satirical situations, which harbor a sense of narrative incongruity. Regarding the notion of the subjective hermeneutics of reading, Townsley admits, reflecting on his poem, “Suburban Rhubarb,” that “every line is a different image or idea, and whatever connections there are deeply implicit,” and working to establish these connections is an interpretive and heuristic task, the subjective act of reading and meditation, i.e., meaning-making. However, it must be stressed that Townsley’s poetry lives beyond the level of the subjective, the particular, the local, because it undoubtedly deals, both explicitly and through intimation, with universal issues, philosophical issues – dare I say, “existential” concerns – relating to the human condition, i.e., facticity, finitude, death, suffering, struggle, guilt, and anguish, and it is clear that when reading Townsley’s poems, he desperately wants us to find precious moments of joy, humor, and elation within the tragedy often bound up with these inevitable existential situations, and his work provides us this opportunity.
To briefly continue and extend this line of reasoning as related to “absurdist” art, in the world or poetic universe that Townsley creates (for we do spend a season on Neptune!), it is the case that nothing is intrinsically valuable; finding value and meaning here, as previously stated, is the reader’s task. However, if there is intrinsic meaning or an instance of essential and universal value that is present to Townsley’s poetry, it is the human’s continued and renewed search for understanding, meaning, and value in the world. These poems call us to deeply question life, and questioning is the origin of self-inquiry, which is often times exceedingly difficult and dangerous, if it is honest and legitimate. Through our emersion in and engagement with I Pray This Letter Reaches You In Time, we are inspired to rise this task, indeed, one of his more playful and entertaining poems, which traces the process of self-development (from a “job painting carousel horses” to a “life of profligacy” to ultimately undergoing “centaur surgery,” which was unfortunately, “unsuccessful”) is appropriately titled, “Bildungsroman,” which is a term expressive of literature concerned with the educational and spiritual development of the novel’ s characters, especially during their formative years. Bildung (the root of Bildungsroman), as related to pedagogy, which might be extended to all forms of hermeneutic interpretation of “texts” (here, in the broadest sense), is indeed an active process of both transformation and formation, wherein the pupil, the leaner, the questioner and interpreter, the reader, plays a pinnacle, active, and indispensable role in the process.
All the poems in this collection are moving, evocative, challenging, and enlightening, with several deserving special mention – perhaps forays into the realm of Confessional Poetry: “The Problem With Me, No. 74, 117, and 152,” which represent a study in tripartite focused on the most difficult of endeavors, as stated above, the quest for self-knowledge (“know thyself”), which is recalcitrant, stubbornly resistant to our efforts to acquire it. The problem is that the process must be ongoing, unfolding through movements that are regressive, progressive and analytic, all conducted with the understanding (or pre-understanding), as Townsley keenly observes, that “there might exist an imponderable but persuasive force to which our living blinds us, the same way death blinds the dead to consciousness.” “The Problem With Me, No. 74,” also contains one of the most beautiful and moving lines in the entire book. It concerns the poet’s reflection on a long-lost love – a scene of lamentation. Previously, in a sacred and lyrical moment of emotional-spiritual communion, he recalls having once declared: “I made a sacristy of what I believed to be your eyes.” The opening poem, “The Allegorist,” is also worth special mention, for it represents a poetized vision of deconstruction and the self-perpetuating process thereof. For within life’s erratic and unpredictable temporal unfolding (as allegory), where “things are and are not” and “circumstances” simply prevail, what is most unnecessary and superficial in the midst of the world’s chaotic flux and flow of birth and degeneration is the author, the creator, the Godhead, or in this case, the “allegorist,” who is seemingly unaffected by all that is going on around him, unconcerned with all that comes into (being) and inevitably passes out of existence (nothingness). For he can always be found sitting, in a nonchalant manner, with his “legs dangling, at the dock’s edge, staring at something in the water.”
The longer chapter-poems are also powerful, each unique, each taking us along on a weird and wonderous adventure. Readers will need to “strap in” for the wild fantasy ride upon which they are about to embark, and these include: “12 x 12: The Signal Fades,” “Summer on Neptune,” “The Lie,” “The Diagnosis,” and the amazing, somewhat unsettling, “About my Last Poem…”, which takes on and obliterates New Criticism, Barthes, and Foucault – texts, readers, and “the author” be damned! Townsely locates the origin of poetry, of all texts, in something that is now ushering in, as it “writes,” our horrifying future, a force with a hyper-technological will of its own, namely, “the algorithm,” which we do not author, but is now self-empowered, “to give us the gods that we deserve.” If this is the case, to be sure, these “gods” will become the demons of our future nightmares, for they portend (via the “algorithm”) the continuation and exacerbation of the ominous and oppressive attunement of modern “technicity” (das Ge-stell), which Heidegger warned about so many years ago. Is it also possible that the “algorithm” is the contemporary and technological manifestation of the primordial Logos or “world-principle” of Heraclitus, much in the manner Jung envisioned flying saucers as modern projections, via the collective unconscious, of the ancient mandala? Such tantalizing questions, and many others, this poetry inspires.
The title, I Pray This Letter Reaches You in Time appears as the final line in the poem, “Suburban Rhubarb,” which brilliantly paints a haunting portrait that characterizes the de-worlding, or in far more ominous terms, the dehumanization of the dull, dreary, ghost-like, and soulless inhabitants of the suburbs, those “Hessians” in desperate need of salvation, because in this milieu, “the Reformation has runs its course.” This bleak landscape requires the skill of the fine artist to add a bit more “Titanium White,” as a tint, to brighten the colors that are quickly fading to a dismal shade of gray, for in Townsley’s suburban dwelling there is an “antipathy” to beauty, to certain birds and vibrantly colored flowers (“nasturtiums”) that can now only be imagined lining the furrows carved into manicured lawns, destroying the perfected beauty of the meticulous suburban landscaping. These deep “trenches” are presumably analogous to the gaping void residing within the souls of the hollow suburbanites. A pall bearer that “no one recognizes” arrives in anticipation of impending death, but as evening approaches, a “communion wafer truck will prowl the cul de sac, searching for lost souls” with mournful eyes. So, perhaps it is not too late for these denizens, but transcendence requires the occurrence of an initiatory conscious awakening, and the poet hopes, and indeed “prays,” that his urgent and exigent message, in the form of a letter, “reaches us in time,” with the potential to inspire a radical spiritual transformation (in those that fail to realize they are in desperate need of salvation) in order to avoid the fate that appears to await the lost souls within the poem.
I conclude by returning to the Time’s Arrow interview, because Wilcox’s comments relating Townsley’s poetry to the notion of the limits of language in Wittgenstein require some clarification. Townsley read the final poem in the collection, “The Ordinary,” where the closing stanzas read: “‘The ordinary is allegorical too,’ said the angel crouched in the briars/The grey birds lifted as one and began to circle his head. ‘Shh,’ they said. ‘Shh.’” Here, there appears to be a poetic gesturing toward the revelatory power of silence as an emptiness that actually possesses a fullness for potential creation – silence as the origin of poetry, of art, of language? In relation to Townsley’s poetry, Wilcox paraphrases Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak (in logical terms), therefore one must be silent.” However, since Wilcox abruptly ends the reference to Wittgenstein, we must infer the implications for understanding Townsley’s poetry that might be drawn from the quotation, opening ourselves up to what remains “unsaid,” otherwise there is a failure to grasp the import and immense weight of Wittgenstein’s words. It must be noted that Wittgenstein recognized (as early as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) that the things that we must “remain silent about” are the very aspects of life that hold the potential for legitimate value and meaning, all things that deeply concerned Wittgenstein throughout his life, e.g., ethics, art, music, religion, and mysticism. Here, we might add, without issue, poetry to this list of The Unspeakable, as so we return to Wittgenstein: “There is indeed, the inexpressible. This shows itself: it is the mystical…we thrust against the limits of language…but the tendency, the thrust, points to something.”
In giving poetic voice to all the things that resist the rational grasp of the calculative register, the logic of the syllogism, Townsley attunes us, transforms us, and opens us to the supreme wonder of the questionable and unpredictable nature of life, the conscious transformation at the heart of Breton’s surreal project. As related the poem, “The Ordinary,” once we release ourselves over to Townsley’s masterful use of language – and the logic of poetic speak – we are freed from the bounds of the rational Law of Non-Contradiction and we can see and experience the potential for beauty to dwell within the grotesque; truth to find shelter within what is concealed, to live behind the dissembling lie; sublimity to radiate from out of the banal; and, through our participation in Townsley’s poetry, we are invited into a transformative, initiatory-revelatory encounter with the extraordinary in the ordinary. This so-called “surreal phenomenon” – transcendence through art/poetry – might be dismissed as nebulous voodoo metaphysics. However such a notion is also present to the philosophy of the British philosopher Colin Wilson (1931-2013), who spoke directly to poetry’s aesthetic power to awaken new modes of experience (“peak experience”) that transcend everyday modes of consciousness, harboring a “noetic” and hence transformative quality. He developed this idea when merging French and German existentialism with the depth psychology of Maslow. Let us note that what is unspeakable for interpreters (The Vienna Circle) of Wittgenstein is also defined as meaningless, but it is poetry that shows us, as exemplified in Townsley’s work, that such unspeakable things are in fact no less real (and in some sense more real, valuable, and meaningful) than the things we can only approach through discursive rational thought and the either/or logic of propositions. ∎
- To provide for the reader but a small taste of early surreal poetry, which undoubtedly serves as the inspiration for the American Surreal poets discussed, in Andre Breton’s “Free Union,” the evocative and somewhat bizarre lines of the second stanza read: “My wife with a mouth of cockade-ribbons/And a bouquet of brightest stars/ Whose teeth are footprints of a white mouse on snow/Whose tongue is amber and polished glass.”
- In addition to the collection of poetry reviewed, Townsley’s other books include, Night Class for Insomniacs (2018), Tangent of Ardency (2020), Holding A Séance By Myself (2020). In these collections the reader encounters poetry expressed as free-verse and in the form of prose poetry. Indeed, a surreal thread runs throughout and unites these works.