Sunday, July 30, 2017



What It Is Like by Charles North
(Turtle Point Press / Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2011)

Reading Charles North is always a voyage of discovery. His delight in words and their meanings never fails to impress as does his seemingly endless inventiveness in terms of style and form. At just over 300 pages, What It Is Like presents the reader with a generous selection of North’s work taken from seven previous collections of poetry spanning the years 1974 to 2007 with the addition of 38 new poems at the end.

North was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and grew up in New York City. He earned degrees from Tufts University and Columbia University. He has often been associated with the New York School Poets and was a founder member of the celebrated Poetry Project. In addition to his books of poetry, he has published a collection of essays on artists, critics and poets entitled No Other Way and collaborated with a number of artists and poets, most notably, Trevor Winkfield and Tony Towle. With James Schuyler he helped edit the two Broadway Poets and Painters Anthologies in 1979 and 1989.

The book’s title poem is a reference to a celebrated essay by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” In North’s poem, however, the bats have been substituted for two chained monkeys.

Unlike Plath and Lowell, North is not a practitioner of the confessional school.  Neither is he keen on linear narrative or on drawing comparisons. Most poetry draws its imagery from comparing one thing with another but North never offers us a comparison for “what it is like”. “It” is simply “it” – one of many bits of information. His poetry, crowded with words and shot through with wit, stands on its own and has no need for comparison.

What is apparent on a first reading, is that his poetry betrays a love of music, in particular, the clarinet, a liking for sport, especially baseball, and an enjoyment of words for their own sake. It is his preoccupation with the latter which makes these poems sing. North’s poems can be witty, even hilarious at times, but they are always rooted and grounded by definition, even when he is at his most excursive and even when he adopts a conversational tone which is so laid back you get the feeling that he is actually talking to you face to face in the room. These are poems of rarified intelligence in which narrative is largely replaced with pattern, structure and association. These in themselves help to convey the overall tone and mood of his work.

The poem sequence “Building Sixteens,” the long poem “Shooting for Line” and the poems entitled “Chain” and “Initial N” are good examples of the way in which North is inventive with form.

“Building Sixteens” is a sequence of 16 poems in which each poem is 16 lines long with an identical layout of 4 +8 +4 lines of which the middle 8 lines are indented. The visual effect is one of building blocks on the page. Although each of the 16 poems are set out separately, they are really one poem because the closing line of the preceding poem runs into the opening line of the next one. The structure is analogous to 16 rooms in a single house. In a later poem, “Translation (“The windowed construction…”)” North offers up an alternative rendition of the first poem in the sequence of “Building Sixteens” in which he finds another way of saying the same thing.

In “Shooting for Line” the sense of the opening words of each line is expanded by being given  two different meanings that are in themselves contracted on the same line:

To break the silence or your newly acquired Ming vase,
or raise my expectations and the flag over the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The poem entitled “Chain” comprises a series of couplets where the word or words that fall at the end the first line determine the word or words that begin the second line based on some kind of rhyme or echo that forms the chain. These come full circle at the end:

…Luster after the Maison d’Infinite
In fine (it looks like) print, the curse of snowflakes.

Lakes abound in western and central Canada.
A part of it has the living tempo

Temporarily slowed, vibrant in
Ranting, the forte of carnations.

Nations become specific groves of ordinariness
Nestled between oceans of stupefaction….

North employs a similar device in “Initial N.”

The contraction seen in “Shooting the Line” is also evident in some of his titles – for example the merging of two separate song titles “The Nearness of You” and “The Way You Look Tonight” into North’s “The Nearness Of The Way You Look Tonight,” the first line of this being a distant echo in terms of certain words and cadences of the first line of another popular song:

Smarter than morons are you
Shorter than giants…

Why does South Pacific (“Younger than Springtime”) suddenly come to mind? This is North in one of his most engaging moments. Every line is shot through with humor:

More reliable than bail-jumpers
Defter than those who are all thumbs

You are nicer than villains
Stabler than those with bipolar illness

Reedier than sousaphones or E-flat horns
More fragrant than monkey houses…

In “Study for ‘Day After Day The Storm Mounted. Then It Dismounted’” North offers up a poem composed entirely of adjectives and nouns with more than a hint that the adjectives may be in the wrong order. It is like a puzzle that the reader is being asked to rearrange and raises issues about finding the appropriate adjective to describe the corresponding noun – or, in the case of poetry – finding the right words to express what you want to say.

Refusing to be bound by convention, some poems wander into other poems whether or not  they have been invited to do so. For example, the last lines of “The Nearness Of The Way You Look Tonight” run on into the poem entitled “Coda: Lighter Than Portents” imitating the course of a musical composition. In a similar way, North’s “Note On Fog” continues in the poem entitled “Disrobing (On The Same Theme)” although here the last sentence of the preceding poem comes to a close with a full stop but the first sentence of the poem that follows begins mid-sentence.

The conversational tone of his poetry is brought out by frequent references to the weather as a means of engaging in small talk or passing the time of day. This reference to natural phenomena, together with the occasional reference to nature – the countryside in the city – helps to soften the hard architectural lines of the urban scene, for North is essentially an urban poet whose poems are rooted and grounded in New York City.

North’s fascination with the unlimited possibilities of saying much the same thing but in a different way using similar words is evident in “Translation (“I feel you very close to me”)” which is an alternative rendition of an earlier poem called “Song” and “Translation (“In somewhat the same fashion”)” which links up with the sequence of couplets entitled “Fourteen Poems.” Picking up on this theme in “Day After Day The Storm Mounted. Then It Dismounted” he writes:

And in composing for wind instruments
and putting the same or nearly the same chords
into two different pieces, you are
not likely to hear the same concert at noon
as at dusk – unless, of course the performances are all an allusion
and those in attendance merely marking time
within their own private band shells.

Much of the underlying principles of his poetry – the structures and forms –  come from musical analysis. How many times have composers used the same notes or combination of notes in slightly different sequences and at slightly different speeds to produce entirely different compositions?  The possibilities are seemingly endless. North’s poems do not stand still. They express themselves in new ways all the time.  In another extract from “Day After Day The Storm Mounted. Then It Dismounted” he writes:

Personally, I think
you need to focus on what is really important to you: change
habits as well as clothes…

Being a poet as well as a critic, I can see the funny side of North’s view of critics. In “Baseball As A Fact Of Life,” North takes delight in describing a fictitious fight with a foreign film critic about a line-up of films and in “Note on Fog” he writes:

I also like the image of the critic who wouldn’t know a poem if it came up and bit him.

Perhaps on that note I should end after adding a final word about the front cover. Designed by the British artist / illustrator Trevor Winkfield, who himself came to America in 1969 and quickly became a part of the New York School, the attractive cover, in keeping with North’s work, denotes a sense of playfulness with its very precise drawings, mainly straight lines and circles, of vases, flowers and board games which vie for our attention in bright luminous colors.  There are two poems in the book dedicated to Winkfield. North and Winkfield are clearly admirers of each other’s work.  Highly recommended.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017).

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