John Jacob


Review (excerpt) of New and Selected Poems
(American Book Review, vol. 21, #4, May-June 2000)


            Schuyler and O’Hara are widely known as “New York School” poets, while North is rarely classified at all.  His work is sometimes as fanciful and droll as O’Hara’s and as surreal as Schuyler’s.  In addition to a certain sensuality, its most important element is its intelligence, reminiscent perhaps of John Ashbery.

            But it does a disservice to discuss North in comparative terms, even when it seems apt.  North’s sensitivity stands alone among the contemporary American “big city” poets…

            North is more than capable of setting up a field upon which to work, to establish a certain language and elements of meaning, and then to change the field or destroy it, ending a poem in the middle of what most poets are used to calling a single idea.  The idea to North does not matter; what matters are the associative patterns and words that bring across the suggestion of a tone or mood, the establishment of some arcane and unusual circumstance that he sees not only as the poet’s right but also as his responsibility, for it is exactly these types of poems that were not allowed in previous centuries or even decades.  he has eliminated a good deal of what he sees as the dross in poetry, and where he does allow it to dangle are simply reminders of the ways in which we have all been held slave to poetic convention.

            Very few poets are trying as many new things as Charles North is.  Poetry today is largely narrative and confessional.  North has little interest in these types of poems, except to make fun of them, as he does in the first poem in this book.  Perhaps A. R. Ammons, and maybe Michael McClure, are trying poetries as radical, but all three of these writers have been doing so for a long time.  Many poets respect what North is doing, but the big prizes and fellowships have avoided him, and reading this book one can see why.  This is not the material of the American Poetry Series.  These poems would sooner be the fragments of the poems in those types of books.  Sometimes the fragment should be the poem,  and we need poets like Charles North to remind us of that.  This generation of poets doesn’t have a Pound or Stevens or Williams to remind us of anything.  But I suspect in their heart of hearts, as the three poets at the top reveal, the writing of poetry is much more mysterious than most of us think (at least those of us who have been exposed to narrative poetry and little else, much less the difficulties in almost every poem by Charles North).