Gary Lenhart


Review by of No Other Way: Selected Prose
(Poetry Project Newsletter 171, Oct/Nov 1998)


             In one of the earliest essays in this collection, dated 1976, Charles North notes, “It seems to be the rule, of late, that interesting poets shy away from the business of literary criticism.”  North never did enter the business.  Most of these pieces are occasional and were obviously done for love, not money.  But strung together (for the most part, arranged chronologically) in this book, his occasional essays amount to the best literary criticism yet written about the New York school, a tag (North explains) “which everyone associated with tries to snip off (with only moderate success and properly so).”  As one of those associates, North’s discomfort shows in his juggling the term with alternatives such as “New York poetry scene,” “St. Mark’s,” “the Poetry Project,” and even “New York Schools.” Fortunately, we needn’t rely on the tag to know who North is talking about.

            At the heart of this book are four essays about James Schuyler, whose poem provides the book’s title and who, throughout the volume, serves as North’s measure for what poets might aspire to.  It is while talking about Schuyler’s “Light from Canada” that North says, “I could, I think, maintain that all exciting poetry has something of this surprise element, this apparently magical leaping from order to a higher disorder because born somehow out of nothing that could have been foreseen.”

            Whether finding something new to say about a canonical figure such as John Ashbery, taking a new look at a poet of obscured reputation such as David Schubert, or appreciating the distinction of a contemporary such as Jim Brodey, North is always at his strongest when talking about the specific qualities that he admires in a particular poet or artist.  He pays persistent attention to craft elements such as meter, rhyme, genre, surface, tone, detail, music, and line breaks.  The essay “Kenneth Koch in Public” is a brilliant exposition of the democratic poetics that underlie Koch’s poems (and pedagogical writings) and his sympathetic bond with Allen Ginsberg, which I suppose could be traced to the inspiration both drew from Shelley.  In the same essay North summarizes with characteristic precision the socioliterary assumption shared by all the poets he writes about, “the encouraging notion that writers are always and properly inspired by other writers; and moreover, that arbitrary rules (including ‘gimmicks’) can stimulate the imagination as forcibly as more conventional rime, metrical, and structural patterns.”

            Also included in the book are essays on writers Barbara Guest, Elizabeth Bishop, F.T. Prince, John Hollander, Frances Waldman, Joe Ceravolo, Paul Violi, Tony Towle, John Godfrey, and Edward Barrett, and artists Richard Tuttle, Edith Schloss, Aristodemos Kaldis, Fairfield Porter, and Trevor Winkfield.  As is clear from that list, the range is local; North’s version of the New York poetry scene doesn’t extend to Brooklyn.  But by confining himself to an intimate landscape, North proves the wisdom of Socratic humility.  Though the quality of his attention tests poems at every syllable, this book is refreshingly free from bluff.  Compared to North, Geoff Ward’s treatment of the New York school is remote and superficial, Helen Vendler’s reading of Schuyler crabbed and spurious, Harold Bloom’s version of Ashbery crudely reductive.

            As implied by those comparisons, this book is not only an appreciation of the New York poets.  It is also a cogent and persuasive argument with the dominant criticism, which in North’s view plunders poems for whatever conceptual capital the critic many find there.  In that way, North’s beef with Vendler or Bloom is not different from Proust’s with Saint-Beuve.  It is the poet’s perpetual frustration with the coarse advertisements of idea vendors.  As North puts it, “This is by no means to allege that criticism is futile, but it is to suggest that overconfidence can be self-defeating, and that developing this or that set of meanings out of this or that poem is at best a clever, helpful paraphrase, and at worst a thorough distortion or reduction or both.”  North identifies several principles to guide the kind of practical criticism he advocates (and demonstrates).  In the tradition of Fairfield Porter, the concluding essay pleads for “a willingness to take poems on their own terms.”

            Nowhere will readers find literary criticism practice with more sensitive insight, greater imaginative sympathy, more refined taste or acuter wit than in these essays.  North’s own poetic standards are uncompromising and ambitious.  Though understanding that “poets need to write badly, as well as middlingly and well, in order to produce the ‘highest thing’, his loyalties never cause him to refrain from noting where even our most accomplished poets falter.  I only regret the single sense in which North underestimates the vitality of the Poetry Project and wider New York poetry scene.  I wish he had addressed a more sociologically diverse group of poets, because you will never read those considered in this book in more thoughtful and discerning company.  For not only is this the richest and most suggestive study of the New York School, it is also a sustained defense of the intellectual beauty that animates their poems.