Of considerable talent, prodigious output, storied artistic lineage, and startling critical acuity, Charles North presented to this critic a formidable challenge of evaluation: How to write about a poet and critic, who in a 2015 essay published in Tether 1, remarked on the “seemingly inexhaustible wrongheadedness and narrowness of approach in dealing with poetry on the part of intelligent reviewers, critics, and ostensible publications of literary record”?
Titled “The Threat of Poetry,” North’s polemic inveighed against those critics and philosophers who insisted that the reader of poetry was primarily tasked with ascertaining meaning, suggesting that poetry’s primary function was to offer insights and perspectives, rather than pleasure. Poetry, asserts North, has instead an “inherent irrationality—unconscious associations, feelings as much as ideas;” it comprises “not only our common property but the air we breathe,” and as such, “constitutes the biggest threat.” As the continuum of both linguistic forms and the responses that language welcomes, poetry is both rich and messy, and cannot be limited by the proscriptions of analytic thought—a maximalist outlook if ever there was one.
Everything and Other Poems, a selection of works written from 2012-2019 and published by The Song Cave, functions as an object lesson in thrill and threat, supplementing North’s invective with wide-ranging and often droll meditations on the stuff of life, and approaches perennial themes and fleeting events with measured levity. Structuring the volume is a suite of works—“Study for Everything,” the titular “Everything,” and “Coda,”—borne of an artistic challenge to write a longer poem than he had ever written before, but also, in the spirit of North’s open-ended approach, to write more fluidly and less formally—“messier,” as he noted in an April 2020 interview with Michael Silverblatt.
The efforts have indeed produced significant returns. Everything and Other Poems charts new paths for North, whose affiliations with a generation of poets of a certain New York verve—not School, as he would insist—are duly noted here: James Schuyler, Michael Gizzi, and his mentor and friend, the late Kenneth Koch, as are frequent collaborators, artists Trevor Winkfield and Paula North; “French Licks,” an array of poems by Apollinaire, Reverdy, Rimbaud, and Ponge, which North translated from the French, is dedicated to Ron Padgett. The collection’s comprehensive approach and title, to wit, nods to an artistic mood that captured North and his poetic compatriots in 1970s New York. Remarking on the experimental gestures that he and Bernadette Mayer made at that time, Clark Coolidge stated, “We wanted endless works, that would zoom on & on and include everything ultimately, we’d talk about the ‘Everything work’ which would use every possible bit flashing through our minds.”
Whereas Mayer attempted to capture such expansive moments with time-structured experimental works such as her 1971 opus Memory, here, North meditates on the tendency of objects to approach and retreat from human perception, unfolding themselves before expectant eyes to take on a corporeality of their own. For North, the perceptible world is all surfaces and illusions, where objects remain “standing at attention” (“French Licks”) and “everything is consumed by its appearances” (“Everything”). “I wouldn’t be surprised to see arms and legs, even a vital organ or two / representing the—passive aggressive—inner life,” writes North in “Study for Everything.” “Never mind how things / seem as opposed to how they see themselves, or why / appearance stakes so much if not everything on the distinction,” he continues.
In “Everything,” North elaborates on the shrouds laden over the external world, “the papery covering, thinner than onionskin, over the underworld / which can’t be seen or heard or felt, / although its presence is a part of everyone’s ordinary experience.” In this gesture to a chasm that is ubiquitous, quotidian, and imperceptible, North homes in on a dry wit that is rife in this collection. “I know what you’re thinking—,” he writes in the next verse, “the sheerness of the way everything looks. / A lot more space than necessary.” Rather than undermine the weight of his observations, such appeals to his reader stave off the feeling of being overwhelmed or suffocated by all life’s stuff—even as the uncertainty of assigning value or weight to the plethora of thoughts, objects, and the dilemmas they impose threatens to overtake our thinking. His ponderousness approaches ethical questions, such as in “Elevenses,” when he asks: “[…] What is the ‘good life’ apart from focus on what is good about it for as long as that lasts, absent which the notion has so little content or connection to the conscious self that the smallest breeze or grinding of breaks puts an end to it?” The fragility of the good life, its contingency on the thoughts that hold it in place, makes it as elusive as all the other ephemera to which North directs our attention.
North’s cataloguing of life’s variousness is neither obsessive nor pedantic; he strives, through these poems, to resist “reducing all of poetry to a low common denominator,” as he argues that most venues for poetry and its criticism do. And so, the challenge as a critic to resist the same reductive analytical mode—of yoking his poetry to new materialisms and flattening ontologies that level humans and objects; of thing theories and vitalisms that, as a trained philosopher, North is no doubt familiar with—becomes an exercise in a kind of immanent critique that liberates poetry to a place of its own: in a world so resembling ours, but distant and distinct.