Charles North Shows Us How to Read without Relying on Theories

North pays close attention to what is in front of him, never resorting to what he calls, in another context, a “theoretical program.”

I missed States of the Art: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Other Prose 1975-2014 (Pressed Wafer, 2017) by Charles North when it first came out, but — unlike certain movies — I was able to get my hands on a copy, which I cannot say for Ousmane Sembène’s film Ceddo (1977).

North’s book is a miscellany of the different forms he has practiced over the past 40 years: art reviews done for Art in America; book reviews that appeared in little magazines and periodicals; introductions at poetry readings he has hosted; a letter to the New York Review of Books in which he takes issue with “Helen Vendler’s positive review of James Schuyler’s Selected Poems”; an interview with the poet Angie Mlinko; seven journal entries; a note on how he came to write his “first baseball lineup poem,” a form he invented; and eulogies made at memorials.

States of the Art is divided into five sections. The first three were originally collected in No Other Way: Selected Prose (Hanging Loose, 1998), which has long been out of print. This book reprints that earlier selection as well as includes about 100 pages of pieces North has written between 1999 and 2014. An occasional writer of criticism and related forms, it is good to have all the critical writing that North wishes to save gathered in one place. The book is around 250 pages — not hefty, weight-wise — and definitely something to have. There are so many pieces that I liked in this collection that I cannot name a definitive favorite; what I have is more like a top ten list.

North might be an occasional writer of critical prose, but he takes each situation seriously, as if his life depended on it, which it does. He can be anecdotal and analytical, seamlessly moving from one mode to another, as he does in his piece on Jim Brodey, which he read at the poet’s memorial in 1993. It reminded me of how good Brodey could be, prompting me to move his books from the shelf to the ever-shifting, sprawling pile on the table, which is one thing criticism is supposed to do: get you to read.

North’s review of F. T. Prince’s Collected Poems, which was “cavalierly dismissed by the New York Times reviewer,” is a model of a nuanced response based on close reading:

Prince’s extraordinary gifts create extravagant expectations. Which brings up the continuing, fascinating (at least to me) issue of clarity vs. reticence. Can repression be good for the poet, as opposed to the patient? Marianne Moore’s advice to be clear as your natural reticence allows you is only partly helpful here. The difficulty in letting feeling out, explicit in the “Memoirs” and implicit in his exiled heroes and virtual obsession with isolation and loss, underlies the earlier poems’ emotional charge. Once feeling makes it out into the open, no disguises, the scholar appears to gain the upper hand: decorum overrides passion. I can’t think of a happier find, for anyone, than this poet’s hitting upon the dramatic monologue with its built-in distancing and licensing, post-Browning and post-Pound. It let him produce the sinewy, sensual (actually quite sexy) poems he should be famous for.

This is criticism at its best: a passionate, sympathetic reading that acknowledges the poet’s limitations while clarifying the particular strengths. You are not apt to read criticism this sensitive and analytical by well-known academic critics such as Helen Vendler or Marjorie Perloff, who can seem to be unduly motivated by a desire to control the narrative of what gets read and what gets ignored. Instead of trying to attain and consolidate power (and becoming a reliable commodity in the process), North is engaged with something more elusive and humbling: what happens when he reads a poem.

This is how he begins his letter “To The New York Review of Books”:

This is occasioned by Helen Vendler’s positive review of James Schuyler’s Selected Poems (NYR, September 29, 1988), toward which anyone in his right mind, at least anyone who cares about modern poetry, ought to feel gratitude. The review accounts for some of Schuyler’s aesthetic waywardness, his position apart, not only from well-known mainstreams historical and contemporary, but also from those New York School poets with whom he is often associated. It places him in a context of important forerunners—Hopkins, Whitman, Stein, and Stevens, to name a few. And it takes Schuyler’s life’s work seriously, as few critics have done, and makes useful points about his embracing of the banal and homespun along with the extraordinary. I respect Helen Vendler and her continuing efforts to come to terms with those who are writing at the same time she is, by no means an easy task in the postmodern world, if it ever was. What leaves me uneasy is her approach.

By the time the reader reaches the last sentence of this extraordinarily precise, subtly gradated paragraph — exemplary of the writer’s close, sympathetic reading — you know that what is going to follow will be revelatory and important, which it is.

While North recognizes that “Vendler is one of the few intelligent and knowledgeable writers to tackle the difficult business of contemporary poetry without using up that poetry as part of some theoretical program,” he questions her assumptions:

[…] but must we ride the same horses time and again, as if the unspoken principle were to plunge a poet into an American mainstream, with familiar American landmarks dotting the shore (in or counter to the mainstream, it amounts to the same thing), [in order] to proclaim the writer worth attention–while leaving out all, or at least a good deal of it, that really makes him worth attention [?] Schuyler has written some of the most beautiful poems of the last thirty years, including poems of the last thirty years, including poems that fit on half a page, and it’s hard to imagine a reader gaining a sense of that from this review.

This is what North does in his readings of John Wheelwright, Joe Ceravolo, Tony Towle, Barbara Guest, Frank Lima, Paul Violi, and others: he shows what really makes their work “worth attention.” His essay on Frank O’Hara’s relationship to the Russian experimental poet and playwright, Vladimir Mayakovsky, is brilliant, as is everything he says about Schuyler and his poems.

Charles North

While I have concentrated mostly on his reading of poetry, there is much else to recommend in this book. Many writers grow into their reviews over time: they become better at it. North was very good from the start. His review of Richard Tuttle’s controversial retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975, which likely led to the firing of the curator Marcia Tucker, never gets caught up in the hoopla of its “champions and its detractors.” Rather, as with his reading of poetry, North pays close attention to what is in front of him, never resorting to what he calls, in another context, a “theoretical program.” His review of Aristodemis Kaldis has one of the best opening sentences: “A Kaldis landscape is like an overloaded closet, but the pleasures of what is likely to topple on you more than make up for the blow.” You keep reading because you want to know where North is going take you. This is true of the entire book, even in pieces that are not as good as the best ones he has written (his 1977 review of Alma Thomas’s paintings is the weakest thing in the book, and it is still better than most reviews of her work at the time). The very first essay announces North’s impulse throughout the collection. It is a response to Harold Bloom’s “highly laudatory article on John Ashbery (Salmagundi, Spring-Summer 1973), which left [him] unexpectedly dismayed.” Here is one reason for his consternation:

However interesting his theory may be to structuralists or other combatants of criticism, he’s not really dealing with the work of art. As idolatrous as his praise is at times, it hides its reason for being so.

As North goes on to state, in response to Bloom’s theory of poetry, which he fleshed out in The Anxiety of Influence (1973):

The point is that criticism has shaky ground to operate on but better shaky than papier-mâché, better to fumble around and dig out possibilities and be aware they’re that, than to be content with systems.

The belles lettrist tradition in America, which dates back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, and includes such modern examples as Sadakichi Hartmann’s writings on photography, Edwin Denby’s dance reviews, John Ashbery’s art criticism, James Baldwin’s essays on race, Susan Stewart’s essays on art, and James Agee’s film criticism, is alive and well, and North’s States of the Art: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Other Prose 1975-2014 proves it.

States of the Art: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Other Prose 1975-2014 (2017) is published by Pressed Wafer and is available from Amazon and other retailers.

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