“Poetry is astounding,” Charles North [pictured at left, interviewed by David Lehman at the New School on 22 February] writes, “if you don’t spend too much time on it.”
At 69, North has spent more than four decades writing, studying and teaching poetry. He established himself as an influential member of the New York School, published ten books and serves as poet-in-residence at Pace University.
He pulled back the curtain on his work at a New School forum last Tuesday night, telling a packed audience how he came to poetry in his twenties, invented a new poetic form and collaborated with the brightest writers of his generation. Many were in attendance, including Tony Towle and Ron Padgett, who cheered North on from the front row. Students filled the seats and sat in the aisles to hear him read a retrospective of work, including poems from Complete Lineups and Cadenza.
North can demystify his process, but the results are no less astounding. Whether he is arranging characters into a baseball lineup or parodying a sappy love song from South Pacific, you get the sense he is constantly inventing (and often playing).
He created the “lineup” poem when a fellow Columbia University student sought help with a dissertation. “Here’s your dissertation,” North cracked, handing over a baseball-style lineup of revered writers.
It became a game, and North eventually cranked out seventy lineups about everything from famous lovers to tall people. You need not understand baseball to appreciate the image of Julia Child on first base and Abraham Lincoln in the outfield. And if you do understand baseball, you get to puzzle and delight over North’s selections. Here’s how our poetic general manager lines up literary terms:
(Click here to hear him read several more.)
North gets a lot of credit for the lineup, but many of his poems drip with invention. He told the audience he wrote a poem called “The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight” after he and his wife, Paula, parodied the Rodgers and Hammerstein song “Younger Than Springtime.”
“Smarter than morons are you,” North’s opening line goes. Tighter than muumuus, hotter than meat lockers, sprightlier than couch potatoes, wittier than blockheads and louder than quiet people are you.
In newer work that North shared Tuesday, clouds are pot de crème; thoughts are curling lemon peels; and the earth is hacked into three slabs and promptly numbered. From the audience, Stacey Harwood pointed out that North employs a kind of synesthesia.
“Like Rimbaud, [as a child] I gave colors to vowels and to numbers,” North replied. “To me, five is still orange.”
Born and raised in New York City, North disliked poetry as a kid and merely tolerated it as a college student. Instead, he said, he practiced clarinet six hours a day and attended the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts. He snuck science fiction books into practice and read them when the score didn’t call for clarinet.
“I would sit and read and no one would know,” he said.
New School Poetry Coordinator David Lehman, who moderated the event, asked why North stopped playing.
“I didn’t know about beta blockers,” North said. “If I’d found something to calm me down during performance, it would have helped. But I was never fully committed.”
North studied literature at Columbia and showed a few poems to a professor, who encouraged him to take a workshop with Kenneth Koch at The New School.
“I’ve always been nervous about everything,” North said. “I put off going to Kenneth Koch’s workshop for a year or so. Finally, I took it, and I’m glad I did because it was the last time he ever taught at the New School." [Koch continued teaching his legendary seminar in imaginative writing at Columbia, where he was a tenured professor.]
"I thank my lucky stars I found him because he was the best teacher I ever had…. I never loved poetry until I got into his class.”
Lehman, who studied with Koch at Columbia, reminisced about Koch’s memorable classroom style.
“He was the most unconventional teacher,” Lehman said. “He would jump around the room. He talked about French poets as if they were close to him…. He made you want to go to Paris and read the French poets in French.”
North experienced a lull when his studies with Koch ended, until he took Tony Towle’s class at The Poetry Project. Paul Violi was a classmate, and the three became lifelong friends and collaborators, meeting for coffee every week at the Café delle Muse near Third Street and La Guardia Place.
North read a poem about those days, dedicated to Tony Towle. “What do you say to a cappuccino with a poem floating on top, which is a sign of hope?”
Afterward, North called to Padgett in the front row, “Why are you smiling?”
“I feel happy.” Padgett said.
North befriended another of his “poetry heroes,” the late James Schuyler, and together they produced a sui generis literary journal -- something between a one-shot literary magazine and an anthology.
“It’s great to present our students with examples of friendships that allow you to collaborate on poems and offer mutual support and inspiration,” Lehman said. “When you collaborate with someone, you create a third entity out of the two.”