Critics Page

Charles North

News, Poetry and Poplars

It may sound like a cop-out, but I’m of several minds about this topic, like a tree in which there are several blackbirds. I used to feel that the extravagant claims made for poetry by Stevens and Williams, to name only two, had an ironic undercurrent of desperation. So few take poetry seriously, ever, that they went to extremes to ensure its survival, never mind its importance in the general scheme. Of course, Auden’s “For poetry makes nothing happen” contributed to my feeling, with its quasi-logical “For” seeming to brook no debate.

As part of an introduction to a reading by John Ashbery at The Poetry Project in 2009, I made a small pitch for an Ashbery Nobel. I wasn’t, of course, alone in thinking it was high time, or that the fly in the ointment was Ashbery’s presumed lack of engagement with the big issues. What I said was, “To me, and I believe many others, there’s no writer whose poems are more engaged with what it means to be human. Poetry sadly, hopefulness notwithstanding, doesn’t make much happen. But it does show us to ourselves, which I would suggest is more vital these days than it has ever been, and has a far more vital relation to the material that poetry is often supposed to be engaged with, than ever before.” This, of course, preceded the careening hand basket that the country, and increasingly the world, is finding itself unable to change the course of or jump off.

 Part of me continues to think Auden was right. Another part thinks that Williams’s hyperbole isn’t as hyperbolic as it used to seem; that what so many miss by not attending to poetry is precisely the humanity that is so strikingly missing now in relations between people (real as well as virtual), nations, chains of reasoning, causes and effects, etc. A third part of me, Part Two notwithstanding, has a hard time believing poetry can help with any of it.

 I do like to think that poetry has an existence beyond “the valley of its making” (where Stevens the insurance executive did tamper, but almost no one else), but in a society where it is increasingly difficult to find literature courses in English Departments (!), it is difficult to imagine poetry providing the news or solace Williams or Stevens or Pound envisioned, or the range of pleasures it, like all the arts, embodies. Maybe the fundamental concern, like a grove of Binsey poplars which the developer’s axe has unselved, is that politics or government is viewed as an end in itself rather than a way to help people live the best lives they can, on which topic there is reason to believe poems have some relevance, as difficult as that can be to get at.


Charles North

Charles North’s most recent books are States of the Art: Selected Essays, Interviews and Other Prose (Pressed Wafer, 2017) and North of the Charles: Early and Uncollected Poems (Hanging Loose, 2018).