October 5


Cadenza by Charles North
Hanging Loose Press, $15.00

Review by Martin Stannard

What do poems mean?

One of the more disturbing ideas, at least in my view,
is that all thinking entails something like
“triage” among competing ideas,
such that the contents of mind
at any given moment aren’t,
and can’t be, an accurate representation
of the mental process involved – and moreover,
that they mask equally significant mental activity
which hasn’t (for reasons
that are plainly unavailable)
been selected, but which could equally have been so,
given even miniscule variation in our complex mental life.

Northcover If this extract from the title poem of Charles North’s “Cadenza” suggests to you that it’s a philosophical poem, you may be right. You may be wrong. No-one may care either way. It’s a poem that thinks, and makes you (the reader) think too. I’m not sure one can ask for more. Actually, one can ask for much more. You can ask not just for a thinking poem but a poem which also is at the same time a delight and a pleasure to read, a poem that makes you feel you are doing something decent and intelligent with your brain and your time. And that the something you are doing is happening because you are a person who actually enjoys doing something decent and intelligent with their brain for no reason other than  the doing's sake. Perhaps poetry makes nothing happen except to make the world a richer place and the people who are touched by it a little richer also. If you ask any or all of that of a poem, you need look no further than “Cadenza” or any other of North’s poems. 

“Baseballically speaking,”
as former Red Sox slugger Ted Williams
once began a response to a TV interviewer ……

(from "Cadenza")

Footballically speaking, I have to admire poems that make me feel smart when I'm not. Poets from the same neck of the poetry woods as North, whose poetic lineage and milieu is pure first-hand New York School (they knew those guys), wear their erudition lightly, sometimes almost humourously, which is liberatingly democratic. Even when I have no idea what North is talking about I’m enjoying myself, and I think that's ok.

And cricketically speaking I have to admire poems that remind me how to enjoy life. Lead by example. And you enjoy life by taking risks, not by staying within the confines of your basket. (Okay, I know this is open to debate, but just at the moment debate is not an option. Life, full and rewarding life, entails risk.) And poems, real poems, entail risk – which suggests that poems are like life, but that’s a whole other argument, and one that one of us would lose.

North’s poems often remind me of balancing acts:

It can’t be the imbalances
Yet if it has to be – I’m not saying it has to but if

(from “Duets”)

in that there is a constant balancing going on between, for example, colloquialism

-- Do bowling alleys sell beer? [laughs]

(from “Boul’Mich”)

and artifice that reminds you of Language Poetry stuff:

Slipping its height as per the aspirin of
your fullest sleep, the perennial spine.

O the angels of arrant tempo fold graves
for the brandishing, under the gravity

misnaming looks – as well as avid and filled
to print away honey on what abandoned.

(from “October”)

And it's not a tension; far from it.Then there is lyric grace:

There would be wasps and roses all over.
Late afternoon bells. Grapes transparent as stones
Asleep in sun and warm shadow.

(from “Clip From Francis Jammes”)

and recognisable so-called New York School tones:

The tone poem left the door open.
Well, close it.

(from “Sonnet”)

as well as equally recognisable New York School strategies: part 5 of the prose “Vetoed” is a page-long list of imagined proposed buildings

and (oh, I already said this) prose:

Mozart is easinesses found, Brahms difficulties overcome. In the clarinet sonatas (if not in the viola versions) the performer personifies struggle. The craftiness of Odysseus, beleaguered and homesick, aiming at whatever is in the way of beauty shining forth. As against single-minded Achilles, too spear-like to be true, underpinned (and –mined) by darkness and the chalumeau.

(from “Five Notes)

which all goes some small way towards indicating North’s range but goes absolutely nowhere near describing what this book is really like. The reviewer is beginning to think about going to do something else but there isn’t anything else to do here at the moment so I’ll carry on. So how to describe what this book is like? – not in looks (it has pages and words), or form of poems (I’ve half-covered that one), or type of poem (“type of poem”? what on earth am I talking about?) but as an experience, a standing (or sitting or sprawling or whatever) with a piece of art and being altered by it (as you can be altered by, say, meeting a beautiful girl or not quite being run over by a bus.)

Here is a small section of “Summer Of Living Dangerously”:

The pair of cardinals that zip around like flying drops of blood … let’s make that like ice-dancers, especially when compared to the deliberate hawks. The latter have a continuous relationship but a continually shifting one, so that a  straight line connecting them at any given moment is one of an infinite number of variables. Neither is what we mean by chaos, but each has a somewhat unsettling if partly pleasing randomness. A blood bank of cardinals. A plane geometry of hawks.

Wary as I am of plucking a phrase from a book and finding in it some way of saying something smart about what the poems mean (ok -- shoot me now) here goes: North’s poems are full of things that are connected because the poet connects them but they may at first appear to you and me as unconnected but they are connected and the more you read the poems the more connections you see, and you begin to see (perhaps) the potentially “infinite number of variables”, and you take pleasure (oh my god!) in the “somewhat unsettling if partly pleasing randomness” of it all. Except I think the randomness (if that’s what it is) becomes more than partly pleasing; it becomes a delight. (Ok, that’s the end of that paragraph. Did I pass the exam? Oh…)

To take this whatever it is I’m trying to say one step further, I’m tempted, but I won’t give in to the temptation, to tell you about rigid designators:

…… The following are rigid designators: Johnny Van der Meer, Johnny Friendly, Peter Unger, Marjorie Perloff, The Man Who Loved Hadleyburg, the Widow Wadman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julie Schwarz, Ken Schwarz, the Sears Tower. The mano who wrote Sven Types of Ambiguity isn’t a rigid designator, as there is nothing necessary about his having written that book…

(from “Summer Of Living Dangerously”)

I didn’t know anything about rigid designators until I read this book, but now I’ve got it all figured out. I looked it up on the internet here. Come to think of it, I might just be someone who thinks he has it figured out. I am certainly someone who is not sure if he has it figured out or not. But I think I’m right in saying that the chap who wrote this review is not a rigid designator but Martin Stannard is. This is both somewhat unsettling and more than partly pleasing.

But there’s one other thing I want to say, and it only just occurred to me to say it. I think there is a smile in all of these poems, or at the back of these poems. Perhaps “smile” is not the right word, but I think the poet takes pleasure in the poems, and smiles, and I love that. There is a set of “translations” here, which are new versions of some poems that appeared in North’s earlier books. (The earlier versions – the originals, as it were - are also included here, at the back of the book.) They are a form of re-write but they are not what we would normally regard as re-writes. A re-write suggests that the poet is unhappy with the earlier form or some of the words of the original poem and has tinkered with it; with North’s “translations” we have a different situation. For example, the first stanza of the original “Song” (a poem that appeared in his 1999 “New & Selected”) is

I am pressed up against you
Like air pressed up against the sky
The carpenter ants are at work on the bearing beams
O bearing beams

The “translation” renders this stanza as follows:

I feel you very close to me
In the same way that the sky and air seem not two things but one
Those termite-like pests are attacking the two-by-fours
O two-by-fours

In some respects what North does with these translations is examine the language; he is looking for another way of saying. “Which has nothing on confusion itself” becomes “Though that doesn’t hold a candle to out-and-out mental disarray”. But consider those “termite-like pests” – they are carpenter ants, and that is what they are. I even think “carpenter ant” may be some kind of rigid designator but I’m not sure. BY calling them "termite-like pests" the voice of the poem belongs, if you will, to someone not quite as smart as that other guy. In something like the same way, in another translation, what was a simple “building” becomes a “windowed construction”… ok, let’s say North is having serious fun here at the expense of translations in general and the naming of things. But he’s also once again dealing in possibilities, and poetry, whatever it means and is about, is surely about possibilities.

Since I first encountered North’s poetry back in the early 1980s I’ve been entranced and amazed by it. In those early days I admit to being worried about how I didn’t understand most of it, and I busied myself also trying to figure out how come I was enjoying something I didn’t understand. Boy, those were the days!

So anyway, what do poems mean?



October 12


FinThe first issue of the Nottingham-based poetry magazine FIN is now available. It's not on the internet, but on real paper. That's unusual. Edited by Nigel Pickard and Rosie Garner, it's an elegant little thing and you could fall in love with it just on looks alone. Once inside, it gets even better. It's just poems. Nothing else. Just poems. Enough to be satisfying, not too many to be an onslaught. It's a very simple formula, and one that works.

Also, one particularly wonderful moment occurs across pages 9 and 10. On page 9 is Catherine Clarke's poem, "Chthonian In The Sky", not all of which I will quote but the last two lines are "the coming of a creature even bleaker than they - / chthonian in the sky." Right, it's not my favourite poem in the magazine. But over opposite, on page 10, is C.J. Allen's "Poem".... of which I will quote a chunk from two stanzas:



.............................. Some poets
will casually deploy words like eldritch, ontic,

topos and chthonic that may cause
the reader to turn away or turn to other books.


I must remember to ask Nigel if this was deliberate.

I would list all the poets, but that'd be boring. But let's face it, any magazine that has among its initial contributors Ian McMillan, Mark Halliday, Mairead Byrne, C.J.Allen, Hugo Williams, John Lucas and, well, me...... come on, it has to be worth a look, doesn't it?

One issue costs £3.50. A year's worth (4 issues) is £12. Order from FIN, PO Box 9207, Nottingham, NG14 7WP.



October 18


This being a poetry kind of a place I really should write about a poetry reading when I go to one, but it can be tough. And I can hear those people who say how if you don’t have anything good to say about something then don’t say anything at all. But actually I do have something good to say about it, because a fair proportion of the poems that Diane Tyler-Bennett read,Lard if they were not great, or even my cup of tea, at least had an energy and passion and, to my ear, some definite tensions and pleasures in the way she used the language and its rhythms. As importantly, if not more so, it was like most of the poems (though not all) had to be written, rather than that they were written because Wow, she’s a poet and that’s what poets do, and aren’t we poets something wonderful and to be admired.

The reading was at Nottingham’s Flying Goose café, where poet and critic John Lucas hosts a regular series. The other reader was Matthew Sweeney. I’ve not read Sweeney’s work since I hosted him at the Poetry Ipswich readings I organised back around 1990. When he read in Ipswich back then he managed to be one of the few poets I put on that the Ipswich poetry audience didn’t take to. And they were a cool audience. I tested them, and they came through. But they didn’t take to Sweeney, and neither did I. Damned if I can remember why I booked him. Anyway that was way back then, and this is now. If you don’t have anything good to say about something then don’t say anything at all. Yeah, right.

So I read a few poems from his latest book on the infoweb, along with Sean O’Brien’s review online at The Guardian. I think it was The Guardian. Is O’Brien talking about the same Matthew Sweeney? They must be chums. Somebody please tell me what’s interesting about those poems. It can’t be the language and what he does with it, flat as it all is. If it’s the ideas, well, I’ll be damned.

To make matters even more laughable Sweeney also read at the University I work at the following lunchtime, and so I’ve had a double dose. Yes, life is great. I didn’t have to go to Episode 2, but I did. At the lunchtime thing, Sweeney said something about how he was once questioned about how his poems did not have the conventional trappings of rhyme, alliteration, all that stuff, and he had said in reply, among other things, they had rhythm. Well, I’ve heard him read twice this week, and they have one rhythm, as far as I can tell. Just the one. The one the poet uses when he reads them aloud to an audience who paid to listen on a dismal wet night in October. Diane Tyler-Bennett could teach Matthew Sweeney a thing or two about rhythm, I think. As for poems that had to be written, a series of haiku for his late father were, I will admit, bloody good. For the rest, I’m going to take some convincing.

Oh, I also hate poets who seem to spend half the time at a reading dropping names all over the place. Names of other poets and writers, some alive, some dead, places they’ve been, cities they’ve lived in, books they’ve read  … oh, I should stop. CSI is probably on soon.



October 21


One of these days I’m going to go to a good gig.

In 1997 or thereabouts I bought a great record, “The Magical World of The Strands” by Michael Head & The Strands. It is a great record, one which the All Music site describes as chamber-pop. God knows what chamber pop is supposed to be. Perhaps it means good melodic, intelligent not heavy stuff with more acoustic guitars than electric guitars, and some strings thrown in for good measure, but since that could Shack2_3describe truck-loads of singers and bands maybe it doesn’t. Think Love and some of The Beatles and you're on track, sort of. Anyway, The Strands became Shack (I think they'd been Shack before, and this was a reversion)and released “HMS Fable” a couple of years later, which I also bought. It’s ok, but not great. A few of the songs are crackers. And sometime not long after that record came out Shack played a somewhat ramshackle affair of a gig in Nottingham. I quite enjoyed it, because they played a lot of stuff off the two records I had, the best songs, and even if they were a bit messy it was ok.

I lost track of them after that. I’m not sure why. I seem to have missed a couple of records. Never mind. On Friday they played The Rescue Rooms. Michael Head downed a few beers before going onstage; I know this because he was pratting around near me while he did it. Beer is ok; I had some too. I thought we were in for a another ramshackle gig, and we were. I also worried about his haircut: from a distance no problem, but close up: bad news.

A lot of the songs I didn’t know. This doesn’t have to be problematic. I’ve been to plenty of gigs where I didn’t know the songs, or even didn't know the band, and been blown away. But this wasn’t one of those. The songs I knew, what few there were, still struck me as pretty strong. They did a great thumping “Streets of Kenny” from “HMS Fable”, but the quality of that threw much of the rest into a very gloomy shade. A better song from the same record, “Pull Together”, had none of the emotional power it has on disc, or that it had the last time I saw them play. The new songs just didn’t register at all. Melody? Punch? All missing. And with the band bumbling about between songs, swigging from their cans of beer, only highlighted how much chat was going on among the somewhat uninvolved audience. Quite a few people left early, and by half past ten what had been a moderate sized crowd to start with was significantly less than that. And I left early too.

One of these days I'm going to go to a good gig.



October 23


This is great: Dylan endorsing one of the most eco-unfriendly vehicles on the road:

A Cadillac is a good car to drive after a war.

For a long time I've figured that if there is a God then he's fallible. Which doesn't stop him being a God, or making great records, of course. The other day, watching Dylan on TV, the film of him at the Newport Folk Festival back in the mid-60s, it was so fucking good I almost cried.



October 25



If you go here you may never come back,
there's so much cool and interesting stuff to read there,
but I recommend it anyway.

If you're going to disappear forever,
disappear in a good place.