Christopher Middleton - Each of the thirty-three pieces in Loose Cannons contains something marvelous. Each of his sentences is a seamless synthesis of perception, information, and music
Christopher Middleton, Loose Cannons: Selected Prose, University of New Mexico Press, 2014.
read it at Google Books
These uncategorizable writings by a distinguished poet and translator are lively, erudite, and creative. Like his poetry, Middleton’s prose pieces are alive with incongruity, collage, and surprising juxtapositions. This extensive collection is the perfect addition to every student’s, scholar’s, and avid reader’s bookshelf.
“These thirty-three prose inventions of Christopher Middleton constitute the fourth pillar of an extraordinary literary oeuvre, the other three being his poetry, translations, and literary essays. Whatever one chooses to call these often astonishing miniatures, they are certainly Middleton’s wildest, most accessible, and most entertaining work, and they count as some of his very finest writing.”― August Kleinzahler, Foreword
“ He is an incomparable stylist, a wry ironist, a philosopher of words. The only category in which he fits justly is that of poet. - Guy Davenport
“Christopher Middleton is a late-modernist master, renowned as a translator and poet. These short prose inventions rank among his finest writings―erudite, witty, absurdist, and altogether delightful, with the wild accuracy of Jorge Luis Borges and Guy Davenport. Across their remarkable variety―literary-historical curiosities, meditations on art history, fables, satires, fantastic travelogues, minute observations of the natural world, deft sketches of café life―Middleton’s narratives bristle with intelligence.”―Devin Johnston
years ago, in an essay called “Why I Am a Member of the Christopher Middleton Fan Club” (The Brooklyn Rail, October 2010), I stated the need for “a selected prose that brings together all the different kinds of writing he has done.” Loose Cannons: Selected Prose (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2014), which includes an insightful foreword by one of Middleton’s most vocal and articulate champions, August Kleinzahler, is pretty close to the book I had in mind.
The thirty-three unclassifiable pieces, some no longer than three pages, were selected from prose written between Flowers & Nice Bones (1969) and Depictions of Blaff (2010), a span of forty-one years, a period during which the prose poem became an increasingly popular form. Middleton’s short pieces are not prose poems, however. As Kleinzahler states at the beginning of his “Foreword,” “what Middleton “would refer to as ‘short prose’ are certainly [his] wildest, most accessible, and most entertaining work and count as some of his very finest writing.” I suspect that one reason why they are not better known is because they are not short tales with a beginning, middle and end.
In other words, Middleton’s short prose pieces are not prose poems as that term is conventionally understood, and they have little to do with the beloved Francophile tradition spawned by the posthumous publication of Paris Spleen (1869), Charles Baudelaire’s book of fifty-one prose poems. Middleton’s imaginative prose pieces are not motivated by disgust, nor do they, in opposition to prose poems by Charles Simic and Russell Edson, for example, seem to have an overriding theme, recognizable style or tic holding them together. If anything, they are in a league of their own, just as those pieces found in the astonishing book, Tatlin! (1974), by Guy Davenport, his friend and classmate at Merton College, Oxford (1948–52). As I see it, the imaginative prose of Davenport and Middleton constitute two of the more singular achievements in American letters.
Like Davenport, Middleton’s erudition is unrivaled in its grasp and comprehension of many sources. A prolific, innovative translator, he started translating Robert Walser’s fiction in the 1950s, in postwar, non-German- loving England, long before this unique writer was on anyone’s radar. In 1957, Middleton published his eye-opening translation of Walser’s The Walk and Other Stories. He has also translated the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Christa Wolf, Elias Canetti, Georg Trakl, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Lars Gustafsson. Along with his interest in Dada, Surrealist, and Expressionist writing, all of which were largely rejected in England, Middleton was a devotee of the experimental work of his own time and became friends with some of the most radically innovative poets of the century, such as Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop; the multilingual Romanian-born German poet and honorary member of OULIPO, Oskar Pastior (1927-2006); and the Austrian poets Ernst Jandl (1925-2000) and Friedrike Mayröcker (1924-). The other difference that sets Middleton apart from his peers is that, in addition to not aligning himself with the French tradition, Middleton doesn’t see himself as an heir to Ezra Pound, as did Davenport. Rather, as Gabriel Levin advances in his essay, “Middleton in Asia Minor”:
The stratification of languages and cultures—Hittite, Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, Turkish—is, I believe, what has lured Middleton repeatedly since the early ’80s to this vast stretch of land which once comprised the northern arm of the Levant. It has been for the poet a quest in awe of revelation. (Chicago Review, 51: 1/2, Spring 2005, p. 119).One of the memorable moments I spent with Middleton was sitting with him in the mid-90s in a café in Austin, Texas, where he has lived since 1966, listening to his enthusiasm, anticipation and excitement as he talked about his forthcoming trip to Yemen to learn more about Arabic. He was then in his early 70s and, as far as I could see, still an eager and curious student, someone who believes that learning never ends. Instead of claiming authority, he yearned to gain more knowledge.
Imagine prose that is neither anecdotal nor confessional, and you begin to get a sense of Middleton’s unclassifiable writing. Add to this his resistance to arriving at predictable poetic revelations, moments that appear to be blessed by a sudden universal insight, and you get a sense of why his writing has never quite gained the attention it deserves. We want revelations, however cliché, because they promise us comfort. Middleton comes from another tradition, which counts Herodotus, Plutarch and Thucydides among its originators. He is not in the habit of providing solace to the reader.
Inspired by these ancient classical writers, Middleton is simultaneously contemporary and mysterious rather than nostalgic and soothing, In “The Birth of the Smile,” within a span of less than two pages, Middleton goes from “the Sumerians” to “the smile inserted at the corners of Che Guevara’s mouth by the thumbs of his murderers.” Here, as elsewhere, Middleton is able to braid together different kinds of prose, ranging from history, myth and fable to a description gleaned from the mass media, without anything seeming forced or contrived. I cannot explain why it feels right that the author ends with Che Guevera’s post-mortem smile, but it does. At the very least, he is reminding us that a smile and cruelty are linked often enough to be unsettling. The fact that he refuses to step back and moralize after reaching this insight is just one of the many powerful things he does.
In “The Turkish Rooftops,” Middleton starts with the observation that “Turkish people like to sleep on rooftops,’ and then goes on to list the various things one might see on these rooftops (“Buckets, parts of cooking stoves, donkey saddles, lengths of rope, piping, sinks, scythes”), as well as to comment on “how, in Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire, the mountain changes its clothes, sky its diagonals that shine or rain down upon the roof of the mountain.” What interests Middleton is the threshold between one order of objects and another. He is both scholarly and innocent and doesn’t privilege one above the other. Each of the thirty-three pieces in Loose Cannons contains something marvelous. Each of his sentences is a seamless synthesis of perception, information and music.
Perhaps Loose Cannons will help change our perception of Middleton’s considerable achievement. Instead of offering us easy reassurance, his prose (as does all his writing) seems motivated by what he states at the end of his “Prologue”: “Beauty is exuberance.” Here we might be reminded that the one lesson Middleton might have gotten from translating Walser or from reading Baudelaire is the latter’s observation: “The Beautiful is always strange.” The strangeness that Middleton leads the willing reader to is well worth beholding. - John Yau
In his brief Prologue to this new selection of Middleton’s significant contributions of literature, the writer argues that Loose Cannons should be recognized as a short prose work different from both the short story and the prose poem—elements of which these works outwardly share. Alluding to the writings of John Earle, Ben Jonson, Pascal, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Franz Kafka, and Kenneth Patchen (Borges and Robert Walser also come to mind), British writer and German translator Middleton suggests that his work belongs to a genre that displays “a resistance to the tendency of written prose to prolong itself, to expand.” For him, his writing process relates to what he calls an “antigram,” “a variety of imaginative writing which revolts against and may reverse the programmatic.” What interests him, he makes clear, is “something not-said, a hiatus, a vestige of mystery,” as opposed, presumably, to prose fiction’s thrust to delineate meaning through accumulation, if nothing else.
“The antigram calls for (and should arouse),” Middleton asserts, “the most scrupulous thrift, panache, and refinement in writing as such.”
As a lover of genres, I’m always willing to accept the notion that an author is attempting to mine new territory, is exploring boundaries of what we think we know or, more importantly, how we read something that, simply because of its surface appearance, we think we recognize but does not necessarily conform to what we have experienced in the past. Any knowledgeable reader can cite numerous instances of significant authors’ works being dismissed simply because they didn’t seem to fit into the confines of more normative perceptions of a particular genre. I have often repeated in these My Year volumes just such occurrences in connection with writings by Djuna Barnes, Wyndham Lewis, and numerous others. And even as the publisher of two books from which nine of these 33 prose works were selected—In the Mirror of the Eighth King (1999) and Depictions of Blaff (2010)—I must admit that I originally had difficulty, despite my immediate appreciation of the writing, defining their genres. The works of the former volume I simply ascribed to be very personal prose meditations, and the works of Depictions of Blaff I suggested to myself and to others as being an unusual kind of short prose fiction. And I must admit, that rereading those works in the context of the others, I more thoroughly enjoyed them as being cryptic and mysterious prose works with no narrative solution to their meanings.
Middleton is also one of the well-read and informed academics (without being an academic writer) I know, and some of his remarkable prose works read a bit like satires of pedants discoursing on esoteric information—a bit like Raymond Queneau’s OULIPO-inspired writings—ramblings of a charming madman. Certainly all of the Blaff works might fall into that category, as well as pieces such as “From the Alexandria Library Gazette,” “Manuscript in a Lead Casket,” the frightfully futuristic “A Memorial to Room-Collectors,” and “The Turkish Rooftops.”
Other works focus their attention on intense observation, revealing what is clearly Middleton’s art-critical facilities, often featuring a work or a series of works of art—prose works such as “Louis Moillon’s Apricots (1635),” “The Execution of Maximilian,” “Le Déjeuner,” “A Polka in the Evening of Time,” or, on a more enigmantic level, often involving what is not seen or is only somewhat visible in “Balzac’s Face” and “The Gaze of the Turkish Mona Lisa.”
Still others appear almost to be meditations on history or, more specifically, the possibilities of history or, at least, recreating what might soon become history: “The Birth of a Smile,” “A Bachelor,” “Nine Biplanes,” “Or Else,” “Cliff’s Dwarf,” and “In the Mirror of the Eighth King,”
But all do share what the Introducer of this work, August Kleinzahler, describes as forces of that are “subversive” and “ludic,” “liminal” and “disruptive,” in favor of any pre-conceived or determinative experience. Time and again, what might at first seem narrative, is transformed through metaphor into an animistic or even spiritual moment which one might describe as dissipating any plot- or character-based evocation. Although “Nine Biplanes,” for example begins with what seems to be a very specific time and narrator, an “I” located in 1940, the author redirects the reader’s attention throughout until what began as a concrete image has been miraculously transformed into a grotesquely unseen world, invisible from the eyes of the work’s original seemingly narrative voice. The work begins:
Summer 1940: I opened the double glass front door of the rambling
country mansion, school, and saw nine biplanes flying low, in close
formation, and slow; the lower edge of what I saw is a ruffled green
mass of trees.
- Douglas Messerli
mass of trees.
- Douglas Messerli
This is my list of the essential books of Christopher Middleton, the ones I believe you should read if you want to learn what he has been up to for the past 60 years: Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2008); Faint Harps and Silver Voices: Selected Translations (Carcanet, 2000): Jackdaw Jiving: Selected Essays on Poetry and Translation (Carcanet, 1998); Crypto-Topographia: Stories of Secret Places (Enitharmon, 2002); In The Mirror of the Eighth King (Green Integer, 1999); Palavers, and A Nocturnal Journal (Shearsman Books, 2004); If From The Distance: Two Essays, with an Introduction by Alan Wall (Menard Press, 2007). These seven books contain examples of all the genres and forms Middleton has written over the course of his career: poems, concrete poems, translations, prose (which cannot be categorized), essays, and journals. Ideally, there should be a selected prose that brings together all the different kinds of writing he has done; an up-to-date, comprehensive collection of his essays; a selection of his collages (The Troubled Sleep of America—40 collages with texts—was exhibited at the Laguna Gloria Museum, Austin, Texas in 1982); and a selection of his journals (none of which he wrote for publication, but which he now seems to be willing to publish). As it is, my list of published works adds up to around 1,500 pages, a formidable achievement by anyone’s standard.
I have not included on my list Middleton’s collections of translations of Robert Walser, Friedrich Nietzsche, Christa Wolf, Elias Canetti, Georg Trakl, Friedrich Hölderlin, Lars Gustafsson, and Andalusian poems “from Spanish versions of the original Arabic” (with Leticia Garza-Falcon). Middleton is a prolific translator, who began translating Robert Walser’s compressed fictions in the 1950s, long before this Swiss writer was on anyone’s radar in America or England. However, if you are still reluctant to plunge in or don’t know where to begin—I would suggest the Collected Poems is a good place to start—you could begin with what I consider the best introduction to his oeuvre: “Christopher Middleton: Portraits,” edited by W. Martin (Chicago Review 51: 1/2, Spring 2005). The issue contains illuminating essays, reminiscences, testimonies, an interview, bibliography, and examples of his writing. In his “Introduction,” W. Martin believes “a Collected Letters would be delightful to read at the very least.” One standout essay among many is Gabriel Levin’s “Middleton in Asia Minor”:
The stratification of languages and cultures—Hittite, Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, Turkish—is, I believe, what has lured Middleton repeatedly since the early ’80s to this vast stretch of land which once comprised the northern arm of the Levant. It has been for the poet a quest in awe of revelation. (Chicago Review, p. 119)
Despite all this, Christopher Middleton is a poet—an innovative lyric poet, in fact, and inimitable prose writer—who has continued to be overlooked, at least to the extent that, except for the Chicago Review (kudos to them), mainstream book reviews, middlebrow periodicals, and adventurous little magazines have consistently failed to address his work, particularly in America, where he has lived for over 40 years. On the rare occasions when they have addressed his work, reviewers tend to regard him as an anomaly, and make convoluted qualifications regarding his singular achievement, all of which ends up marginalizing him. Here is what Alfred Corn wrote in the New York Times Book Review: Middleton’s “effort is to escape the artifice of received literary ideas, and he has at least succeeded in doing that; his poems don’t sound like anyone in particular, not even his models. The gains bring with it definite losses.” In arguing that it is better to sound like someone else than to not “sound like anyone in particular,” Corn seems to be emphasizing that Middleton has neither an instantly recognizable “I” in his poems nor has he tried to develop a signature style. Here I part company with Corn and agree with Robert Kelly: “Style is death.” Middleton’s defining sin seems to be that his poems and prose don’t sound like anyone else’s, and they can’t be characterized by their style, which is not to say that he is without, as Corn implies, preoccupations or themes.
This is the rather deplorable situation that I would like to help redress, however inadequately knowledgeable I must admit to being when it comes to discussing the many subtleties of this poet’s achievement. I am not alone in this feeling. In his review of Intimate Chronicles (Sheep Meadow Press, 1996), the far more intellectual August Kleinzahler laid the problem bare: “His analysis, for example, of Mallarmé’s ‘Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire’ would frighten off wiser men than I from having a go at Middleton’s own poetry” (From an essay originally published in The Threepenny Review, (Winter 1998) and reprinted in the Chicago Review). This is where many people reading and reviewing Middleton’s work go wrong; they confuse his vast erudition for narrow eccentricity. They think he’s trying to pick up where Ronald Firbank left off, and that is not the case at all.
Clearly, Middleton has gained a small though loyal public, which is the case with many poets whose work I care about, but, for reasons I find perplexing, he has never crossed the line into the realm of wider recognition—Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe, Louise Glück, Paul Muldoon, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, and his friends Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are practically famous compared to him. Outside his books, you are not likely to come across his name; he isn’t mentioned on literary blogs; year after year, he isn’t listed among the nominees for prizes; and he isn’t a past winner of an award or fellowship we immediately recognize; he isn’t talked about as a teacher of creative writing—all those measures we use to determine a poet’s importance. As far as I know, he has never received a Guggenheim Fellowship or, perhaps better yet, if he has received one, he has chosen not to list it among his achievements.
Aside from these mainstream markers, you don’t hear him being mentioned as an example of some tendency, good or bad. Certainly, no ready profile, however misinformed and generalizing it might be, comes to mind when we think of him, which isn’t the case with his peers: John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, and W.S. Merwin. In fact, I can think of many slightly celebrated poets whose work I don’t ever want to read again—even if I am stuck in a dentist’s waiting room, sitting next to the latest issues of the New Yorker—being embraced far more often, and tendentiously, in literary and semi-literary periodicals. And it is certainly easy enough to think of figures whose very names are mentioned in a hushed voice befitting a martyred saint—a status that Middleton has clearly shunned. What I am lamenting, however, is his absence from every list that I can think of, except neglected poets.
The bare bones of Middleton’s biography are as follows (my primary sources include Palavers, and A Nocturnal Journal, (Shearsman Books, 2004) and “A Retrospective Sketch” which was included in the Chicago Review). He was born in Truro, Cornwall, England in 1926. His father was an organist who started teaching music at the University of Cambridge in 1930. His mother read D. H. Lawrence. Growing up in Cambridge, “a city bristling with old bookshops,” he was by 15 “a nestling antiquarian.” He spent three and half years in the R.A.F. (1944–1948), studied German and French at Merton College, Oxford (1948–1952), where his classmates and friends included Rodney Needham and Guy Davenport. He “was never a student of ‘Eng. Lit.’.” He taught English at the University of Zürich (1952–1955). While teaching German literature in King’s College, London (1955–1965), he became interested in the Levantine, the worldwide symbolism of Paradise Mountains, Dada, and Expressionism. During this decade, he “helped to make the new German writing of the ’50s and ’60s accessible to British and American readers. [He] wrote reviews, gave radio talks. This work opened up the task of translating….” He first came to Austin, Texas to teach for one year in 1961–62. In 1966, at the age of 39, he returned to the University of Texas and taught German Literature and Comparative Literature until he retired in 1998. He thinks of where he lives in Texas as a “poor man’s Mediterranean.” He has literally hundreds of pieces of music in his head, no doubt because of the influences of his father. According to W. Martin, “It was through [Middleton] that I learned to read Hölderlin, the French and Russian symbolists, Plato of the Symposium and Phaedrus, and above all to appreciate the poetic power even of discursive language.”
I want to call attention to a few salient features that stick out from this brief biographical sketch. Middleton doesn’t have a homepage on the Web, and his Wikipedia entry is remarkable for how little it tells us. He is a widely learned poet and translator, not a constricted theorist and academician. He belongs to the generation that, in America, includes the poets I previously mentioned, as well as points to two English poets who spent much of their adult lives here, and who were widely admired during their lifetime, Thom Gunn (1929–2004) and Denise Levertov (1923–1997). Born exactly between these two public figures, Middleton is all but invisible compared to them. Is this because he was neither part of any group, nor been associated with any movement? Since coming to America in 1966, he was never part of an English department and seems to never have taught creative writing. This goes a long way to explaining why he remains an obscure figure compared to many of his peers. He never put himself at the center of a constantly changing group of impressionable wannabe poets, and made no attempt to gain authority in this manner.
At the same time, I want to make it clear that Middleton is not a curmudgeon grousing about what went wrong with civilization, poetry, and human beings. He has never called attention to himself in that manner. In fact, for all his passion and rage, there isn’t an ounce of Phillip Larkin-like grumpiness in him. He doesn’t hate Picasso, Pound, and Parker, which one suspects many better known poets do, but have become savvy enough not to admit it. After all, how many celebrated poets have incorporated collage, alluded to history and other literatures, been particularly sensitive to the unstable relationship between sound and sense, and masterfully used shifting registers and dissonance in their work? How many prize-winning poets resist writing the smooth narrative poem with a beginning, middle, and end? Not a lot, but enough, I believe, for me to ask the following question. Why isn’t Middleton’s work more widely read or, barring that, more widely praised, however little impact that might have on sales and reputation? Why has this poet glided gracefully under the radar for his entire career?
Again, Kleinzahler’s observations are helpful: “The poetry of Middleton is not easy to characterize, not least of all because no one Middleton poem truly resembles another, much less one book resembling another in style and subject matter.” In other words, there is no carry-over, nothing that might, after you’ve read one of his poems, help you read the next. You always have to start all over again. If you look at a Jackson Pollock painting from 1948—a so-called drip painting done during the period after he made his first breakthrough to abstraction in 1947—whatever you glean from it (method, all-overness, accretion) will help you look at another done by Pollock a year or two later. This is less the case with Middleton. According to Kleinzahler,
[H]e is a philosophical poet, in his fascination with time and the phenomenological, by which I mean in the complex ways of perceiving and thinking about how we perceive. He is not anecdotal and certainly not confessional. Poetry, for Middleton, is very much involved in the act of retrieving in language the imaginative experience or moment, letting it find its own pulse and exfoliate on the page. It detests ‘reportage’ or ‘brute discourse’; it wars against ‘languishing idioms.’ It is improvisatory.
This is what Alan Brownjohn wrote in the New Statesman: “His concern to produce an individual structure of perception for every place, thought, and experience he writes about results in a ceaseless and challenging originality.”
Kleinzahler’s observations hearkens back to Charles Baudelaire’s definition of modernity as the conjoining of “the fleeting and the infinite,” but after the death of God, with the promise of redemption the infinite once held now vanished into the cold vastness of the ever-expanding beyond, as I think Middleton recognizes. This doesn’t mean the visionary isn’t possible, just that it can resemble all those derivative, palatable, easy-to-get instances that so many poets parade before us. Middleton knows for all the seeming sameness of the world, it is never the same, and style denies that unending difference. Open and responsive from the beginning of his career, he was able to braid together distinct and different strands of perception, knowledge, and music, including the archaic and the modern, the mythic and familiar, and the unlikely and unexpected, without reducing either to an explanation of the other. He has never written poems that can be read as editorials on contemporary life; he never claims to be more sensitive than others. Which doesn’t mean that he has removed himself from the world (“The poet of the abyss / Takes to walking the puppy”, Collected Poems, p. 388) or from history or catastrophic events (“‘Abstraction,’ ‘pure,’ who can mean them now / And not in irony deplore their barbaric use? / Nothing out there pretends. In vague words fatality nests.” (Collected Poems, p. 607) Rather, his poems don’t culminate in a predictable poetic revelation, an “aha” moment that was telegraphed in the first line. He has never succumbed to that particularly American affliction of being cornball. The very first poem in his Collected Poems is a good example of what he does and doesn’t do.
On skins we scaled the snow wall,
seven hunters; roped, leaning
into claws of wind; we climbed,
wisely, for no fixed point.
There was no point we knew.
Staggered upon it at noon.
Drifts half buried it. The coils
Horns eyes had to be hacked free.
We lashed, as the moon rose,
Its black flesh to sledges.
It was dead as a doornail,
thank God. Labouring
The way down, by lick
We found a hut, beer and bread.
Some came in cars, some barefoot,
Some by air, some sprang from ships,
Some tore in by local train,
Some capered out of bed
And biked there with babies.
Like flies they filled the hot square.
The cordon, flung around the heap
Of black tubes, when the eye blazed,
Could not see. The crowd did.
Then we heard the first shout.
Now in our houses the streets
And houses have gone.
Here, underground, we
Who were seven, are one.
“Seven Hunters” has two sections. Each section is made up of fourteen lines, divided into three stanzas—the two five line stanzas are followed by a four line stanza (a sonnet but not a sonnet). The lines consist of mostly one-syllable words interrupted by a two or even three syllable word (“The cordon, flung around the heap / Of black tubes, when the eye blazed,”). Musically, the poem is terse and insistent.
“Seven Hunters” is an open-ended narrative in which the poet evokes two distinct worlds, but never brings them so close that the reader can reach out and grasp either one. Unable to extricate a story from this inseparable juxtaposition, the reader cannot arrive at some easy conclusion that the poem is about this or that. It is self-sufficient and in that regard has affinities with radical painting of that time. (In a recent email from Anthony Rudolph, I learned that Alan Wall, whose “Introduction” to If From a Distance: Two Essays is well worth reading, believes “Seven Hunters” starts from William Wordsworth’s poem, “We are Seven”).
Except for the poems that had been privately printed in two earlier collections, “Seven Hunters” is the first poem in his first book, Torse 3 (Longmans, 1962). By the late 1960s, with the publication of Our Flowers & Nice Bones (Fulcrum Press, 1969), Middleton no longer relies on juxtaposing two separate worlds, but is able to braid together distinct and unlikely strands of knowledge, memory, and perception into a fluid, changing whole, gaining for his work a greater fluency coupled with a subtler music (“You suddenly woke and saw / on the bedroom hearth an apple green / puddle of moonlight. It was the armadillo,” (Collected Poems, p. 101)
Middleton’s measured dispersions of vowels and consonants in “Seven Hunters” reveal a sensitivity to sound as a potent poetic force (“Some capered out of bed / and biked there with babies.”). His use of enjambment is already linked to both a hesitation or delay in music and a time-based perception, and never seems contrived (“We lashed, as the moon rose, / its black flesh to sedges.”) His essay, “Ideas about Voice in Poetry” (pps. 88 – 101, Jackdaw Jiving) is a must read if you want an idea of the role sound plays in his thinking about poetry. Citing Mandelstam, Middleton advances that the “poetic word can go against the whole grain of the Saussurian view of language as a system of conventional signs; ‘The word is a psyche…” (Jackdaw Jiving, p. 93). The poet must use words (both their sound and sense) to make the poem the place where the experience and possible transformation from one perceptual state to another occurs. Learning from his study of German and French literature, as well as from his encounters with Dada, Surrealist, and Expressionist writing, the poet will raise the music of his writing to far more complex and intricate possibilities.
In contrast to many of his peers, Middleton did not embrace a nationalistic sense of the English language or England after World War II. He did not retreat from the world, as may lesser poets both here and in England did, and write local poetry. He did not strongly identify with a particular region, which is not to say that he disowned his past. Among poets emerging in the aftermath of World War II, he did something unprecedented and, to my mind, brave. He studied German and French, and met and translated German and French poets, among many others. His friends included some of the most radically innovative poets of the century, such as the multilingual Romanian-born German poet and honorary member of OULIPO, Oskar Pastior (1927–2006), and the Austrian poets Ernst Jandl (1925–2000) and Friederike Mayröcker (1924–).
“Seven Hunters” neither typifies Middleton’s poetry, nor exists as an isolated example. It is part of a possibility that he has explored throughout his career, the unpredictable meeting of the ordinary and the extraordinary, which can only be manifested in words, their particular music. Over time, this meeting has veered into the mythic, and, at other times, it is clearly rooted in specific instances, which includes something as unlikely as standing in the bathroom of the apartment of two good friends. The result is an ekphrastic poem on the tiles; “Berlin: Mommsenstrasse 7” (“Antiquish tiles in a house on Mommsen Street / Line three walls of a demure retreat: …Blue bees seem to ride the backs of butterflies, / Rocks ring a pool. A warbler perches there…”) The poem locates poet and reader in a familiar act: (“While you pee / There’s time to look around.”), and the reader is immediately brought into what Middleton, elsewhere, calls the “secret places,” in this case a bathroom. He believes that, as a poet, you can’t bring yourself to the moment of perception. Instead, you must be open to what the world gives you. (“Almost anywhere there’s a poem lying around / Waiting for someone to lift it up, dust it off, “ (Collected Poems, p 623). Given the range of starting points and subjects in poems and prose, he has remained remarkably open to the world he inhabits, and is passing through, for more than 60 years of writing.
Middleton’s poems seem to have their origins in at least five engendering possibilities. There are more, I am sure, but these are the ones that strike me as most prominent. They are rooted in the palpable world of direct experience, such as finding a dead “Tussock Moth” or seeing “Navaho children…sprouted from sand.” They can arrive unexpectedly as music, as in “Woden Dog” (“Wot doth woden dog / Por dog drageth plow”). They are encountered while reading (“Found Poem”), which is also the source of his many imagined dramatic monologues (“Mandelstam to Gumilev 1920”). There are his responses to a photograph or a painting. In fact, his ekphrastic poems are about many different kinds of works, including an oil sketch by Rubens, a kitsch print, a photograph of Chekov, the prints of Charles Meryon, a painting by Joan Miró, and a late painting by Balthus. Add to this list his poems on animals, which are every bit as good as any by D. H. Lawrence and, of course, Christopher Smart, but have a far greater range. He has written poems on cats (many times), armadillos (more than once), parrots, a coral snake, a wild horse, a magpie, and a puppy. In Middleton’s universe, everything and anything can become a poem, if you are ready to receive it. He is as conversant with the dead as Jack Spicer, but never once calls attention to it.
By not using the poem to build up to a cathartic event that promises a moment of revelation for poet and reader (“I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—”, as William Stafford famously declared just before pushing a dead deer off the road, into the river below), and refusing to use the space the poem occupies to tell the reader what it’s about, Middleton knowingly risks obscurity. And yet I would argue that he has a higher regard for the reader than those poets who use the poem to announce what they are writing about and why it’s important, as if we are children sitting in a ring, learning our lesson. Rather than straining after significance, I am convinced that he believes that it is everywhere, at all times, and that it is his responsibility to recognize it. In this sense, Middleton’s poetry and prose shares something with the poetry of Gustaf Sobin (1935–2005). (This unlikely connection was inspired by Middleton’s essay “Ideas about Voice in Poetry,” 1983, in which he cites lines from a poem by the then unknown Sobin on p. 97.) In fact, I think a comparison between Middleton’s Collected Poems and Sobin’s Collected Poems (Talisman House, 2010), which was edited by Esther Sobin, Andrew Joron, Andrew Zawacki, and Edward Foster, might prove useful.
Middleton certainly fits Theodore Enslin’s lauding of Sobin as “an amateur, in the highest sense of the word: a lover of the thing itself.” Born in different countries nearly a decade apart, and choosing as adults to emigrate to a country far from their own, both entered a diaspora in which they cut themselves off from their own language, and had to reinvent it in their writing. While both poets are highly responsive to what Middleton called the “collaboration between ear and eye…reinforced by the other senses, if not subliminally regulated by those senses” (“Ideas about Voice in Poetry”, p. 92), the difference is that his collaborations are as extensive as Sobin’s are narrow. In part, it has to do with their attachment to place. As Zawacki and Joron point out in their introduction, “[f]rom the beginning of his apprenticeship to [René] Char until the end of his days,” Sobin wrote in a “simple hut, with its small windows opening onto the wide fields of Provence.” Within the narrow purview in which he chose to dwell, the poet focused all of his attention on articulating states of ecstasy and illumination, trafficking in what Joron and Zawacki call the meeting of “eternity and the ephemeral,” a conjunction that knowingly invokes Baudelaire’s definition of modernity.
Middleton chose to live in, as well as journey into, a wider field. In this regard he anticipates the artist who lives in the age of globalism and has no fixed studio. He has, to put it bluntly, a larger imaginative reach than almost any other contemporary poet that I can think of (John Ashbery and Robert Kelly, two poets I was lucky enough to study with, also have similarly extensive imaginative reach). As Gabriel Levin puts it: “The diverse provenance of Middleton’s own poetry is so great—we have, after all, poems from his native Cornwall and his adopted Texas, as well as from France, Germany, Mexico, Japan, Turkey—that speaking of one locus may be unjustly reductive…(Chicago Review, p 112). Levin goes on to say that “Middleton, not unlike Echo, is acutely aware of the interstices, the slippages and frictions, between sound and meaningful speech—poetry’s ‘this prolonged hesitation,’ as Valery wrote, ‘between sound and sense.’ The poet’s task is to recapture a voice that is there to be heard provided that he is licked by the flames of memory and desire” (p. 113).About memory, I would point to “The Lime Tree” (Collected Poems, pps. 465–467), a poem about the relationship of son and mother, which is every bit as sensuously complex and disquieting as Robert Duncan’s great poem, “My Mother Would Be a Falconress”. Middleton’s poem opens with these lines:
Thank you for giving birth to me in the first place,
Thank you for delivering me from the dark,
You whose round arms I stroked with feeling
Made presence atmosphere and contact known.
And I wanted not that Englishness;
I wanted deliverance from you so soon,
And about desire, memory, and the survival of the human trace in anonymous art—the poem strikes me as a self-portrait in which the “I” is noticeably absent—I will leave Middleton with the last word after one last observation. In the third and fourth lines of the poem it is clear how much more masterful he has become since “Seven Hunters” in his interlocking of vowels and consonants. A sinuous dance of sound and meaning reverberates throughout—“Gouged, all of a glug, out of yellow muck, / Now he skips on a disk and beats his bongo.”
Figurine of a Chinese Drummer
An agitator, to the life, so he has survived
Some sixteen centuries, none the worse for wear:
Gouged, all of a glug, out of the yellow muck,
Now he skips on a disk and beats his bongo.
Still his grin invites us into his tongue-hovel;
What’s here but a thin chicken, a battered child,
Yet he spoke the language of the Emperors,
Probably a Mandarin fashioned him and the scripts
Of all his stories
Which gave us the windows, took the good air in.
That kind of rhetoric, his, the top dogs welcome:
Whiskered statistics, plus a plug of grievance,
Promise that power stoops: it did, but sprang back
Offended by the stench, that much bulkier.
So we slope hoes, the bongo makes us hotter,
We stone our butchers, he holes up for years
And sharply, round the corner, reappears
Stumping along, legs all of a dither,
To make his village hum like a shut hive
With the wrongs of his clay, the rhubarb of his bongo. (Collected Poems, p. 563)
- John Yau
Described as “one of the most scrupulous of British poets involved in following the innovations of modernism,” by Douglas Dunn, poet and translator Christopher Middleton holds a unique place in contemporary British and American verse. Born in Truro, England in 1926, Middleton served in the Royal Air Force before attending Merton College at Oxford University. He taught at the University of Zurich and King’s College in London, and at the University of Texas-Austin from 1966 to 1998. Highly regarded as a translator, Middleton translated the work of major German authors including Robert Walser, Gottfried Benn, Christa Wolf, and Paul Celan. In 1987 he was awarded the prestigious Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize.
Middleton’s own poetry is notable for its erudition, playfulness, and openness to experiment. “Although its roots are in surrealism … and German Expressionism,” Brian Swann commented in Library Journal, “Middleton’s poetry is unlike any other. He specializes in lively juxtapositions, incongruities of collage, the play of forms …Vistas recede in a number of poems into the prehistoric so we are aware of mysterious correlations.”Middleton’s first collection of poetry to be widely published was Torse 3 (1962), which shared the Geoffrey Faber Award. Describing the volume as an “apprentice book of experiments,” Oliver Dixon in The Wolf noted the range and variety of Middleton’s effects: from blank verse to off-rhymed couplets to sonnets, the book is full of “‘developable surfaces’ that lay the foundations for later work,” according to the reviewer. One of Middleton’s continuing concerns has been the shaping of each individual poem to suit its particular subject. “His concern to produce an individual structure of perception for every place, thought and experience he writes about,” noted Alan Brownjohn in the New Statesman, “results in a ceaseless and challenging originality.” Such originality has often put Middleton at odds with the British poetry mainstream, though his stubbornly experimental streak is sometimes seen as a corrective to it. In his collection of essays The Pursuit of the Kingfisher (1983), Middleton calls for an “exigent poetry, hard-bitten poetry, which goes to the limits of the conceivable and thus relocates the centre,” descrying the “suave poetry” which he sees as dominating the British literary scene. Critic George Steiner has argued that Middleton’s “linguistic range, the severe seriousness of his conception of the role of the poet and of the poet’s reader in these ‘terrible times’, his unembarrassed celebration of the visionary, ‘transcendent’ potentialities in art and the imagination, are correctives to the retrenched provincialism of the current English manner.”
In books such as The Lonely Suppers of W. V. Balloon (1975), 111 Poems (1983), andThe Balcony Tree (1992), Middleton continued to explore a startling array of topics, themes, and forms. Denis Donoghue called 111 Poems “metrically inventive and various, these poems are remarkably alive to ‘the unknown thing beside us’; they listen for ‘the due sound’, and, as if watching birds, register ‘the timed flight of words.’“ Though not solely concerned with its own status, Middleton’s poems frequently interrogate the limitations of poetry as such. Perhaps as a result, Middleton’s poetry was lauded and queried in almost equal measure. Oliver Dixon noted that, like W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn, “relocation to the States seems to have been … a liberating move” for Middleton. “The approach towards language is increasingly fluid and Joycean,” Dixon wrote. “There are no pre-set formal templates within which to fit neat portions of confessional or descriptive subject-matter; each text is an inclusive act of discovering, through animated dialogue with some point of focus (be it human, animal, household object, historical locale), its own organic form.”
Although he lived in Texas for over 30 years, Middleton was a vital part of the contemporary British poetry scene, and his influence as an innovative poet open to the traditions of other languages, cultures, and even genres is increasing. The British literary scene hailed the publication of his Collected Poems in 2008 as a major event.
In addition to his collections of essays and expository writing, Middleton published several books of prose, including Pataxanadu (1977), Serpentine (1983), and In the Mirror of the Eighth King (1999), and Loose Cannons: Selected Prose (2014).
Middleton died in late 2015. - www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/christopher-middleton
Edward Lear in February
Since last September I’ve been trying to describe
Two moonstone hills,
And an ochre mountain, by candlelight, behind,
But a lizard has been sick into the ink,
A cat keeps clawing at me, you should see my face,
I’m too intent to dodge.
Out of the corner of my eye,
An old man (he’s putting almonds into a bag)
Stoops in sunlight, closer than the hills.
But all the time these bats flick at me
And plop, like foetuses, all over the blotting paper.
Someone began playing a gong outside, once.
I liked that, it helped; but in a flash
Neighbours were pelting him with their slippers and things,
Bits of coke and old railway timetables.
I have come unstuck in this cellar. Help.
Pacing up and down in my own shadow
Has stopped me liking the weight it falls from.
That lizard looks like being sick again. The owls
Have built a stinking nest on the Eighteenth Century.
So much for two moonstone hills,
Ochre mountain, old man
Cramming all those almonds into a bag.- www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/12/01/christopher-middleton-1926-2015/
This week's poem, Sonnet of Irreconcilables, is from the 2006-2009 section of Christopher Middleton's Collected Later Poems, a magnificent winter harvest of recent work. It belongs to a gathering of poems headed For Want of an Axiom, whose epigraph quotes from Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia: "What an antique air had the almost effaced sundials, with their moral inscriptions, seeming coevals with that Time which they measured, and to take their revelations of its flight immediately from heaven, holding correspondence with the fountain of light!"
"Time is for music, on with it," proclaims the speaker in Vasily Kalinnikov Composes, a neighbouring poem in For Want of an Axiom. Music and time are recurrent themes. Another preoccupation is corruption – not as a natural, physical effacement, but as moral evil. That the breakdown may begin with language is implicated in the splintered structure of the sonnet, and the Orwellian insistence on responsibility towards "sensitive words" and, no less, to honest "statistics of bloodshed".
The poem's occasion is a radio broadcast. I admit I thought at once of Classic FM, but, of course, there's any number of stations and arts programmes that might be implicated in cultural dumbing down. The speaker at first seems playful. Sly musical puns lighten the tone: the announcer has as "audible smile", she "recites" and "notes", and her "time" is managed. The device suggests how the finesse of Mozart and his interpreter Alfred Brendel is crammed into a formulaic package. Even the "spurts of chatter" are subjected to minutely apportioned radio time.
Time so measured makes space neither for the expansions of art nor history. A sonnet, however, can open connections or expose fractures. Line four resembles an intrusive newsflash from elsewhere, as if the radio's dial had been twitched. The word lifted from the musical lexicon, "soloists", works in various ways. All artists may be termed soloists, and some are idealists. Individuals have always been prompted by their art to fight for a bigger cause. However, the reference may not be so literal. The soloists who are fighting "radicals" are perhaps defending injustice rather than justice: they may be the soloists of terror.
The octet ends with the rhetorical but profound question about responsibility ("What are we doing to ourselves … ?"). The ninth line answers it forcefully, if indirectly, with an image of the starkest "irreconcilables". The wheelbarrow that's "stacked with body-parts" perhaps originates in another poetic universe. Could it be the once joyously "red wheelbarrow" of William Carlos Williams?
The triplet and couplet that conclude the sonnet seem to argue that music, contrary to the announcer's declaration, is not wholly sensuous. It goes beyond the senses to become, "As Rilke felt, 'breath of statues' …" It excites the intellect. "Temporal brain" suggests the "temporal lobes" and the evanescence of perception and knowledge. While the "mobility" of music has a bright agility that "thrills" the brain, "brute force", by contrast, "crawls subtly into the speech of a culture". Yeats's "rough beast" seems implicit in the deliberate, illustrative cliche, "brute force". There are instances, of course, where speech is more obviously debased than in the popularising spiel of an arts programme. Attention to the earliest "subtle" stage of "cheapening" demonstrates how, in undramatic and even well-intentioned ways, mass brutalisation may begin.
Readers new to Middleton's work might enjoy John Yau's thoughtful introduction in The Brooklyn Rail. Yau quotes another fine poet and critic, Alan Brownjohn, who wrote of Middleton in the New Statesman: "His concern to produce an individual structure of perception for every place, thought and experience he writes about results in a ceaseless and challenging originality." These words succinctly convey the poet's special quality. From syntactical organisation and vocabulary to the span of his intellectual sympathies, his "voice" is unique. But where there's little uniformity, a single example can't possibly do its creator justice. One might well infer that the poem of the week series is no more culturally responsible than the packaged Alfred Brendel recital, but at least this announcer can add: "Read the books!" - Carol Rumens
Sonnet of Irreconcilables
With an audible smile the announcer confides to us
That Mozart is sensuous: 'In fifteen minutes
Alfred Brendel will show our listeners how.'
Soloists perish fighting radicals in the mountains.
Next she recites an anecdote and notes her liking of it.
Her time is managed, spurts of chatter come on cue.
What are we doing to ourselves, cheapening
The sensitive words, or statistics of bloodshed?
There goes the wheelbarrow stacked with body-parts.
While music is intangible, 'breath',
As Rilke felt, 'breath of statues', and while
Bodies respond to it without sight or taste,
While its mobility thrills my temporal brain,
Brute force crawls subtly into the speech of a culture.