Monday, July 25, 2005

I need, I suspect, a big collected or selected poems by Christopher Middleton. Then, just maybe, I’ll be able to figure out what I think about him. Knowing his poetry as I do, principally through anthologies – and specifically the TriQuarterly 21: Contemporary British Poetry, guest edited by John Matthias back in 1971, and Keith Tuma’s more recent (2001) Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry – I can make no headway. He does not appear in these collections to be even the same poet. To which the very large Christopher Middleton issue of the Chicago Review, just out, now seems to offer yet another possibility.

What I know about the man is relatively limited. The TriQuarterly British issue lists him as having been born in 1923. The Tuma (& the New York Review of Books) has him being born in 1926, the same year as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, A.R. Ammons, Paul Blackburn, James Merrill & Frank O’Hara. A fascinating year for poetry, tho I note that the one thing that list has in common, save for Middleton, is not that he’s English & they’re not, but that the lot of them are dead.

I think of Middleton as a German translator, of which he’s done a great deal, and he taught in Texas, of all places, for a very long time. He still lives there. Imagine Basil Bunting, say, or Hugh MacDiarmid doing that. Middleton is also, and this is worth noting, perhaps the first poet in the broad avant tradition to have earned a PhD, albeit in German.

Here, from the TriQuarterly, is the first of “Five psalms of common man”:

Whisky whipping g-string Jaguar megaton
sometimes a ‘purely rational being’

it’s me they tell of yonder sea devoid of amber
it’s me they tell of column and haunting song

noncommittal me my mumble eaten
by the explosions of clocks and winds without routine

not fountains not millennia of light inextinguishable
ebbing through column and throat with its

come my pet my demagogue excruciate me watching
yonder fountain douse the yolky dunes

Halfway betwixt Eliot’s symbolism & a vaudeville surrealism, but with a particularly flat ear. Somehow this emanates from the man who wrote these first two stanzas of “Hearing Elgar Again,” one of two selections in the Tuma, both of which are dated 1980, nine years after the TriQuarterly:

Not crocked exactly, but in a doze,
There I was, before supper time: Elgar,
Stop your meteoric noise, the glory
Leaves me cold; then it was
I woke to the melody –

Back, a place, 1939, and people
Singing, little me among them,
Fresh from a holiday
Summer, beside the Cornish sea, I sang
In chorus with a hundred English people.

Not free verse exactly (hear the off-rhyme in melody & holiday, the reiteration of people), but close enough. Absolutely normative narrative figuration – my take on this piece is that it reminds me of what Auden might have been had he actually been a good writer.

Contrast this in turn with the first two sections of “Waiting for Harvest Moon,” one of just two poems that appear in the 137 pages that the Chicago Review devotes to Middleton & his work:

Shadows thrown by people on a wall,
A fragile charm, and they stand upright.

More often the flat shadows, horizontal
On a paying stone.
You tread on them.


No, the shadows are not thrown at all.
If it be said that some shadow defined

Significant bodies in a Venetian painting,
Then shadows can be considered transitive.

Which may be the least transitive way you could make that assertion. But note here that the line is not at all like either of the other two passages quoted above, nor are they at all alike. If ever there was a concept that defined the poets born in & around the 1920s, it was the equation of one’s sense of line with one’s “personality” or aesthetic “signature.” This was true of course in the most complex of cases – Charles Olson’s projective verse raises it to the level of a theory – but even Ammons & Merrill could be said to demonstrate the principle. Middleton, in contrast, seems more like Woody Allen’s Zelig, capable of taking on radically different personae, as tho the most stable (or rigid) aspect of the poetry of his generation were, for him, entirely plastic.

There is, in all these pieces, even (perhaps especially) the second with its figured presence of a speaking “I,” a certain distance here, a coolness not of the impersonal, but of craft – as if the reader can always hear the hushed engine of form to remind him/her that the presence of any persona will be a simulacrum at best. Auggie Kleinzahler, whose comment to W. Martin after a reading in Chicago that Middleton warranted broader recognition, concedes as much, calling one use of the first person singular, “a rare appearance by the actual Christopher Middleton.” Perhaps so.

The Middleton feature is the third of three Chicago Review large special issues devoted to major poets, the two previous being Ed Dorn & Louis Zukofsky. Plus they’ve had a similarly grand number devoted to filmmaker Stan Brakhage. If the Middleton works less effectively than the others, it is only because Middleton himself is not so widely known & the issue itself appears edited with the presumption that a great deal will be known & understood in advance by the reader. Given the initial premise from the discussion between Kleinzahler & Martin, this seems odd.

The principle weakness is simply that there is so little of the verse itself, just four pages from 137, and not up front either, but the fourth & fifth of Middleton’s own contributions, the first & best of which is a wonderful “Retrospective Sketch,” something of a five-page contributor’s note that verges toward full-scale intellectual autobiography. It’s a telling & fascinating piece, confessing admiration for “Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, but not the sprawl of his new and narcissistic work,” admitting to re-reading “Pound, rather than exasperating my wits with Olson.” Middleton likes Williams, Snyder, Creeley, but also “Donald Hall’s crisp work.” For a piece this brief, it is remarkably thorough as a positioning statement, suggesting a writer out of the Pound-Williams tradition, but one whose relation, say, to the New American Poetry was consciously arms-length. Middleton seems amused, rather than chagrined, at the thought that Anselm Hollo is more widely known than himself.

Marius Kociejowski adds to these five works a good 12 pages from a much longer interview with Middleton (which, along with Kociejowski’s own later portrait of the man, is reprinted directly from Palavers, and A Nocturnal Journal, Middleton’s most recent book in the U.K.), but it is Kleinzahler himself who takes on the responsibility of really introducing Middleton here, some 40 pages into the feature. It’s a well considered essay, both in its discussions of Middleton’s work directly & in comparing Middleton, for example, to an American author with whom I’ve also had trouble coming to terms: Guy Davenport.¹ Zulkifar Ghose, another poet one might not expect to find living in Austin, considers the context in which Middleton found himself in England (placing him closer to the mainstream, the likes of Larkin & Hughes & even Eliot, rather than, say, Bunting & Finlay or the whole new generation of young wild men like Raworth, Fisher & Pickard) & speculates on the impact coming to America has had on the work. Jeremy Hooker considers the poetry itself, tho his point of reference throughout tends to be Coleridge, a little like reading Williams as an extension of Keats. Timothy Harris simply wants to acknowledge the idea – surely correct – that a poet as at home in contemporary European avant writing as Middleton needs to be read within that framework, rather than the more parochial ones created by the British lit’rystablishment. The remaining 60 pages are, for the most part, the celebratory sorts of things one would expect of a festschrift, the most useful of which are a pair of memoirs assessing Middleton as a traveler to that intersection of the world where Europe becomes Asia. The feature is capped by a bibliography – I used it almost instantly as a guide to ordering books.

If I go back to my test of editing, that its first task must be that of offering context, the Middleton feature is a mixed bag. The issue, I think, proves Kleinzahler’s initial point completely – Middleton does warrant much broader exposure, not only for his own sake, but for all it tells us about where British & American poetry sit in the larger contexts of European postmodernism. At the same time, this is a feature that will be read very differently by initiates & by those who don’t really “get” Middleton, or who may be coming to him for the very first time. A little like the photo of Middleton by John Anderson at the top of this note, which ChiRev reproduces parts of on its cover 470 times, you might not actually understand what it is that you’re seeing.


¹ There is, one might say, a substantial number of writers who come out of the Pound-Williams tradition but who hold, or held, the New American Poetry if not in actual contempt, then at least in check as any sort of influence on their own writing, and I’ve hardly ever felt comfortable with any of these folks. The late Gustav Sobin, for example.