Why I Am a Member of the Christopher Middleton Fan Clubby John Yau
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)