Tributes to Christopher Middleton (1926-2015)

 

Creating Experience Anew

 

Michael Glover 

The English poet, translator and essayist Christopher Middleton was born in Truro, Cornwall in 1926, and from there went on to prep school, public school and, following four years in the RAF (1944-8), Merton College, Oxford. His first memory, he once confided to an interviewer, was of sitting on a back doorstep in Ely, Cambridgeshire, trying to crack open a lead pencil - early evidence of the investigative impulse, you might say. As a boy of fourteen he was already reading 'widely and erratically.' Even before that tender age he had already committed to memory a considerable number of stanzas from Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. At public school in rural Herefordshire, he ranged around the centuries, devouring the Greek and Latin poets, Auden, Macneice and Co., and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. He made his first trip to the Mediterranean in 1948, thrilled to be escaping the greyness of English skies. A more complete rupture occurred a decade and a half later, when he decamped to Texas, 'a poor man's Mediterranean', as he once called it.

The greater part of the second half of his life, from the middle 1960s onwards, was spent in the USA, where he served as Professor of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas, Austin. Fortunately, he never had to risk lessening his passion for english literature by actually teaching it. Middleton, whose verse is generally spoken of as 'experimental', was a restless spirit amongst poets, which went hand in hand with a life-long compulsion to travel - he was a regular visitor to France, Germany and Turkey, for example. Few poets have been quite so fully steeped in the literature of other tongues. He belonged to no school or movement, and he is quite impossible to place or to pigeon-hole. Listening to him speak, you would have detected not a trace of an American accent – in fact, his sojourn amongst the tall skies and the wide open spaces of Texas seemed, if anything, to strengthen his English identity. And yet he could never be described as a typical Englishman abroad. You could scarcely imagine anyone less blimpish. He enjoyed, you felt, being the Other who was forever travelling in pursuit of 'the other land', whether it be a physical place or a domain of the imagination. Throughout his life he was classified by the American authorities as a 'resident alien' – which seems to sum up this ever restless polymath to a tee.

His poetry, which was rooted in a scholarship very lightly worn, drew its sources from whatever happened to be preoccupying him at the moment of its creation, be it Roman numismatics, a Cretan deity or the proud grace of a passing feline. He could be very fastidious about small things. He wrote well, and with a good-humoured, impassioned eloquence, about the animals and birds with which we are fortunate to share this planet. The word creation was one that he loved. Middleton hated the ego-boosting reportage that often passes for poetry in our time, and what he dismissively described as 'prosing'. Art was too serious for such casualness. He believed in the power of the Muse to seize hold of and direct the powers of the imagination. Poems, which issued from a kind of elsewhere, were acts of creation themselves, not drearily dutiful acts of recording. 'Language,' he once said, 'functions to create experience anew.' His poems were wholly unpredictable, often as playful as they were serious, powered and energised by the moment of their invention – you simply had no idea what subject he would alight on next. Intellectually omnivorous from first to last, he seemed to be engaged in a near perpetual dance from subject to subject. Poetry at its best was all about the invigoration, the re-charging of language. Poems arrived, unbidden, like a kind of miracle. His own poetry, which could be both formally quite strict when the need arose, and occasionally almost as loosely discursive as that of William Carlos Williams, felt both modern and unmodern. Sometimes it made predictable stanzaic shapes on the pages; at other times - and especially during the 1960s - it seemed to drift in the direction of concrete poetry. The shape of a poem on a page always mattered a great deal to him.

The first book of poems whose existence he chose to acknowledge (earlier collections, published during the 1940s, were dismissed by him as disastrous and derivative) was Torse 3 (1962), which already possesses the qualities for which he would come to be admired: that ability to transfigure experience in a language which feels both urgent and vivid. He wrote steadily until the very end of his life, and some of his critics consider his very last books – which included Poems 2006-2009 – to be amongst his best.

In addition to his own poetry, he translated a good deal from other tongues - French, Swedish, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish - but most often from German, including works by Gottfried Benn, von Hofmannsthal, Goethe, Holderlin and others, and works by the supremely odd Swiss prose writer Robert Walser, whose cause he championed for more than half a century. A selected edition of the letters of Friedrich Nietzsche appeared in 1969. In 1962 he and Michael Hamburger edited Modern German Poetry, an important, bil-lingual anthology of German poetry from 1910-1960. That book's long and erudite introduction, with its impassioned account of the development of the poetry of German Expressionism, reads like a kind of manifesto, a plea to poets of his own day to look farther than the shores of England. Middleton's poetry feels far removed from the cautious provincialism of so much British poetry of the post-war period. He always has one ear cocked to the work of European Modernism. He takes risks. He perpetually re-invents himself.

Towards the end of his life he spent time in a care home in Texas, in the company of his precious library of several thousand books, all categorised exactly as they had been in his apartment, so that he would always be able to reach for – or ask others to do so on his behalf - the exact one he needed.

Marius Kociejowski 

A close friend, Christopher Middleton has over the years opened up my artistic and intellectual vistas to such a degree that it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to speak of him in a dispassionate manner. I shall try my luck on a tangent.

A great Sufi master once addressed his students by saying that if any of them looked upon him as a teacher then he will have failed in his task, the thrust of his argument being that one must be able to teach, and the other to receive, almost unknowingly. If I may translate this into rather more secular terms the quality that is responsible more than any other for propagating one's love of literature is enthusiasm. It is a gift few have, and indeed many of our learned institutions actively discourage it; Christopher has it in abundance.

The writers whose works he has introduced me to are countless, some of them have come to me on a whisper, and when I dwell on that particular gift of his, to impart knowledge, three words spring to mind: effervescence, without which all discussion is futile, reportage, which is the best one might achieve in the absence of any true working of the imagination, and, most vitally, actualisation, which is to actualise in one's art, which is what makes the thing described be. Onomatopoeia is only one aspect of this.

Those words appear with some regularity in Christopher's prose, conversation and correspondence. When applied to his own work ― the poetry, the imaginative short prose, and the essays which are in the truest sense excursions or adventures ― what one finds in them is effervescence and the ability to actualise, one dependent on the other, and nothing at all of the dead hand of reportage. The work sparkles.

This would not be possible, though, without an abiding sense of youthfulness and artistic restlessness, which in his eighties show no sign ― not yet, not ever ― of abating. It is for the above, plus a couple of ingredients that must remain secret for fear people will steal the recipe, that I salute him from this my deeply privileged place.

 

A Letter to Christopher Middleton from Michael Kruger, Editor, Hanser Verlag

 

Lieber Christopher

Dichter dürfen nicht krank sein - das Schreiben ist Strafe genug. Außerdem dürfen Dichter, die gerne essen, sowieso nicht krank sein, weil ihnen sonst das Essen nicht schmeckt. Also, lieber Christopher, stehe auf und wandle, schreibe und esse. Wir sind auf Deine Anwesenheit angewiesen.

Dein

Michael


Dear Christopher

Poets shouldn't be ill - writing is punishment enough. Moreover poets who like to eat should not under any circumstances be ill because food will lose its flavour. So, my dear C., get up and move about, write and eat. We rely on your presence.

Your

Michael

[translated from the German by John Hartley Williams]

Jennie Feldman

Upright, a tempered bearing, thoughtful I'd jotted down after meeting Christopher Middleton two years ago at the home of mutual friends. His appearing in the doorway - sudden incarnation of that inimitable written voice - was a touch miraculous. Only later did it strike me: that moment had enacted something irresistible in his poems, namely the way the physical/visual and imaginary/mysterious become inseparable. The way a poem can muse itself into being from a casual opening: ''Almost anywhere there's a poem lying around / Waiting for someone to lift it up, dust it off'', to the quietly stunning conclusion:


… and the poem would pivot

On breathlessness, a moment of suspense.

How, it would say, as the procession of dinghies

Headed away from the coast and out to sea,


Either their voices had passed out of earshot,

Or else the children were learning fear.


The silence now as they skim over the water.

The blue of a ravening deep underneath them.

(''Elegy of the Flowing Touch'')


Sadly, I can hardly ever quote at will, but those last two alexandrines stay with me and surface as needed (once on a ferry, staring down into the Aegean). At that genial supper I recalled them to their author by way of thanks and tribute. Also on behalf of my students who, like me, have delighted in failing to pin down the alchemy at work. Though elsewhere there are clues to be gleaned: ''A mental image ... tends to compose itself in leaps, rather than continuously, as new elements flow into it, fresh contradictions oppose it. It is capricious, whether vague or sharp. It blends into thinking, but it is not thought'' (Jackdaw Jiving).

Over dessert someone asks him: where do you feel at home? A brief pause. ''I'm itinerant'', comes the mild, wry response. A recurrent dream, he says, has him taking off for a trip to some unknown destination. He looks bemused.

Poems, translations, essays - Christopher Middleton's are among the most visited books on my shelves; always dependable for re-exciting the possibilities of language, at least one comes with me on sorties to likely writing places. On translating, he says there can be ''a belief which exhilarates the translator, bears him up, so that he feels he might be reweaving the original spell''. Double enchantment, then, as Christopher - urged by us to read something from his Collected Poems - begins his version of Robert Desnos' sonnet:


On this brink of an abyss where you will disappear

Consider, still, the rose; listen to the song

You sang, time was, at the door of your house;

Consent to be, a while again, just who you are.

Rodney Pybus 

Tristia: the Sicilian Defence

to Christopher Middleton


           'a lifetime on fingertips / grinding a rainbow from the ignorant dew'


I have learned from a time-consuming teacher how not to hope.

           I wasn't expecting anything. Or anyone. Ego now like Mr Nemo.

I wanted to slip back in under the radar, like a heteronym, so now

           half-blinded by the gloom inside the airport's unrefurbished exit,

its depth of clart and tackiness more suited to the hairy-chested Cossacks

           I've been living near or those 'ultimate Britons' beyond the pale,

as well as by the sun's bouncing April bedazzle outside the doorway,

          I failed to spot at first the semi-circle of meeters and greeters,

pros more than amateurs, with their slow telling-nothing

           swivel of the eyeballs and the names in primary crayon,


until I saw him staring right at me, moving the name-card but only just

            where the word NASO stood out in a big blue as clear as cobalt. 

I nodded and we went to his car, he in his plum-tomato trousers

             and I in my grubby threads stained with the gods only know

what Pontine marsh-muck, carrying my refugee's ludicrous

             suitcase of brackish memories, reduced to gravel and slime,

I couldn't bear to leave in Constanta. But no pity. Another country,

             Moesia Inferior. He put on a pair of shades of spectacular

impenetrability, yet he seemed to know his route and didn't cling on

             to the wheel like a blind man feeling his way. So I sank down


into the plush forgotten routines of back-seat leather sighs…

             Some time later, becoming certain that he was utterly lost,

I said, 'Why are we going west? Palermo's way behind us!'

             'I expect, sir, you can guess the answer to that.'

He said 'sir' like the first syllable of 'surly'. I tried again.

             'Have you any idea when I'll be leaving for Rome?'

'Rome?' he said - his voice took off like eyebrows in surprise

             with a laugh that scarcely left his bronchi -

'Rome! Ha ha ha - that's very good! So glad you haven't lost your wit!

             Look, they'll put you up near Marsala - so drink


some very public toasts to the Boss, and if you want to write anything,

             that's fine… although for a nosey scribe who got into trouble

because he couldn't keep his pen in his pocket - Rome to Romania! -

             I'd be very careful. Be smart! You've been living by the sea -

now you'll be back by the seaside, only this time on Sicilia,

             so you'll have extra 'insulation'. Hilarious, yes?

You interested in football? No? Pity. You need to find out how

             'relegation' works nowadays. Not the same as 'exile'.

I could feel, just beginning, the first tricklings down my cheeks

             of the tears of exhaustion and fear and rage I hadn't felt for -


oh shit, for centuries… After a silence, from somewhere he passed over

             his shoulder to me a sprig of rosemary with tiny flowers

so pale I couldn't tell whether they were lilac or blue.

             'For your button-hole. Wear it till the needles drop.

The scent will remind you of all the tears in things

             that are worse than yours today. Then we shall see.

Near the place you're going to is a small town high

             on a mountain, where you can look out over the sea-miles

nearly to Africa. They used to say that Daedalus, the crafty

             survivor, landed there long after he'd seen Icarus falling


(his big-headed brat who thought he could tease the Sun), seen him

             like a wilting gannet plunge incoherently out of sight.

Think about it, old man. You never really thought this come-back

             would be just a breeze, did you, Publius Ovidius?

You and your big beak, eh?!' He laughed so much he nearly

             missed the turning - I could see ahead many marble temples

in the old Greek style I used to know. And it made me reflect on how

             lines that looked perfected and straight, even in poems or life,

especially poems, were bent or slanted to deceive, and just as well…

             So, my friends, 'Cordiali saluti!' as they say now. My turn again.


[Publius Ovidius Naso was 'relegated' from Rome, as opposed to 'exiled', to Tomis (now Constanta in Romania), on the shores of the Black Sea in 8AD, a desolate, barbaric region at the edge of the Roman empire. This punishment came from Augustus, battling against the capital's moral corruption, which had embroiled female members of his own family. Though the precise details were never revealed, Ovid had offended the emperor, probably by a combination of his erotic poetry and some unspecified misdeed. He was never pardoned, despite sending back to Rome apologetic long poems known as Tristia, as well as his 'Black Sea Letters'.

He seems to have died at Tomis nearly ten years later, almost 60. An earlier member of his family had attracted the nickname 'Naso' ('Big Nose') and it stuck. And apparently still does.]

Alison Brackenbury

In Anatolia

For most people, poems are unseen (and unheard). But for those of us interested in poems, they are everywhere. Some of these poems move us. Some impress us by the strength of their technique. A surprising number are funny (usually intentionally). But the flood of words soon evaporates, leaving only a few drops.

One which has not fled my memory is a poem by Christopher Middleton, which I first saw a quarter of a century ago. Then, it was in a tangerine book called Two Horse Wagon Going By. (The title catches the tang of Middleton.) But I chose to look for it in his Collected. This was merely an excuse to rattle through hundreds of pages of Middleton's poems, slinging booty into the wagon along the way.

'Even Rilke's girls may be lying all tousled and/ tubby in bed, longing for lunch'. (Page 10.)

 

[…] 'through the cities & sewage meekly

aromas of bluebell bubbled, coffee and cod.' (Page 111)

 

'The student has woolly hair/ and a clear mind.' (Page 215).


I have columns of these, but I must not fog your mind. For, on page 269, I reached 'In Anatolia'.

Yes, I had forgotten the title of this poem, which Carcanet published in 1986, when Middleton was (only) sixty. But I had not forgotten its landscape, in the far east of Europe, where new and old cultures overlay each other. Middleton was born in Britain, but moved to Texas in 1966. His poetry is the wagon of a restless traveller. Europe's desolate edge is a faultline into his imagination.

What does Middleton find 'In Anatolia'? There is a woman. I am not sure if she is a waitress or a goddess. She may be both, hair 'Coiffed to fall, soft, across your face, / As if your face should not be shown here'-

There is a bird, never named. Middleton's precision is not that of the Collins Guide: 'it was big, as birds go. Blue wings/ A throat, I think, rain-rose […]'

I shall derail the wagon if I say too much about 'rain-rose'. For reading Middleton's poetry is like staring into light. You seem to see everything, then nothing. Each reader (I would guess) sees something different. I saw a rosy blur of rain in air, then one pinpoint of water, splintering colours. Then nothing. But somewhere along the way, I glimpsed the bird from the wagon. Middleton listened to it: 'flute the one song it knew. […] io dio, it sang. Io dio'. Though God haunts his vowels, I am willing to trust this is the song that Middleton heard.

The young woman returns, beside feasting boys, and 'their bill'. But the poem, like the bird, takes off, into her landscape's past: 'Through the fresh/ Stone robes a god flew'. Time is urgently alive. So is the end of 'In Anatolia'.


Did the no-good bird

Eat the gods up? Let your wing fall

To hide your face. We do not know

What now to fear most.


Middleton's words seem (like the best American poetry) to have no protective skin between them and their subject. These are monosyllables, feathers, fragments of stone. The last line shortens. It could not be clearer. You do not often feel awe, in modern poetry. You can find it, with Christopher Middleton, 'In Anatolia'.

James Sutherland-Smith

Christopher Middleton is that rare individual in contemporary English language poetry, a poet, critic and translator in all three of which callings he displays an unequalled and integrated brilliance. Over the latter of half of the last century and the opening years of the present century English-language poets with some notable exceptions have largely abandoned the need to acquaint themselves with other languages and emerged mostly from various university Schools of English equipped to pursue careers in occupations adjacent to poetry where translation has become hived off into a specialist occupation which quite often disqualifies a practitioner from being regarded as a poet. Those poets, whose names appear as the authors of translations into English, are often no more than people who have made a base translation publishable in a mainstream poetic idiom. They have not engaged with or heard the original text. Moreover, their studies have usually been studies in literature rather than the whole of philology, which includes linguistics, phonology and pragmatics. Middleton has engaged with primary texts as a poet and professional philologist. His essay on Hölderlin's poem, Andenken, illuminates the essential role that syntax has in a poem. It is revelatory to read Middleton on syntax, "In studying a poem's syntax, one is studying an aspect of poeisis which is likely to be less 'conscious' than some other aspects. Hölderlin did not predetermine the syntax of 'Anderken'; it was no accident, but it 'happened.' 

Implicit in this claim is what emerges in Palavers, Christopher Middleton's conversations with Marius Kociejowski, where he stresses the notion of a poem as a creation: "a work of art is a creation and it is not just a document - it's not just a record of an experience - it's a creation." In the essay on Hölderlin he cites Mallarmé on syntax as "being that part of discourse which is not spoken" so that poems are propelled into expression by the language not the will of the poet. A poet is a midwife or a diamond cutter. In Palavers Middleton talks about the radiance of a word and the swerve necessary to animate a poem. Radiance I take to be the energy felt in a poem which has emerged directly from its source language. It approaches Geoffrey Hill's use of the word pitch to describe a poet's attunement to the language, which he took from Hopkins, who took it from Shakespeare (Sonnet VII "But when from highmost pitch, with weary car). Swerve is the introduction of an unanticipated element in a poem rather like Beethoven's key changes, which sound arbitrary until the music which follows makes them inevitable. It encompasses both Metaphysical poets' and folk poetry's (as exemplified in Jerome Rothenberg's anthology, Technicians of the Sacred) yoking together of seemingly radically dissimilar elements.

He sets his face against a poem being a vehicle for opinion, arguing in one of his great critical essays, On Poetry and Opinion, that "poetry is a contestatory dialogue with language" and that "opinion is raw material, stuff waiting to be transformed, or asking to be treated ironically." A poet's demon tests opinion for the "vital shapes of imagination" that might be located there. The demon is to be treated circumspectly, not as a Victorian trope for syphilis or a contemporary teenager liable to become a vampire in a fit of petulance, but in the way we might come to terms with an animal through peripheral rather than direct eye contact, which with even the most harmless looking dog who does not know you can land you in trouble. Middleton's criticism continually pays heed to and recalls very ancient language usage and thus very ancient ways of living.

In this respect there is a remarkable paragraph in On Poetry and Opinion where he wonders about the signs incised on the inside walls of ancient stone circles. "They were probably tonal signs, cues for the height or depth of song that concentrated energy and brought home, back into the heart, the being you had discharged into nature, beyond any thought." This seems a mode of understanding one can bring to reading Middleton's poetry. And of course after reading his poetry one can return to his translations and criticism and then once more to his poetry, not a vicious circle but a radiant helix of work into and out of language.

 

From Stillness

for Christopher Middleton


i

The liquid geometry of the clouds,

wave forms, helices of thermals,

grey and white shapes under blue absence of form

suggest cause, suggest effect

though it's foolish to try and join one to one

as if even weather were an argument

while the clouds twist, fragment and vanish

and madness to believe that vision

proceeds from me in a straight line

crossing the universe all the way back.


ii

A pair of chiff-chaffs,

blown back and forth by the wind,

perched on the top twigs

of my older apricot,

ride out random gusts

flying free when they desire.

Each wing beat lifts them

slightly so they rise and glide

a shallow wave form

as though mimicking sea-swell.


iii

The five-petalled star of dog rose

sheds itself quickly

to manufacture an itch of sweetness,

a pentagon of scent

containing the hexagons of sugars;

pentagram, hexagram,

a grimoire or the I Ching,

the will to power, the will to stillness.

What has this to do with my wife's sixth sense,

my daughter's sixth toe removed soon after birth?


iv

A field of blue vetch and white poppies

with a single apple tree

under which my daughter rests

legs crossed in the lotus position

while her daughter runs round and round

the tree whose trunk spirals clockwise

after years of obedience to the sun

whose heat has dispersed the clouds.

All the trees in the nearby forest

grow straight, competing for the light.


 

*  

 

John Welch

Antic Torso

for Christopher Middleton


Borrowed

Axe

Was swung


Spatter of blood in the air


Close to it the words moved off

So quickly.

Such lightness belongs in language?


Since all the rest

Is only what I remember -


Remained an idea of sea

Each bird an idea of sky,


And a refusal it

Finds in you, somewhere


But to come to it fresh again

The voice as if it came

In search of me

To send me back to it


As near as words can get

To take shelter


Or, as of someone or something bounding along

For there to be no more of it,

And the way their movement empties the dance


'Antic Torso' is my 'sighting of' Christopher Middleton's poem sequence 'Anasphere: le torse antique' which came out in 1978 in a very handsome and generously produced edition published by Burning Deck, designed and printed by Rosemarie Waldrop.

And 'Torse 3'? I remember getting it out of Hendon Public Library - it must have been in 1962, the year of the book's publication. These were messages from elsewhere. Only partly understood, the poems in Middleton's collection intrigued me, with their sweep and sense of spaciousness. It was in effect his first collection; the earliest poems in his Collected Poems  are from there.

So he was already in his mid-thirties when his first proper collection appeared. One doesn't necessarily turn to the blurb, but reading it now it is it is actually rather well put: 'Mr Middleton has a style and imagination which set him apart from almost all his contemporaries. The close grain of his work, with its enactive sensory effects and stratifications of meaning, distinguishes it sharply from poetry that is reducible, without loss, to a prose sense.'

There's that spaciousness in his work which transcends the Movement and for that matter subsequent Martian whimsy, carefully workshopped anecdotage or whatever. At the same time it strikes me as writing not noticeably part of what preceded it - New Romantics, Apocalypse. This sense of 'standing clear' is something I also get from his near-contemporary W.S.Graham, a very different poet, and a man who by all accounts had an unconquerable aversion to foreign travel.

There is the sense, as you are moving along, making your way, casting about for how to do it, that what you are looking for - well, it must come from somewhere else, if only as a sort of pretext. In London in the Sixties I went to a group called Guerrilla poets which met at the Arts Lab - there it was Ginsberg. Then it was Olson, Dorn, Black Mountain. But the 'somewhere else', in Middleton's case, is a strong sense of European modernism. To return to the blurb: 'Mr Middleton's discipline combines elements from both English and Continental sides of the modern movement in poetry'. This is relatively unusual? It contributes to the sense of someone apart, a free spirit.

 

August Kleinzahler, San Francisco

Opening, just now, on a foggy summer morning near dawn -- such as dawn reveals itself in San Francisco midsummer -- and at random, The Pursuit of the Kingfisher, I come across this passage from his essay "Some Old Hats":

How might Baudelaire have looked at the kidney bean? So intimately and scrupulously that it became, in the glow of his bodily imagining, and without much detriment to it local character, a nodule among millions of other nodules in the great mobile web of relationships between sensation and forms that constituted his moral universe and his "symbolic mind" (as Valery calls it in his "Leonardo" essay.

Christopher Middleton is, and remain, a shocking man. One hardly knows where to begin . . . .

 

Rosanna Warren

Knowing

"Sumac knows nothing/ of the unhappiness of the past," writes Christopher Middleton in "Sumac," in Just Look at the Dancers (2012). But the poem knows something of that unhappiness: "Prisoners put to the sword./ Unwelcomed populations disappeared." It is the work of poems, for Middleton, to make our knowledge uncomfortable, so that we might know it again, and freshly.

Middleton looks at other knowing. He hears the wren speak:

 

"Soil below the leafmould, do not deprave your servant

with scraps of knowledge, dusk, do not devour me,

but let me scuffle up the life

with its fine folds in the squirming grubs…"

("The Wren's Oration," in Just Look)

 

Or he imagines the cat's knowing: "…Smells are shape, the sharp// outline of mouse, the cry of yucca white/ she evidently smells when tasting my feet." ("Cybele," The Balcony Tree, 1992). Each of Middleton's poems experiments with different angles of perception, and enlarges the notion of knowing.


Seeing


But how do his poems act out their knowing? Often by finding words for seeing. Sunshine streaming through slats spreads bamboo bars of shadow across his writing pad in "Nursing a Wound on Blue Heron Island" (Just Look). He plays with seeing as a praying mantis might see, and then switches perspective: "You are taken up into the afterglow,/ you are right there seeing/ reversed what the mantis/ could never possibly see." ("On a Poem by Kurahara Shinjiro," Just Look). He wants us to look at the pattern on a monarch butterfly's wing: "'These orange patches at the fore-wing tip,/ the hind-wing much more rounded." He admonishes: "Neighbor, you might have noticed nothing." And since that not-knowing has costs, he explains: "Neighbor, by this we are diminished also." ("A Difference of Degree," Just Look).


Neighbors


Why write poems? Because we are neighbors. We participate. Middleton, always in the middle of things, is neighbor to sparrows, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, moths, cats, and a huge assortment of humans, including us, his readers. The poems make a neighborhood. We could be at home there, provisionally.


Art


The poet hungers for vision, so he goes to painters for instruction. To Manet, for example: "Next he paints emptiness between violets and a fan." ("Monostichs 2," Just Look). But people have been painting for millennia, and Middleton wants to see how we began and what sacred purpose was at work; he carries us back to the cave paintings: "Much blood spills in the kill and sharing out./ None smears our cave walls, as yet." But it will. It still does. We are still painting our cave walls, to find out who we are and what life is and how to honor it. ("From the Grotto," Just Look). The painter and the poet make images from their seeing, and the images make seeing into a new knowing: "An image differs. True to itself an image depictures what was there." ("Monostichs 15," Just Look).


Words


The poet doesn't paint; the poet puts words in a pattern. Middleton's words are almost things, precise and weighty, a turbulence of odd nouns oddly assorted; whorls of verbs; words wrenched out of common use ("depictured" instead of "depicted"); and then those abstractions, because homo sapiens is drawn to pattern for its own sake, drawn to ideas, and the ideas give little electric shocks to the concrete nouns: "Coherences of poetry and painting are victories but still we soldier on." ("Monostichs- Spurious," Just Look). Middleton soldiers on; his poems never rest in a comfortable coherence; they will not let us.


Limits


These writings are poems. They are built with lines. "Without limit, what can endeavour mean," Middleton asks in the voice of John Clare ("John Clare to the Muse," Just Look). We will all end, and whatever brilliance we can claim flashes from our knowing that we will die. Each line in a poem will end before the right hand margin, and it must exercise its powers fully in that confining space. The confinement creates the pressure we recognize as poetic power: maximum effect with minimal means. It is the work of knowing and it is never finished. "Send me one day, yes or no, a sign," asks Clare.


Ethics


If the poems make us neighbors, even temporarily, we might learn, reading them, to be neighborly, to notice cats and butterflies and one another. The poems also notice those who are not neighborly, the destroyers, and judges them. They shall be reckoned. "The captains go after matter to get rich on,/ no 'diminution of the traces of original sin.'" ("Editorial for the Snail," Just Look). "The jackals are always there, you can sleep sound." ("Monostichs 11," Just Look). They will get rich, they will rend flesh, but they will not be granted the vision.


Silence


Poems make complex sounds in ceremonial pattern, distinct from the din of acquisition. We discern the patterns from the pauses. And maybe it is the poems' greatest gift to render silence audible and fertile, a vita contemplativa at our fingertips: "Where the wolf choirs flocked what may silence mean." ("The Poem of 2 A.M.," Just Look). In turn, the contemplative silence makes space for freedom, the inner freedom each must invent for himself. Middleton's poems show how this might be, and why it would matter. They do not presume, but in their obliquities, their wit, their hard looking, and their humming, they open possibility, and gather seeing, knowing, communing, and freedom into a single rite:

 

"Goblins riot round the hob but on the porch

there is a free man who talks with the fireflies."

("A Keeper of the Reliquary," in A Keeper of the Reliquary, 2012).

*

 

Norm Sibum, Montreal

I have long admired Christopher Middleton's poems and prose writings, but it is the book of interviews he did with Marius Kociejowski (Palavers & A Nocturnal Journal - Shearsman Books, 2004) that has had the most impact on my own thinking. The man's lack of pretension when it comes to what I will call, for the sake of convenience, the transcendent, is always heartening when I revisit the book. To be sure, the 'transcendent' is a notion I assume Mr Middleton would find imprecise and perhaps beside the point, and it certainly invites all sorts of mushy problematics into any discussion of living not altogether subsumed by market forces, but I have listened to a great many poets and thinkers go on about the various sublimities with such precious language that it makes one want to go out and get drunk and wonder why God is always represented by such effete idiots.

I doubt that Mr Middleton has much use for Juvenal whose poetic output was pretty much taken up entirely with the daily orders, but it is with Juvenal's arch spleen that [I align] Mr Middleton when he goes on about the 'ego-mumblers' who cannot seem to extricate their heads from their arses when they set about to telling us what gives, as if mere reportage is going to provide us the whole of our lives; as if a laundry list neo-classically tarted up to sound like a formal triumph will accord you your life's meaning. Then again, perhaps such a list does accomplish just that.

Christopher Middleton is one of the very few people I trust when he exhorts us to purify language from our 'drivel'. He says it and one knows what he means by it, and one does not mistake him for Stalin. A young poet of my acquaintance, who at the moment is undergoing the agonies of his first true encounter with a relationship's break-up, suggested to me that literature is over-rated; that it is, at best, a consolation. Yes, pretty much so, I responded. Its reason to be hangs by some pretty thin rationales. All the more reason that one gets so exercised with those who are so careless with the thing; who CV it all to death; who have not even the slightest idea of what it costs in spirit to maintain this valentine that is not much more than a mash note we write ourselves when we would have a look at God, Caesar, nature, love and all the other shadows on the walls.

Rosmarie Waldrop

The Body in the Word 

for Christopher Middleton  

 

It is not simple. It is opposite. Like revelation or dream. It does not lurk behind its signs. Full of fields, even when alone. Even if you rest all afternoon in a kingdom of caresses it engenders choreographies. And the voice goes deep.  

 

Archipelagos, you write, where begin, armadillos, gloves, a cart with apples, song and pollen, rock wing, labyrinthine nests, a different game. 

 

It is essentially. It could not be other. In the beginning absolutely. Not how the world is, it could not say. But that it exists, the word. Supreme visibility in deepest darkness. As children we kept our secret and grew old. With nudity exhausted.  

 

As for birds, you write, beside me, abyssal glossolalia, soup, brass handles, too early in the day, formation of geese, grammar, not confession, landscape of possibles. 

 

Nothing could be without it. It was made by us. But the nervous system speaks no known language. Roots burst out of the ground and we stumble, jolting the marriage of skeleton and flesh.  

 

Mumblers all, you write, spit and babble, one way sun, inch into the open, mirrors on string, scent bottles, black walls, black kitchen table, in Bamberg, touch everything. 

 

It says nothing. It shows itself. St. Augustine was interested. Words, that is to say, no foundation. Variables crowd the lines of perception, brushing off flies, the time stolen. The body expands. Orgasm not certain. 

 

Pieces that do not fit the puzzle, you quote, sizes, shapes, launch into space, if a round mat, sigh with pleasure, le nu provençal, life takes a long look, a birth and its clarity.

Roy Fisher

I owe CM a debt of understanding. At a time when the Sunday broadsheets still carried reviews of new poetry there appeared a review of his book Torse #3. The piece was by its own standards civilised: but it was patronising, ignorant, insular and weary. I had at that time virtually no contacts and no prospect of getting a book published; but I was working tentatively in a distant corner of the same territory, and the review showed me in an instant how the cards were stacked. It freed me from setting any store by opinions that might come from such a quarter.

*

In Time a Wise Anarchy?


An afterword by John Hartley Williams, with a choice of four poems by Christopher Middleton

 

When Michael Glover told me he was going to put some tributes to Christopher Middleton into The Bow Wow Shop, I suggested making a small selection of poems as well. Michael agreed, and said I should be the one to choose four poems and say something about them. Now four poems isn't enough, as they say, to show 'the range of the poet's work', but they ought to be a taster that would whet the appetite for more. Should they be 'accessible' poems - the sort you can read without blinking? That would be difficult in Middleton's case; most of his poems make you blink. In England he has been characterised as 'avant-garde', a term so wildly applied as to be completely meaningless. 'Avant-garde' would normally be translated into the demotic, I think, as 'unintelligible foreign muck'. To take the word 'foreign' to start with: Middleton, despite having lived most of his mature years in the USA, is a very English poet. And what's wrong with 'foreign'? Good poems should be foreign to the soles of their boots. As for 'unintelligible': on the back of my Paladin edition of Middleton's selected writings, Douglas Dunn is quoted as saying: 'A poet of considerable importance - an avant-garde poet we can actually read.'

Yes we can. You will recall Wallace Stevens' oft-quoted observation that poems should 'resist the intelligence almost successfully'. It's true that sometimes Middleton's work is deeply encrypted, but what is fascinating about it is that you do want to persevere with the poems, you do want to read them, you do go back to them. Take a poem like A Huapango for Junius Avitus. I've often re-read this poem and wondered about it. It fascinates me. I couldn't for the life of me give you a prose paraphrase, but then prose paraphrases of good poems can't exist. What did Eliot say? A poem 'can communicate before it is understood'. Indeed, understanding in the literal man's gloss on the word may never take place, but if communication is there in all its sensuous and sparkling unfolding, what more do you need?

Sometimes there is a hint of Wallace Stevens about the work of Christopher Middleton, though he is very much his own man. I recall as I write that Stevens' wife considered her husband's poetry 'affected' and perhaps Middleton is not always free of that fault, but then you have to ask: 'Was Edward Lear affected?'.

I think Lear may have had more influence on Wallace Stevens than any of his revered French models ('Heavy with thunder's ratapallax' anybody?) and on Middleton too:


Now all the sounds will keep you

wide awake: the nosing, quibblous, of the fong,

click of bullwits, the oom's horn.


The natural world is all there in Middleton's poems, translated but there. He has a fascination with birds, cats, dogs, and that gives me an occasion to start this mini anthology with:


How to Listen to Birds


Put no trust in loud sounds

Learn from the crystal

Ladderings of music


To listen: bodily. Slip

Through the rifts which model

Their notes. A moment, one, day

Or night, may be a more favoured

Time


For penetration: one tiny spool

Of the unseen

Unrolls from a chirrup. Feel


Feel again its formal flute alarm,

The wave creation -

A dancing woman's hair, it floats

Across your face -


A note or two, at last,

Concentrates the practised world

Into some new thing;


Wake, otherwise, attentive

To such a call, you might

Inhale the first perfume on earth,


Touch the ghost,

Voluminous, of a howl tight coiled

In the plain tune,


Or find no way of your own

To speak

Belief, at a variance so fine

It modifies the whole


Machine of being: this

Is not unpolitical


There is so much in this poem to admire. The short phrasings echo the brief, staccato calls of birds themselves, those 'crystal / Ladderings of music', and the line breaks are so delicately modulated you could imagine yourself in a garden listening to that pleasing avian orchestra: 'To listen: bodily. Slip / Through the rifts'. Rifts of course suggests riffs as well. There are breaks and there are repetitions. And you do listen to bird calls with the whole body. The poem makes you want to quit the city right away and go somewhere quiet to settle down and encounter that 'formal flute alarm'. You might 'inhale the first perfume on earth'. I know, I know. This is nothing new. No one is immune to the magic of bird song. But the poet's job is to remind us of what we already know in such a way that it comes back to us with fresh force and reawakens our appetite for living. Poems also have a teaching function, creating in the reader's mind the formal shapes necessary for reception (in this case) of a too-often overlooked event in the natural world. Doesn't a poem like this do that?


this

Is not unpolitical.


The two poems which follow illustrate both Middleton's Englishness, sense of humour, and are also, perhaps, not unpolitical.


Victoriana


In the gardens of Windsor castle

walks a philosophic owl;

wingtips clasped over his coccyx,

stooped, he stalks, pondering much.


Meanwhile the moon puts pale fire

in the turrets of Windsor castle:

shut windows halt its gleam,

the queen is pulling her boots on.


The moon is evident also

on the buttocks of stallions grazing,

in the lake without any holes,

in the blood that drips from the owl.


For certainly blood drips down

the philosophic owl:

he leaves a pool on the turf,

wherever he stops to think.


Now the queen comes riding, sag-jawed,

down the long moonlit avenue;

her dead prince gallops beside her

on a very noble ostrich.



Richard Lion Heart


His country, what a place to have lived in:

Farm girls bringing milk for free, taste of berries,

Sunshine all summer long, the salmon leaping,

Snow crisp in winter, smoke from cottage fires.


I'll ride beside my king on horseback,

Rock hard river valleys hear him sing:

His new song in langue d'Oc for the redbreasts

Goes to the tune of silver horsetails flicking.


In time a wise anarchy will be possible.

Bursts of laughter have washed away oppression,

If anyone wants to govern, gracious people do.

He'll cure my wart and I will clean his crown.


No whining nasal voices, no la-di-da,

No craving for empire, no rotting industries;

Village ponds and words and coastlines are unscummed,

No scummy timid souls could haunt that England.


In Byzantium we'll booze it up, feast with friends

In the south of France. Ah, didn't they clap him

Into a dungeon? I'll spring him. Past far timberlines

We'll clatter on our mules and ask the way to Japan


The philosophic owl stalking the grounds of Windsor Castle is, to my mind, a rueful image of the poet. The blood that drips off him, leaving a pool on the turf, is what happens when any deep-in-thought poet confronts the fact of sag-jawed monarchy clinging to its dream of poor dead Albert 'on a very noble ostrich'. And an ostrich is exactly the steed for a dead lineage that won't lie down. The creature's reputation for head-burying at moments of alarm is a folk tale of course, but we all remember it. I wonder if that 'pale fire' the moon puts in the castle turrets gave Vladimir Nabokov the title for his brilliant, crazy novel? The comic vision of the poem is like one of those Tenniel drawings for the original Alice in Wonderland before hideous Disney got to it.

The second poem gives us a picture of what monarchy might have been, or rather it gives us a picture of the England any poet might want to live in, a place where 'wise anarchy' is possible, where the relations between crown and populace are moderate, intimate, and untainted by oppressive pecking orders: 'He'll cure my wart and I will clean his crown.' It's absurd, of course, it's funny, it's even, as they say, wacky, but there is a longing in that fourth stanza that goes unrequited: 'No scummy timid souls could haunt that England' - a longing, one has to say, that is also shot through with anger.

What I can't, unfortunately, say about any of these poems is that they are 'typical' of Middleton. The term 'avant-garde' won't do to describe him, neither will a word like 'experimental', which suggests something that doesn't quite work ('still at the experimental stage'); nor are words like 'post-Surrealist' of much help. As a matter of fact 'post-Surrealist' is an oxymoron. You can't be post surrealist, you either are, or are not, surrealist (in the original sense of that Apollinaire-coined word). Actually I think surrealist will do very well to characterise this poet, even though he might reject the description. Someone who can write jaunty ballads:


Before she bought the knife to kill Marat,

Charlotte Corday had bought a fancy hat


or begin a shredded novel with such a wonderful Kafka-like opening as:

The night I arrived in Puerto Vallarta to give singing lessons to Senor Ramon Pradera, formerly chief of police but now a dentist, was a very dark night indeed


or write a poem like the following is to my mind a surrealist:

 

La Morena


My white cow tonight is quite silent

My white cow milking a heart from darkness


What tricks and silks will she tumble into

My white cow with opening parachute lips


My white cow with a shirt of woodsmoke

My white cow with a beehive of desires


Sometimes an abandon seizes her by the horns

Sometimes she is placid and sings in church


My white cow dancing in her field of fire

My white cow walking with dangerous steps


Everywhere she supposes there are cathedrals

Everywhere bells inscribe on air their spiral signs


My white cow with marked ideas of her own

My white cow whose tuft is a tangle of tempers


The baskets of air hang from her solid bones

The jugs of earth lift with her little breasts


My white cow who makes sorrow burn a day away

My white cow who makes sorrow bite like a shark


My white cow who shivers and penetrates men

My white cow who rides men bareback


Often conscious of too many things at one time

Often come times when she knows nothing at all


She has no clock for her timing is internal

No voice buts hers alone tells her when and how


She will eat dry bread if there's none better

My white cow who tastes always of oranges


My white cow who goes one better than the snow

Her quim is heaven for whom she pleases


In the nights we stretch with furious argument

My white cow takes every word to its limit


Shortening days we walk together hand in hand

More than once she tore my arm from its socket


I will do my dance one-armed for my white cow

I love her life her ways her difficult nature


We live beneath roofs that stand centuries apart

My white cow in small towns and purple cities


My white cow in a village dances to the guitar

My white cow sipping wine from a cup of clay


When the baskets are hanging bright in the water

They fill with her fish and creak in earthquake


When in my white cow's hair old stories are told

We stop them to start the world afresh redeemed


She is absent in the canyon of her red lust

She is present in the ordinary dishes we eat off


My white cow is a black one to tell the truth

Or else Chinese or else some kind of Arabian


To call her a cow at all is a profound mistake

She is a leopard with four cubs in a forest


My white cow in that hotel stripping off her clothes

My white cow who is not mine at all


My white vanishing cow with her dolphin legs

My white cow who wades toute nue in the Toulourenc


Her skin mirrors itself and that is it for us

I fall into her skin to oblige Lord Shock


I tongue my white cow in her purity and playfulness

She will never come round to believing I mean it


My white cow imagines me far off running away

Little does she know I run to catch her leaping form


White cow who dances wild in the middle of the world

White cow with your sweet dust with the wind blowing over it

 

I love this poem. I wish I'd written it myself. It has all the casual insouciance, wildness, gaiety and metaphorical intoxication of, say, the best poems of Benjamin Péret. In fact, although, Middleton is a Germanist and has spent his life teaching German language and literature, I notice that he seems to slip more easily into French than German. Perhaps it is the lightness of the French language that appeals to him (as it does to me). German is a steamroller. I've no idea what the title refers to. In my mind the poem is simply 'White Cow', but I assume it is a name of some sort. I won't insult the poem by trying to prise out some possible readings. I know this is the kind of poem Philip Larkin would have hated, but it isn't in any way obscure or devious, its meanings lie open for the reader to try, like the white cow herself. The poem is playful and sad at the same time. It runs a gamut of emotions and possibilities, and each couplet is almost a mini-poem on its own. It aspires to that desire of boundless freedom that lay at the heart of the surrealist project, and it is also intensely human and humane, and in its loving detail exactly right:


When in my white cow's hair old stories are told

We stop them to start the world afresh redeemed


*

These four poems by Christopher Middleton can be found in his Collected Poems (Carcanet Press), which is available to readers of The Bow-Wow Shop at a specially discounted price if you buy it from Carcanet's online shop. Just use the code BOW-WOW (case-sensitive) at the checkout to claim your discount of 20%. You can also pre-order his Collected Later Poems (published in January 2013) on the same terms.