The All-Jiving Jackdaw
a tribute to Christopher Middleton
The late 1950s, when I first became aware of what was happening in the relatively small world of English poetry, was a bewildering period. Early cosmopolitan modernism, largely represented to the UK reader by T.S. Eliot, seemed to have been museumised into a canon from which there appeared to be little development, and the landscape of visible public activity appeared dominated - in reaction to the (not so extreme) experiments of the Apocalyptics - by the earnestly frowning restoration efforts of the Movement poets. After Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Dylan Thomas, an insular, imaginative shut-down - as effected by The Listener and the two New Lines anthologies - seemed almost like Home Office policy.
The defensiveness and insecurity represented by those Movement poets were identified in 1959 by Donald Davie (himself a New Lines contributor) in an article which appeared in Elaine Feinstein's Prospect magazine, and this helped spearhead the arrival of the European and Black Mountain writing - in these early post-war years of affluence, Cape, Penguin, Goliard and a flood of new small magazines and presses brought us previously unimaginable quantities of trans-Atlantic and European poetries. Suddenly, in the Fens, , one could read Olson, Duncan, William Carlos Williams. And by the first years of the 1960s, I heard Creeley (in a small back pub room), Ginsberg, Yevtushenko, Jabes, Paz, Neruda - the five last drawing big, enthusiastic audiences.
Indigenous experiment was less conspicuous. Charles Tomlinson's Seeing is Believing made its stir. More arresting by far was the appearance of Christopher Middleton's Torse 3, which Longmans published in 1962 and whose US edition appeared that same year with Harcourt, Brace and World (a triplet of strangely disparate nouns whose comic dissonance can't have been lost on the poet).
The title was also the epigraph to the volume, and this stood, in itself, both as a quasi-Dadaist found poem and a quiet indication of a method. Torse 3, free-standing, was also an erudite device, a serio-comic lexical koan, somewhat provocatively allusive - suggesting a subtly differentiating vision that playfully emerges from the columns of a reference book:
Not (implied) torse 1, 'the crested band or wreath by which the crest is joined to the helmet.'
Nor torse 2 (implied further of course) = 'TORSO'.
But torse 3, 'a developable surface; a surface generated by a moving straight line which at every instant is turning, in some plane or other through it, about some point or other in its length.'
Surprisingly, this term (from torquere: to twist) was of relatively recent origin, having had a second airing (before Christopher's third) in the 1879 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, that ponderous companion to the dictionary from which the poet lifted it.
To the reader of his book, this third 'citation', becomes a quiddity, a pantomimic lazzo, from whose visual knot derives the development of a line which had started to unwind in the previous century: the years in which the poet's elders had been born and from which this least Victorian of individuals had, by 1962, already travelled a long distance to befriend us with the mobility of his intelligence and teach us to be happy and inquisitive modern people.
To extract myself from this knot, all I want to suggest here is this. While we English English somewhat uncomfortably havered between choices that were arriving from territories whose dialects we could either repudiate or try mimicking (though Prynne and Roy Fisher were confidently forging their own ideolects), Christopher had been out there for some time in Europe and America, at work serenely beyond Anglophone boundaries, and for whom experiment and tradition were no longer antinomies. He had long absorbed the vast experiential latitudes of Goethe and of German romanticism. Holderlin and Morike were close familiars. The Expressionists and August Stramm (whose nonsequences, to borrow a Middleton title, pre-figure Celan's syntax), pan-European Dada and surrealism were lived, living history. Modernism, in the German canon in which Christopher had long been immersed, after all, had arrived abruptly in the early nineteenth century with Buchner's Danton, Lenz and Woyzeck. And so while in the UK, these worlds, could be apprehended to Anglophone readers as quasi-ethnographic data, this had long been where Christopher had lived, worked, thought, taught, absorbed and exercised imagination. t is, to give just one example, a mark of his identification with these fields that his readings of Robert Walser not only brought that writer through his own translations to English readers, but (via a celebrated paper) introduced Walser to a wider German readership. 'The admirable Christopher Middleton,' wrote Susan Sontag in her Preface to a Carcanet edition. Understatement.
Reverting to the Torse 3 conundrum, the 'Definition' as Christopher headed his epigraph, perhaps provides a way into that first major volume ,and even to much of the subsequent thirteen books which make up the majestic seven hundred pages of his Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2008).
Four elements may be identified in that epigraph. First, there is the straight line. Second, there exists a 'developable surface'. Third, is the movement of both line and surface. And fourth are the planes through which the surface travels as it is generated by the linear axis.
Asked, blind, to what art such a definition most likely belonged, one might hesitate between Russian Constructivism and the Vorticism of Gaudier Brzeska. And indeed, the textures and movements perceptible throughout Christopher's oeuvre belong not exclusively to the interactions of thought and language. The musical, the visual and the architectural are as present in his work as palpably as are the sister arts of painting and line-drawing in the music of Debussy and Satie (whose miniatures are close, in play and brightness, to a number of Christopher's shorter pieces such as 'Irish' from Two Horse Wagon Going By or 'The Parrot House on Bruton Street, 1830', from Intimate Chronicles) or the paintings of Mondrian or Leger in which an abstract, arithmetic music lies within a flat, chromatically divided silence.
To put it somewhat crudely, Christopher's poetry, from the outset, has been one of movement, multi-textured surfaces and implied levels of signification, whose referential multiplicity is suggested by surface planes of fractured narrative and image as these move through a contemplative and idiosyncratic development. This proclaims, in effect, a hermetic method. Meaning inheres not just within the overt accountability presented by narrative, but in juxtapositions, through language, of process, involving as these do, a coincidence, as line follows line, of subjectivity and impersonality, of involution and exfoliation. The lovely 'Montagnola' from Torse 3 exemplifies these such junctures of relationship. Here, the aged Hermann Hesse (unnamed in the poem) sits stirring
…with a silver spoon, his coffee backwards…
you could have sworn,
as he spoke to unspeak every word he spoke,
that his freedom was a way to deny nothing.
His only memorable remark was an afterthought:
a butterfly with open wings
clung alive to the minute-hand of his study clock.
He did not allude to his lyric on the subject;
and on reflection it was hard to tell if paradox
or wisdom lay, inextricably veiled,
in the churning limpid veil of his senescence.
Hesse died in the summer of 1962 - so one must assume that Christopher had quite recently visited him at his home at Montagnola in the Swiss-Italian Ticino. Here the line of approach to Hesse's house by 'forked paths' is decorated with changing textures of things and colours until we arrive in the unclear depths of Hesse's alternating speech and silence, which is suddenly transected by a materialization, in the form of a butterfly in present time (as signified by the minute-hand), of one of Hesse's celebrated poems from a past he may or may not remember.
Mobile twists of inference are yet more clearly enacted in 'Ginestra' from Carminalenia,
Yellow explodes and replenishes itself,
With pulse on pulse an airy
Marine perfume floats as is
A robe of shivers around the mountain
It must be contained
In the chemical roots
Nothing explodes, the yellow simply
Nevertheless, unfolds like this,
Metaphor and fact refuse to mix
And the plant hangs in such
Delicate balance the wonder is
Yellow shrank in us to a blazon
Just the yellow of ginestra (which is broom, here growing on some arid southern coastline) 'simply unfolds', so the poet demonstrates that very flowering in the poem's movement.
There are poems, such 'On a Photograph of Chekhov' from Intimate Chronicles (the last word misspelled by the way in the 2008 Table of Contents as Chromides - or is this a poetic joke?), and the hauntingly narrated personal history contained in 'Lines for Jennifer' in The Word Pavilion that move against the current of this practice. Another stunning narrative poem is 'Coral Snake', from Apocrypha Texana: descriptive of that healthily masculine snake-killing struggle, which I heard Christopher read at the 1981 Cambridge Poetry Festival, and which, in its moral ambivalence, pays implicit homage to its unlikely antecedent in D.H.Lawrence.
While in 'Lines for Jennifer', we hear through the sympathy of poet/listener the experience of an exile:
All your people, come through the hoop,
Reconvene, inexplicably remembered
In the bubble of time you sit bewitched in…
'The Coral Snake', unusually, brings a glimpse of the poet as physical, working being, caught here between harmlessly planting his seed potatoes and then turning his hoe on a snake that might otherwise have killed him. As in Lawrence's 'Snake', the tension lies between an obligation to his human well-being and acknowledgement of the creature's beauty and independence:
He had come out of nowhere like evil.
He didn't care about me or want me.
I cared about him enough - it was fear.
Fear, not for me, no, but for him, the snake:
Long-trapped, an old horror breaks loose,
Later you say Alas, the snake was beautiful.
So I wonder what I can kill him with…
Reverting to Christopher's immersion in classical and modern German literature, it is, of course, one thing to know those worlds, and quite another to assimilate its energies and comprehend its workings sufficiently to become so much a part of its processes that he could put these to use in English language poetry. The dazzling extent of Christopher's knowledge of the German canon is perhaps best exemplified in his volumes of translatio, which are most tellingly contained in the first volume of the Princeton University Press Goethe series and the University of Chicago edition of translations from Holderlin and Morike. That the translations are works of brilliant creative mimesis goes without saying. Equally impressive are the introductory essays - biographical, historical, interpretative - and Christopher's mind-expanding end notes to individual poems. For example, Morike's Waldplage/Plague in the Forest, in which Christopher analyses the senarius and alexandrine metres, with citations from Greek tragedy, Faust II, Racine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Klopstock. Or Auf eine Lampe, in which Morike's aesthetics, with close reference to Schiller, Goethe, Novalis, Wordsworth, Theocritus and Plato's Timaeus, are defined with amicable clarity.
As suggested in those citations, the range of referential knowledge lies far beyond the Germanic. In essays contained in Jackdaw Jiving, collected in 1998 and published by Carcanet, the illumination of continentally diverse and culturally non-exclusive literatures, are brought to tectonically convergent arguments. It is super-athletics set down by a literary virtuoso who delights in the artefactual diversity of made objects, whether they be Viking prows, Ian Hamilton Finlay inscriptions, or the poetry of Gunter Eich, as he does in the kingfishers and other curiosities of the natural world that both his poetry and prose celebrate.
'Celebration' is a lazy old word. But it is helpful nonetheless in diverting us from the cerebral and the academic. And this is one of the mysterious things about Christopher's oeuvre. Because, for want of a better word, his work represents a life time's existential curiosity and pleasure. This curiosity is most simply and immediately expressed in the astonishing variety of poem titles. At random, glance through the first few pieces, with their scatter of exploratory reference in Of Mortal Fire: Memory of the Vaucluse, A Report from the Euphrates, The Cappadocian Chandelier, Pushkin and the Cat, Figure of a Chinese Drummer, Antigone's Drift… One might read such Contents almost as a poem in itself; more in its expression of a mind in daring touch with curiosities of the world which we would miss but for the poet's observation of them.
The pleasure is evident. And Christopher belongs to that society, inhabited by poets such as Marvell, Ponge, Wallace Stevens and Williams, whose work expresses pleasure of existence in the sensuality of things, both for their own sake and for the very idea they suggest as the world, in all its mysterious multiplicity, impinges on us.
The scholarship to which I have alluded would be would poetically invalid were it not embodied in enjoyment. Poems, translations, essays, end-notes are communicated as one another's democratic equivalent: as part of a universal weave whose elements co-exist and in which we live in grateful reciprocity. The expatriate poet is both rooted in this world and a traveller whose movement, like that jackdaw's of his essay title, jives, dances and gives voice. The poet's ancestry, his Englishness, is relegated without denial. But the movement, whether it is journeys through America, Provence or Cappadocia, is not one of escape, but always rather of encounter. If the connections are quick - in both senses of the word - they are, above all, contemplative and (as suggested by the torse 3 emblem), subtly dimensioned. In the deepest sense, this continuity of engagement is one of an eroticism: a profound in-touchness with the multiplicities of existence, with the inner and outer, of both mind and body. Such eroticism, of which sexuality is just one expression, is a mark of all important poets. And what the poet apprehends, he returns to the world in gratitude for the gift of experience and with generosity in returning his responses. Such fruits are abundant in Christopher's oeuvre.