i.m. Christopher Middleton
Christopher Middleton, who died in Texas on the 30th of November 2015, was born in 1926. Not only did he live till almost 90, one of the last survivors of his generation, he was writing and publishing up to the last year of his life, having begun to publish his poetry in the 1940s – a record of longevity comparable with Thomas Hardy or W.B. Yeats. It’s worth dwelling for a moment on Middleton’s position relative to his generation, because doing so illustrates his consistent independence from groups and fashions. This has also shaped the critical response to his work, and we need to understand this if we are to take the measure of Middleton’s work, as it is surely high time we did.
Being born in the mid-1920s puts Middleton in the same generational bracket as Philip Larkin (1922-1985) and other poets associated with The Movement like Donald Davie (1922-1990) and Thom Gunn (1929–2003). The defining issue for this generation, as Thom Gunn put it, was the desire to avoid sounding like Dylan Thomas; in practice, this meant a return to normative language and a wry, unromantic outlook. Middleton’s early poetry, by contrast, is closer to that of the previous generation: those like John Heath-Stubbs (1918–2006) and W.S. Graham (1918–1986) who identified as romantic modernists. The mythic, Thomas-ish tone can be heard in poems such as ‘Male Torso’ from Torse 3:[i]
Before I woke, no savour was;
But three birds sang that song they piped as girls,
Of sweetness, golden-rinded, and the fountaintree,
For mortal grapes cooled in my hands.
But Torse 3 also contains poems in a more conversational idiom. ‘I was 31’, Middleton told me in 2009, ‘before I woke up to possible extremes: the “magical” (Male Torso) and the “actual” (At Porthcothan)’. Like Graham and Heath-Stubbs, after the War Middleton learnt to conjure the magical in a mode of address closer to common speech.
What makes Middleton very different from these, however, is that he simultaneously became increasingly modernist and experimental, like a plant that reaches up towards light and delves into the earth for the different kinds of sustenance it needs. In this, he is similar to Davie and Gunn, who began to take a sympathetic interest in Modernism in the 1960s. But where they were primarily concerned with the Anglophone modernism of Eliot, Pound, and William Carlos Williams, Middleton’s modernist outlook was always more Eurocentric. As a scholar and translator of German literature, Middleton was adapting and learning from Expressionism (especially Trakl), Brecht, Dada, and the German romantic tradition from Goethe and Hölderlin through to Rilke, as well as contemporaries like Gunther Kunert. Cavafy was another consistent source of inspiration. Middleton is probably the most comprehensively European poet to have been born in England in the 20th century – quite possibly in any century.
All of this makes Middleton’s work, taken as an aggregate of the individual poems, bewilderingly varied. His collections, however, are always highly structured, balancing longer sequences against groups of shorter poems with formal and thematic connections. Furthermore, unity is maintained throughout by his distinctive tone. Middleton theorised that good poetry is marked by an endophone, ‘an imaginary voice, a voice that was launched by his [the poet’s], but one that has a distinct imprint’ (as opposed to the exophone, which is the sound produced outwardly by the larynx etc.).[ii] Middleton’s endophone, once one becomes attuned to it, is unmistakeable, whether in the poems written in propria persona with conversational syntax, or in those where he subjects his discourse to fragmentation and aleatory forces. Rather than list adjectives that might capture some facets of this tonality, it seems more effective to proceed to an example:
OLD WATER JAR
Like one of the old ideas
It won't hold water any more
But it is round in the belly
And has strong bladed
Shoulders like a good woman
Elegant even the curves
Run down from the mouth
In a long sweet wave
You can't help liking it so
Simply for the way
It stands there
The object under consideration here is humble, functional; the opening lines pick up a figure of speech likewise broken by casual over-use. But the comparison, like the cracked jar itself, is worthy of further scrutiny. As Guy Davenport, Middleton’s friend from his undergraduate days at Oxford, wrote:
The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.[iii]
Middleton is interested in this jar because, humble as it is, it represents an entire way of seeing the world. In this it is a close relative of the one Wallace Stevens placed upon a hill in Tennessee; but whereas Stevens relishes the power his enables him to wield over nature, Middleton finds himself seduced by its ‘strong bladed / Shoulders’. It is ‘round in the belly’, still pregnant with something: the nothing which, Heidegger posited, defines the thing? Or a memory of water, implicit in the curves that ‘Run down from the mouth / In a long sweet wave’? The assertion of the last three lines clearly carries some irony, although that doesn’t invalidate the simple pleasure taken in the object as it stands. ‘The “complexity” called “soul” can be a matter of superimposed levels of meaning,’ as Middleton pointed out.[iv] And if we don’t have the jar itself, the irregular right-hand slope of the lines seems, to my eye, to evoke the penumbra it casts on the page, its outlines blurred by the changing angles from which Middleton illuminates it.
This simple example demonstrates how Middleton follows the modernists who, in their different ways, like Stevens and his jar or Williams and his declaration ‘No ideas but in things’, interrogated the imaginative relationship between humans and the world they find and invent. It leaves out many more aspects of Middleton’s work, one of which deserves particular mention: politics. Having lived through the defeat of the Fascist dictatorships, the Cold War and Vietnam, the breakup of the Eastern Bloc, and into the post-9/11 era, the political forms represented in his work changed over time; but what remained consistent was Middleton’s belief, implicit or explicitly stated (as in poems such as ‘The Digging’), that oppression and violence stem from a failure of imagination on the part of the culprit, and that overcoming this will take more than an equally dogmatic reiteration of the commandment to ‘Love one another’.
Osip Mandelstam, a victim of just such violence, whom Middleton renders beautifully in ‘Mandelstam to Gumilev, 1920’ (The Lonely Suppers of W.V. Balloon), said that a poet’s biography should consist of nothing but the books he has read. This is almost true of Middleton, who lets few of his life’s outward events feature in his poems (without coyly implying, as Donald Davie often does, that they are too scandalous or painful to reveal); but one should also add, ‘…and the places he has been to.’ It would be impossible to talk about Middleton’s poems without also discussing the places to which they so often return, especially the south of France, Turkey, and Texas, his home since the 1960s. In poem after poem, Middleton evokes the landscapes, people and history of these places, never in a merely touristic fashion, but with a sense of the total life-world constituted by a particular culture existing through time in a particular place.
Middleton’s removal to the United States in the early 1960s is another circumstance he shares with Thom Gunn, who moved to California in the 1950s, and Donald Davie, who followed later in the ’60s. Yet despite these similarities, and the fact of his publishing with Carcanet Press and in PN Review, Middleton never feels like a member of a group, however loosely defined; he has always struck me as standing alone on the horizon, his stature implied by his visibility at that distance. (All credit is due to Carcanet and Shearsman for making his work available in fine editions throughout long periods of relative neglect.) His friends and associates are a similarly diffuse bunch: Marius Kociejowski; August Kleinzhaler; Michael Hamburger. (The fact that Hamburger, a German-Jewish émigré, is probably his closest analogue in the British poetry world is indicative of Middleton’s position as a perpetual auslander; the next closest comparison would be with Charles Tomlinson, but without Tomlinson’s point of anchor in the English countryside.) This uncollectivised character has probably counted against him, in terms of critical attention: being so difficult to discuss as part of a wider trend in British or American poetry, Middleton has been the subject of comparatively few isolated critical articles, with the further ramification that those who write about him have to keep recapping the basics, impeding the development of a critical conversation. (My own attempt to discuss just a couple of facets of his work, in ‘Having Breakfast with Christopher Middleton’, PN Review 203, took him entirely in isolation). For a long time, in fact, I was unaware of anyone else with an interest in him. Gradually, I started to discover other admirers of his work. John Clegg is a professed enthusiast: although he hews more consistently to spoken syntax, Clegg’s combined English tone and fascination with myth and Americana is reminiscent of Middleton. Caleb Klaces has a poem in his debut collection Bottled Air dedicated to him, and has reviewed his Collected Later Poems. Gabriel Levin dedicated a sequence to him in his most recent collection, Coming Forth by Day. His Collected Poems was even given a warm review in The Guardian. It would seem that the momentum is building.
What is needed now is for that to continue and develop. Tributes will be paid, as is fitting; but beyond that, this is the moment for all interested parties to work together on something more considerable. What I envision is a collection of essays covering Middleton in relation to British, American and European modernism; translation; politics; all the aspects that contribute to his work. If anyone else feels interested in this idea, or knows someone else who might, I encourage them to come forward.
Henry King studied at the University of Glasgow, and currently teaches at Malmö University, Sweden. His essays, poems and translations have been published in PN Review, Stand, and elsewhere. Contact: henrymking.blogspot.com firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Torse 3 is listed as Middleton’s first collection, but as its title suggests two volumes preceded it. Digging them out of the British Library will reveal that they are not so dissimilar to his acknowledged work, and were probably repudiated out of a sense of immaturity rather than a change of aesthetic direction.
[ii] Christopher Middleton, “Ideas About Voice in Poetry” in Jackdaw Jiving Manchester: Carcanet, 1998), 91.
[iii] ‘The Geography of the Imagination’ in The Guy Davenport Reader, ed. Erik Reece (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press 2013), p.223
[iv] Private correspondence, August 4th 2009