Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.

In 2008, at the launch of his Collected Poems, I presented Christopher Middleton with an early copy of the 720-page tome. He took it with one hand and with the other mischievously handed me the manuscript of his next collection. Collected Poems was not the definitive monument, not by a long chalk. In 2014 Carcanet repeated the monumental gesture with a Collected Later Poems (440 pages). Again, there was more to come. Sheep Meadow Press published Nobody’s Ezekiel (2015), 48 further pages. Among his papers, another book or pamphlet no doubt crouches, preparing to leap out at us. He has always been a poet of surprises. I am reluctant to commit him to the preterite, though in November 2015 he was reported to have died in Austin, Texas, in his ninetieth year.

The first of his almost eighty prose and verse contributions to this magazine was the poem ‘Anasphere: le Torse Antique’ (Poetry Nation, 1975). In those days PNR, as Poetry Nation, appeared twice a year in hardback. Even then, in an issue featuring among others Donald Davie, C. H. Sisson, Octavio Paz, James Atlas and Calvin Bedient, he was the odd man (the contributors were almost all men) out. His four-part poem, with a transliterated Japanese epigraph, a free-verse movement progressing towards fragmentation, an alertness to violence, a sense of travelling witness, evokes a now beloved, now minatory, always changing ‘you’.

When he submitted work for book publication at Carcanet in 1974, I took soundings from poets I thought might be attuned to his writing. They urged me not to publish it. It was eccentric, Germanic, too experimental. I kept re-reading The Lonely Suppers of W. V. Balloon (1975) and could not bring myself to say no. Forty years and eighteen Carcanet books later, his oeuvre, almost nineteenth-century in scale, amounts in formal and thematic diversity to a whole restless literature in itself, enhanced by essays, fictions and translations. It stands always at an oblique angle to his age and resists assimilation into ‘movements’ with which it shares passing affinities.

In Austin he was appointed Professor in Germanic Languages and Literature in 1966, retiring in 1998, but remaining in Austin, with forays to Europe and Asia Minor. Exile was deliberate. He knew England and its cultural habits well (born in Cornwall, raised in Cambridge, four years’ service in the RAF, university at Oxford) and chose to regard them from a healthy distance, where he did not have to fight for oxygen.

In his finest (two-part) essay, ‘Notes on the Viking Prow’ (PNR 10, 16; 1979, 1980), he writes,

To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the ‘contents’ of a subjectivity. Some poems, at least, and some types of poetic language, constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where ‘self-expression’ has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being. We experience them as we experience nothing else.

His argument is hortatory, pulling back the corner on creative possibilities which look new but are in fact the fons et origo.

If poets have the subtlety and tenacity to take his arguments on board, even if consciously to reject them, it will mark the beginning of a change in the creative environment. There is a severity in Middleton, the trained philologist, scholar and translator, the luminous critic, and there is a tonic playfulness. He emphasises how important irrelevance is in education, resisting the pressure of educators to assign texts to which students can ‘relate’. The other takes us onward from where we are, even when that other is in the past. The apparently relevant can arrest and retard.

In his essay ‘On the Apotropaic Element in Poetry’ (PNR 143, 2002) he writes of the ‘second intention’ in the language of poetry. ‘About the best poetry, and not only the best, there floats an atmosphere of infinite suggestion. The poet speaks to us of one thing, but in this one thing there seems to lurk the secret of all [...] which, we feel, would satisfy not only the imagination, but the whole of us.’ He quotes the humanist geneticist Albert Jacquard, from his 1994 essay ‘Demain dépend de nous’ which ‘appeals – by synopsis on an exalted level, rather than by empirical scrutiny’. Jacquard suggests that the person is defined by belonging in formal language, is contained in belonging; a belonging consciously experienced sporadically. One place it might be experienced is in liturgy. Another, in a secular age, is in a poem. This is not to suggest the achieved arts as a surrogate metaphysics but to affirm that, as always, they are places not of differentiation but of communion, a communion that need not have transcendent implications beyond the transcending of the isolated individual, who becomes a person in that transcendence.

A mastery of language, the element of containment and expression, enhances belonging. ‘So the arts arrive like guardian angels to pick out from the crowd not anybody, not somebody, but everybody. Then everybody reconfigures as a group of persons […]. Art serves no purpose here but an illumination of being, if not the fullness of being, then a spending and storage of consciousness […] ’ His conclusion epitomises his art and teaching and challenges an age in which poetry is made instrumental: good poems

[…] do remain purposeless, as play -- radiant ludic phenomena, singular even as they enter history and stay there, corpuscles that no wave can digest; and that, notwithstanding, certain works of art -- variously paradoxical as they are -- do, in a sense, purpose something. Or no. I should rephrase this: Independently of its author, a work of verbal art, if animated by a certain element, is primed to avert evil. Intangible, indefinable as any purpose may be, that work of art is apotropaic.

This item is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image