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I REMEMBER THE poet R.F. Langley picking up Christopher Middleton’s Selected Writings (1989), looking at the contents page and saying, “Where’s ‘Objects at Brampton Ash’? Why isn’t it here?” I also think the poem had been mentioned earlier, perhaps by J.H.Prynne, soon after it was first published in Middleton’s book Torse3 (1962). It is the third poem in the Collected Poems, and could date from before 1950.1 It’s a short poem—
The quick thrush cocks his head,
bunching his pectorals, halted.
Long holly shadows hone his shining claw;
you thumb its edge and grass gets grassier.
The tapered spire, at anchor in its ring
of tomb and cedar, has to quit ascending.
So you revolve in hearth-smoke’s occult graves,
banished by touch of frost beading the roofs.
What increase, could these ends outlast
I’m not surprised that this poem was singled out by the hawk-eyed cognoscenti. Short as it is, in its way it has everything. It achieves the balancing of contrary qualities as a vehicle of progression. The lines are elegant and serene but challenging; with carefully controlled contrastive alliteration, iambic pentameters treated quite casually (only four lines unquestionably in that measure), rhymes likewise casual: each couplet rhymed but none fully and some only by suggestion (I can’t take ring/ascending as an orthodox full rhyme because of the shift of accent on the final syllables) — so you get the effect of quite dignified contemplative address while everything is disrupted and in motion, both conceptually and prosodically. The traditional prosody comes nearest to asserting itself as the poem’s focus moves from sky to earth (from bird and spire to graveyard and hearth).
These technicalities cohere with the course of the poem. It starts from a close observation (thrush… halted) deftly captured in a confrontation of plosive and aspirate initial consonants: a heralding. Second couplet: as the focus of vision expands the terms become more metaphorical (I think “its” must refer unsyntactically to the holly; you wouldn’t thumb a living bird’s claw after all, would you?). Third couplet: the scene expands but the pastoral inertia of a church scene is cancelled by energy and tension: the spire aspires upwards but is “anchored” to the ground (halted, again). Fourth couplet: I read this as a shift of scene — we are driven indoors by the cold but also by the whole action. Everything skyward is brought down to earth and anchored there. So, as if pressured or persuaded by this descent we settle for the small-scale, the domestic, the occult; and these are ‘graves’ (ironically, since we have just turned our backs on graves). The tension of this action is sounded in the near-correct pentameters while the rhyme is the most failed in the poem. But the intent of the poem does become cloudy in this couplet and reading starts to involve guesswork. The sense of the last couplet depends on how you read the word “ends”, which I find quite difficult. I’m inclined to hear a welcoming of these traps and halts, these groundings, these failures of aspiration, in which we achieve our true human scale, which could (since there is no question mark) effect our “increase” if they did not prove ephemeral, succumbing to our normal condition of wastage.
So that’s on page 5, which leaves exactly 1118 pages of poetry in front of us. But in describing this short poem I could almost feel that my task is complete. I have come as close as I’m likely to get to saying what it is about Christopher Middleton. For there is a consistency of method and purpose right through his long career. Not that there isn’t variety — in fact there is immense variety, but there is throughout the same pressure in the writing, which pushes the initial material forwards towards a transformation through progressive figures and modes, or sometimes seems to follow a kind of poetical demonstration to reach a condition which was not predicated at the start. Almost all the poems begin from an experience, which is pushed through to a meaning, often by steps which are far from rational or evident, and the resulting meaning can be evasive, or cancelled at the last moment.
THE VARIETY IN these collections is partly related to Middleton’s career as a professor of European literature, making him familiar with more adventurous modern poetry than is encouraged in England, most of it tied to the need to address the state of things as it bears upon poetical language. His learning is very wide and he is much-travelled — based for most of his life in Texas, he has been all over Europe, fixed especially on Provence and Cappadocia which he has come to know very well, treating them as human landscapes balanced between familiar and alien; there are pieces on almost everywhere. But where the variety mainly obtains is in all the different kinds of poem to which he has access. There are poems which are, or begin as, love poems, personal anecdote, narrative, monologue, historical sketches, study of place or person including anecdotes about artists and writers, contradictions and enigmas of experience, war-time memories, epigrams, ponderings while listening to music, poems in Jabberwocky, surreal phantasmagoria, modernist rambles and knots… almost every kind of poem you could think of. Although I have always thought of him as innovative, he was always, perhaps especially later on when his output increased, willing to write (or begin) poems of the most conventional kind, some of which do not break the mould. There are on the one hand provincial narratives which could almost be by Frost, on the other delicate suspended verbal structures based on close attention to experienced detail reminiscent of Williams. The general impression is of a poet who would happily build a poem up at any time from any source using any way in, that was available, and indeed as he said, “Almost anywhere there’s a poem lying around / Waiting for someone to lift it up, dust it off…” (CP p.623). This healthy fecundity could be seen as one of the advantages of not being part of a pioneering movement, while leaving him free to pioneer as much as he wishes.
While there might be an impression of a compendium of most of the kinds of poem being written in Britain, U.S.A. and (especially) Europe from about the 1930s to the 1980s, there is nothing that could be taken as anything but a poem by Christopher Middleton, and this is because of that characteristic restless transformative drive which will let nothing remain at the normative level which makes it possible to get started. The language itself is forced to yield a further and further version of what it is doing until we are somewhere we could not have foreseen, or no longer speak the language with which the poem opened. You could call it metamorphosis: the objects of the poem turn into something else.
Of course, this creates difficulties. Looking again at “Objects at Brampton Ash”, for all the elegance it is obvious that the reader’s path is quite frought. Middleton does not heap the pleasures of the text upon you, as Dylan Thomas does when not over-wrought, but you have to work at it, dig them out for yourself or even create them. He thrusts us into transitions which require working out, and sometimes leaves us in the dark. The reader’s envisaging mechanism gets increasingly strained from couplet to couplet. The fourth couplet seems to be speaking in symbols whose interpretation is open to question. In the fifth I’m still not happy about the word “ends” on account of its many possible definitions (terminations, purposes, results, remnants) none of which can be settled on as authoritative, and yet this is so much the conclusion of the poem, in the tone in which at one time a landscape poem might have ended with a moral. And there is one there, about wastage, darkened by the word “ends”.
THIS NEED NOT be a big problem. Again and again in these poems we come to a crux at which the reader is forced into making a choice. We can try to work out exactly what is signified by a word such as “ends”, which might be the reader’s personal choice, or we can leave it alone, as meaning whatever it means as long as it yields the conclusion. Or we can allow all possible meanings, and this works well with “ends” as notation of the unstable multiplicity of memory which nevertheless furnishes us with places and moments which can be “shored against my ruins” as Eliot put it. To “leave it alone” is to decide not to ask questions, and we must then take the difficult text as a surface to be contemplated rather than something we are being told about. The title of Middleton’s first book, Torse3 is defined as “a surface generated by a moving straight line which at every instant is turning, in some plane or other through it, on some point or other in its length.” He clearly knows what he is doing.
It is more difficult when a poem begins in a condition of transference, that is, rather than a dependable reality such as the thrush, seems from the start to be working metaphorically or by some other technique, and speaking at a remove, and then goes on to remove itself even further away from visibility. But it can be hard enough when things begin in a recognisable condition and are in the course of the poem transferred into what seem wildly different terms, with no discernible connection to what has gone before, and sometimes no means of knowing what we are being asked to consider or recognise. I think the great majority of Middleton’s poems go through these processes to a greater or lesser degree.
Often, however normative or unprecedented the poem might be at the start, there is a change at some point which I’d call a “turn” (though “lurch” might be a better word) like a change of gear, at which, while the pace, tone and procedures of the poem may continue uninterrupted, the properties of the poem become unfamiliar and the statements cease to connect. This can occur in the middle of the poem, at the end (as in “Objects at Brompton Ash”) and may occur two or three times in one poem.
But there is often a feeling, when the turn occurs at the end of the poem, that it replaces a moralising ending. Sometimes it is no more than a turn to a different, usually contrasting and expanded, focus of attention, and poems of place tend to jump from one site to another without warning. But there are also unprepared changes of tone or scope. A poem about greenfly on a train window (CP p.19) goes through five stanzas within this focus then suddenly ends, “And I have no notion what to do about the killing now; I have no notion why it starts, how it can end.” The poem has referred to killing, but of and by greenfly, and this ending moves abruptly into a different scale of address. He is very good at this kind of brusque sweeping aside of a detailed focus for a bid at something much larger, often with a sense of frustration. But he can also make sudden leaps of a different kind. “The Armadillos” (CP p.101) is a genial, half-serious but somehow loaded poem mainly fixed on its subject matter, the habits of armadillos, sometimes lightly fantasised, which short of the end goes into— “Or they climb to the tops of telegraph poles / and jam the exchanges of political assholes / with the terrible sound of knitting.” which is a step into a different way of speaking altogether. The subject poem is always likely to be subverted: “Avebury: the Temple” (CP p.92) barely mentions the monument except as the site of personal memories. “Gentle Reader” (CP p.485) starts from a concerto by Salieri invoking a “landscape of poplars by a silver river” and remains in that mode for some time but by line 20 has moved seamlessly into
Salieri knew the worst but never saw
In 1942 the Lithuanian women,
Their hard-worked hands given so little time
To shield their breasts, cover their genitals,
The looks upon their faces blank,
Stripped to be shot into a pit
Not yet quite filled with other naked corpses…
Typically, this violent switch is subsumed in a calm progression of 4- and 5-beat couplets discussing how history conditions and transforms perception, and, presumably in that sense, Salieri, who I suppose would normally be thought of as a polite and pastoral kind of musician, can be heard in his music to have known about the horrors to come. The discourse is logical but nonetheless enacts a violent wrench. The poem is always free to follow its own course in relation to authorial association, or as he puts it, “The poem is about itself” (CP p.595).
THERE ARE MANY more instances in which the poem turns to a new objective, most often pushing the discourse into a less rational, more highly figured mode, moving from a knowable world into that of the imagination, from particulars into a wider, political and ethical, vision, or quite possibly into the unrecognisable. And sometimes this interruption seems to want to lead the poem not into a bigger form of statement or invocation, or into any kind of summation, but into poetry itself, turning away from any form of subject address into the music of poem-endings, with a phrase which sounds conclusive without concluding anything. I have occasionally noticed a stylistic change at endings into an ancestral turn of phrase almost out of the eighteenth century, as by inverted syntax. But this urge to progress out of the known may also be more impatiently worked into the entire text, making a cluttered, restless, “thick” discourse, one which manages not quite to define the subject, not quite tell the story and not quite conceal either of them, but moves constantly on the edge of attention.
There is a short late poem (CLP p.125) which shows the process at its starkest in the disarming but perfectly harmonious final phrase.
What the Hedgehog Said, A.D. 150
In the barbered beard of Julian Apostate
So fetchingly engraved
In relief on a bronze coin
Struck at the mint in Constantinople–
In this bronze barbered beard
There is less of beauty to shiver at
Than in the pizzle of the bull
On the coin’s other side,
The pizzle nested in wisps of hair,
Beneath the bull’s athletic belly,
The bull who walks
By the light of two stars.
The matter-of-factness of the first 11 lines is itself unusual for Middleton and might lead us to expect a sudden turn, which we do indeed get, seamlessly, with no change of tone, rhythm or anything. I’m not asking questions about what the last two lines “mean”. They are there, is enough, and this seems a perfect case of difficulty which is only difficulty if you start interfering with it.2
THE SCALE OF difficulty (there are hundreds of poems with no difficulty whatsoever about them) is somehow exacerbated when the poem does not pursue the procedures of scene or anecdote at all, but adopts those of thesis or demonstration, so you expect some kind of logical progression and generally don’t get one, or you get a kind of ghost of one. To take one which I find particularly mystifying—
Of Music from a Sunken System
So it will have to be
___on the eve of Apocalypse
as Edmond de Goncourt divined:
dressed in the new
vaguely connected with Art,
in their flirtations at dusk
___on roads in England
groups of young men and girls
are constantly interrupted
___by riders of velocipedes
flitting silently past.
For why should ever de Goncourt
___care how freedom is won, how
people defend it? At night in bivouac
the watchful king spoke true,
___hobnobbed with his men,
minding their good, his person princely,
no creature of factions but a court
___of justice. Then mountain echoes,
corn harvested, flock shorn for cash,
for trade; and people came from everywhere
___to self-governance, times changing
to be wasted by disease, old or young
by fate uniformed as a shaft or furnace,
___starvelings at the beltline,
prolific abstraction, empire imperfectible.
The crocus, the primrose, forests of oak,
___ask blinded Lear if he hears the sea —
then lambs hop, again cuckoo calls, on Helm Crag
our seditious Kate sang out and saw,
___come to light in half an apple,
the pip turn into a shark’s eye, gliding
javelins. Can they be done without, the sharp,
___dark, tender tones that will drown
in spit and bickering … Goodbye,
de Goncourt. These days an island loses touch
___with its algorithm. Know
by the uncertain signs how ghostly is our theme.
I have to quote all of this because of the continuous discursive connectivity. The whole thing is constructed as a discourse on a topic with asides and illustrative episodes, every move connected to the preceding one (So, then, as,…etc.) and leading to a conclusion, but, of course, none of this takes place because the topic itself is absent and the episodes don’t infer it. And it’s no use saying “Don’t ask questions” because the poem absolutely begs to be asked questions, from the first words onwards. The principal question is, of course, “What did Edmond de Goncourt say?” (if he said anything) because that is what the whole thing is “about” but it is completely withheld from us, and can it really have been something about bicycles interrupting courtship on English roads in the twilight? And if so, what can it possibly have to do with Apocalypse, or “how freedom is won”? I could probably list thirty or forty questions that beg to be asked, including questions such as “Am I being a dogmatic rationalist?” and thoughts such as “Perhaps if I weren’t so ignorant about de Goncourt, English or other history, bicycles, ‘Kate’ and a lot of other things the problems would evaporate” though I doubt it. All questions remain unanswered, no chasing of references is any help. I have wasted a quarter of an hour on “Helm Crag” without being enlightened. It is close to Grasmere and Wordsworth may well have mentioned it in a poem, but there is no index of that kind available. Dorothy Wordsworth mentions it a few times in her journal, in passing. What, then, can we do?
Two strategies occur to me (though generally I prefer poems that don’t require strategies), both avoiding questions and amounting to versions of each other. I find, contemplating this poem, that whatever I do with its deliberately failed logical structure, there are (once you’ve got past the bicycles) endearing and moving passages which can in themselves form a sequence through the accumulation of imagery. There is the just king, then a cluster of images seeming to cover a lot of history as far as the failure of empire, moving from pre-industrial to “shaft or furnace”. Then come three strong lines enacting some kind of rebirth as the most serious pastoral seems to redeem, for a moment, the land from its ruin and the very earth urges Lear on towards Dover and Cordelia, until “seditious Kate” sees trouble coming and the imagery reverts to “javelins”, with a hint of a moral about animosity. As for de Goncourt, he and his brother certainly did a lot of bickering, in a particularly unpleasant period of Parisian literary history. This, or some such, progressive scenario can be extracted, but with difficulty, and only by ignoring a number of unhelpful phrases such as “mountain echoes”, “starvelings at the beltline”, “self-governance”, and the algorithm (which is no more than the Arabic decimal numerical system that we use. The sentence might indicate the threat of reversion, which can be implied elsewhere.) It can only be done by focussing on those wordings which give pleasure or have resonance and ignoring both the rest and the mock-referential structure; the reader has to defy the poem’s show of logicality and the prize remains tentative.
MY OTHER THOUGHT involves taking the title and the ending seriously as the poet’s own terms for what he is doing. What but a broken music can emerge from a sunken system (such as a civilisation which has gone under)? What but uncertain and ghostly language? Our “theme” is ghostly because it is a wraith-like insubstantial thing, and because it leans on a dead past.3 If you read the poem through these warnings you will again take the sequence of images as your reward, perhaps more inclusively (I still hesitate about the bicycles, though they are rather ghostly). There are plenty of quite pessimistic declarations about the state of the world in the two volumes under review which could support this approach.
Middleton’s essay “Reflections on a Viking Prow” (reprinted in Selected Writings) begins,
To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of the 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.
And even more importantly, goes on to say,
Yet we say that a poetic text is not this or that thing out there. We say that such a virtual thing as a text is not an actual thing, that it is not even thinglike at all. Or we say that this or that text occupies an interface between things and persons, but has its ontological status only c/o the addressee, who is itinerant and anonymous.
I WOULD NOT myself have used the word “subjective” to describe Middleton’s poetry (and I’d still happily call it “objective”), usually reserving that word for a self-explaining, even self-vaunting kind of poetical writing, one that elicits sympathy by disclosing a singular inner condition which acts as a qualification, and all this is very far from Middleton. One of the major insistences of most modernist poets was the opposition to “self expression” as the business of a poem. But this different subjectivity is no doubt the “profound change” he speaks of, from an introverted (he would probably say “confessional”) subjectivity to another which is both new and older. So the ordered disorder of many of his poems, the locational instability and ever shifting viewpoint, arise from a recognition that it is his own stock of memory and resource which supplies all the heterogeneous material, ghost-like as it is, which to explain and spell out would be an imposition on the reader, moulding that figure in towards his self image. Even in his most orthodox scenes, monologues and anecdotal poems, sketches of rural Texas, Provençal dreams or stories from the annals, there is not a shadow of that special pleading — everything that is named remains real and open and distinct, never subsumed into a personality (which is also to say that he projects a different kind of personality, one which defies that kind of interiority). The defeating transitions of Of Music from a Sunken System happen because that is what he thinks of next, by connections which he has no obligation to explain, since the reader is an unknown and cannot be claimed. He must precisely not create an illusive “thing” which would fix the reader’s attention in a condition of the author’s creating, but must allow the reader to be “itinerant and anonymous” in the face of a movement towards summation and (his term) vision in which disorderly elements are made to be not random, because they participate in the equivalence of poet and reader and are true to the condition of the world.
This position is probably a feature of Middleton’s generation, or those poets of it who refused the “confessional” mode vaunted by critics and also, aware of the horrors of the 1939-45 war through which they had lived (there is frequent reference to these and other horrors in Middleton), placed themselves in opposition, especially to the intellectual and literary orthodoxies, without going overboard the way some American poets did. This had the advantage of placing them in a balanced position with a wide scope of possibilities before them, free to take advantage of all the openings into short meditational poems which had been in currency since the 1930s, (including humorous poems, at which he is very adept) but also to transcend the limits of a rational discourse, and to freely plunder their own beings for expressive material, feeling that through this new forms of understanding were becoming accessible. Roy Fisher employs comparable procedures and is particularly liable in poems of place to switch to elsewhere mid-course. So did in fact Sylvia Plath in part (but got badly categorised and made famous for her worst poems).
The consistency of his work over some seventy years of writing is a sign of a firm sense of purpose,4 a purpose for poetry in the individual mind which is against harm, and proposes the stabilisation of the tottering edifice by moving a rational, unified discourse into a multiplied one for its truth to experience, which is then entitled to declare its position. It remains a question and a hope—
___ ___ ___ ___ __sighing
as waves of yes that break on the shore,
for whole populations herded in bars and ovens
who can speak to scotch the killers’ cause
dormant still as a condor’s cry in the eggshell? (CLP p.245)
These two big volumes encompass an entire cultural and personal existence with unfailing authenticity, and the degree of professional competence is astonishing. The bizarreries are frustrating and fascinating, but the steady, serene, somewhat unstable, tenor of “Objects at Brompton Ash” remained a permanent resource, as in the fine poem he dedicated to George and Mary Oppen, “A Road that is One in Many” (CP p.336), circa 1980 (?)5. It is a poem of naming (“This is a little road…”) which conducts the addressees through a corner of rural Texas identifying details of the landscape, and persistently advising to hold tight, not to wobble off the road, not to worry. It ends,
___ ___ ___ Under the polestar
At night hold tight still, grip this
Ground with your unshackled feet,
Don’t scare, these vines or ghosts are
Vines and ghosts. At night the lake
Is good for a swim. Don’t mind these bats
That flit crisscross close to the cooling
Surface. Hold tight just once again,
Then let go and be consumed by the cool.
This is in the things and shines in the things.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
- This was lucky because the Collected Poems contains roughly a thousand poems and has no indexes, either of titles or first lines. If it had been somewhere in the middle I might never have found it. The issuing of these big retrospective collections of poetry, which are primarily reference books, without indexes is getting increasingly common in this country. Obviously they are expensive. The Collected Later Poems has both kinds. In this essay, the volumes are here referred to as CP and CLP. ↩
- One way of interfering with it is to search on the web until you find that coins as described were in fact issued from Constantinople during Julian’s reign, with on the reverse a bull with two stars above, and you can view them on your screen. This makes the ending rather less disarming, and it shows how Middleton can create a mystery by concealing his sources. A likely reference in the title to Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox would neatly support the poem’s concentration on detail to the very end, rather than seeking the grand statement. ↩
- The collection containing this poem is called A Company of Ghosts and particularly deals with memory and the documented past as elusive, ghost-like entities, only graspable in fragments, a theme which can be found throughout his work. ↩
- And seems to me more important than chronological development, of which I can see little, though note should be made of the impressive later flowering represented by CLP in sheer quantity and evenness of quality. The question of where his distinctive manner came from in the first place is also uncertain. There is no clue in the text, and I don’t see why it could not have arisen directly from the best of the later 1940s, which is basically W.S. Graham and Nicholas Moore, but post-war German poetry must have been very important to him. These are all sites in which the war is taken as having had a serious impact on culture which needs to be addressed. ↩
- Or possibly after Oppen’s death in 1984. There is no dating in the Collected Poems but the book where the poem first appeared was published in 1986. In that case Oppen would be addressed as a ghost, which fits very well with the poem, but the presence of Mary, who lived to 1990, complicates this. Or Middleton might have been thinking of Oppen after he fell prey to Alzheimer’s. ↩