Under the Flight Path
August Kleinzahler remembers Christopher Middleton
Christopher Middleton hated New York. Among the things he particularly disliked, I suspect, is New York’s position as a cultural bazaar, where reputations are bought, sold and traded, with the attendant buzz of speculation. He was incapable of schmoozing, and his career suffered accordingly. New York’s greatest draw, people action and brute energy, would have been lost on him.
In 2012 Middleton travelled to New York to receive an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was in his mid-eighties. Recognition of his work in the English-speaking world had been scarce, which is probably why he bothered to make the trip. Perhaps it was always unlikely that someone whose models were Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Tzara, Robert Walser and Gottfried Benn would win prizes, honours or even a sizeable readership in Britain or the US. And his poetry has a prickliness about it, as did the poet: a quality of neither asking nor needing to be liked.
In any event he would have been pleased to return home to Austin, where – after his childhood in Cornwall and degree at Oxford and teaching in Zürich and London – he had been living for the last fifty years. He owned a flash pair of cowboy boots, but not a Stetson. Austin and the University of Texas were at their very best when Middleton arrived there in 1961 as a visiting instructor; he settled permanently in 1966, leaving a soon-to-be ex-wife and three children behind in London. Harry Ransom, then president and later chancellor of the university, was determined to make it a cultural centre, a not incurious notion. He proposed ‘that there be established somewhere in Texas – let’s say in the capital city – a centre of our cultural compass, a research centre to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation’. Ransom had recruited scholars and writers like Roger Shattuck, Donald Carne-Ross, William Arrowsmith and others who would have been more likely to land in the Ivy League or the great state universities. So Middleton wasn’t wanting for company. The poet David Wevill was a long-time friend and neighbour. The brilliant Swedish poet and fiction writer Lars Gustafsson turned up in 1974, and kept Christopher both amused and busy translating his poetry into English. John Silber, who later became a reactionary megalomaniac (first as president of Boston University and then as failed gubernatorial candidate), was at that point a brilliant and progressive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also brought in by Ransom. The music scene – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the ‘outlaw’ country set – was about to get going, and the honky-tonks were beginning to jump. The town itself was becoming a magnet for the counterculture. There would have been few better places for someone like Middleton to land. He liked birds, and Austin, it seems, is on a migratory flight path. I’m not sure there’s a birdcall Christopher didn’t know.
Movement is central to any given Middleton poem. They have an improvisatory, unstable feel to them and are dance-like, a dance of the intellect, if you will, and in these qualities have an affinity with the painting of Paul Klee. His syntax plays a critical role, with its orderings, the alternating presences and absences, its copulae or want of; clauses gone floating from the main substantive and verb; periodicity, abrupt declarative bursts. The poems have a tense, torqued character. The transitions are unpredictable and the sensibility feels more European than English. They read as if the author had, like Joyce, a variety of other languages going on in his head at any given time:
But all the time these bats flick at me
And plop, like foetuses, all over the blotting paper.
Someone began playing a gong outside, once.
I liked that, it helped; but in a flash
Neighbours were pelting him with their slippers and things,
Bits of coke and old railway timetables.
I have come unstuck in this cellar. Help.
Pacing up and down in my own shadow
Has stopped me liking the weight it falls from.
That lizard looks like being sick again. The owls
Have built a stinking nest on the Eighteenth Century.
(‘Edward Lear in February’)
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