Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Christopher Middleton

Christopher Middleton (1926-2015)

I have been re-reading some of Middleton's work as part of trying to study the poetry of the 1970s. The background is seeing his work over a forty-year period (maybe slightly more) and not having any intense memories of it, at the end. This is unfair because there is an exception, a reading he did in Cambridge for CCCP. Certainly the selected poems (111 Poems, 1983) is a work one should read, a major point within the poetic field. One of the possibilities, if you keep on consuming culture at a great rate, endless books, paintings, and pieces of music, is that insofar as you are getting what you want, you will become profoundly satisfied; you will be satiated; and you will stop being dynamic, as a poet, and become indifferent to the next thing that happens and the next thing you say. Everything becomes the catalogue entry for "an objet from the Middleton Collection" and nothing is a poem any more.

The most stretching works are, I think, the ones which explore a work of visual art at length. One of these is “Anasphere: le torse antique”. This was published as a pamphlet in 1978. The reference is to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften.
(from Neue Gedichte)

(which is archaic not antique) but also to Middleton’s own torse (torse 3, 1962), where the jacket defines this as a “developable surface”. Why is the torse titled in French? Rilke saw this Apollo in the Louvre, so the label would have been in French. The root is twist and a torse is a point developing a plane which can be twisted to create new surfaces and new interiors. I couldn't find an existing meaning for anasphere, not in the OED; a firm by that name is dedicated to “analytical and atmospheric instrumentation”. I speculate that the source might be the word anamorphic, which means “a distorted projection”. These can return| an optically clear image from certain points of view. There is a famous example in a painting by Holbein, where a flattened oval shape reveals itself as a skull from a certain angle. So anasphere could mean a sphere which is subject to flattening and stretching and is subject to special optic conditions. This sounds slightly like a torse.

Profit motive melts the poles
Paris drowning, Bombay

–it’s slightly embarrassing to see that someone could identify global warming in a poem published in 1978. The poem is partly about love, a sexual partner, but its span of themes is so wide that it is hard to find a focal point in it. This might refer to a shifting geometry, a figure whose centre shifts as it evolves through time. (Alexandria is already underwater, that is the port area of classical times is now below the waters of the Mediterranean and was the subject of very elaborate recovery of evidence by diving.) Another passage is:

One hundred thousand horses
Toppling off the crag were chopped into food
For the hand that peeled leaves of laurel
Out of the flint core
Now in a field of old rain goofily like a fortress
A red horse was planting his hooves
– Look how it is to stand here

This is an “easy one”, an open goal, as we can instantly recognise that it is about a Palaeolithic “bone deposit”. The horses were presumably “panicked” and directed into rushing off the cliff, where their carcasses could be recovered by the hunters. ‘Like a fortress’ I have no idea why. “Old” rain – standing water? Rain is always new but then it stops being rain. I have just been reading about the tiny leaf blades, Evan Hadingham uses that phrase “laurel leaves” and his suggestion is that they were produced because they are beautiful and not to do work. They were Solutrean. “Some of the spearheads were so wafer-thin that they would undoubtedly break if pressure were applied to them, and these must surely represent items of prestige or exchange rather than practical hunting weapons[.]” A quote grabbed from the Net is “crafting laurel-leaf blades that were so thin as to be translucent.” (Hadingham, Secrets of the Ice Age, 1980) ‘Anasphere’ was published by Burning Deck in America in 1978 and in a book from Carcanet, in England, in 1980.
I can't summarise ‘Anasphere’, it feels like a serial poem – the images succeed each other and don’t form a centre. I said it was a poem about visual art, but that may be wrong, even though the title describes an optical procedure and a (damaged) Greek sculpture. A note says that themes in two sections were drawn from Arthur Waley's translations of ancient Chinese shamanic poems. This is not promising, obscure even if you happen to be heavily involved with contemporary Chinese shamanism. So, I don't really get 'Anasphere'. The use of a word that has never existed is justified by the development of feelings you have never had before – that seems fair.

The cover of 111 Poems has Guy Davenport describing the poems as like a beautiful butterfly's wing “where agility, colour and designs cooperate with an obvious purpose but in total mystery’. This is beautiful prose but leaves us in mid-air – if the poems exist in total mystery, what is happening in our heads as we read them?

At this date his poems feel like the internet itself – the sense of endless available images, flowing off in all directions, is the melody his poetry gives off. That was the feel of a great library, or a museum, when he was being formed. I am getting a feeling that his poems are like Mottram’s, that same feeling of images flashing up and of being swept along with them, recognising some and being baffled by others. Middleton created a voice on the page, the poems don’t tear apart under the pressure of contrasting sources. He was just more calm and more cunning than Mottram.

Let’s think of Middleton as aesthete. There are too many precious objects. He lacks drive – his emotional security is never threatened. Maybe the collection bestows security on him. He has extraordinary skill and adaptability. He can't get excited– the work just rolls on. The Collected contains 350 poems but is not complete – there are other books. There is no climactic work, no book stands out. Looked at closely, all these poems are perfect. But there is a channel which is switched off or unused. It may even be the process of perfection which has attenuated the poems.
La Morena’ (at p.376) was the one I liked. He read it at Cambridge in about 2006, maybe twenty years after he wrote it. It is a great poem. It is about sexual feelings, so that the poet is inside the poem. It consists of 31 couplets, all very similar to each other – the camera remains stable during the poem. No tricks. Its power is its monotony but it is the only monotonous poem he ever wrote. It may resemble 'Holy Cow', at p. 146.

The lack of enthusiasm is part of the sophistication. It puts everything behind expensive glass. He re-creates himself all the time but it doesn’t feel like he is surprised. He doesn't seem to care that he wins. Maybe the poems are too expensive for us. He owns them already. We can’t get into the poems because they are Art and too much part of some exquisite collection. It’s his collection of precious objects, not mine. I guess this is the point. It’s too much like a museum and not enough like someone talking. The infantile process of mimesis isn’t happening – the poems aren’t giving off subjective messages which would trigger a mimetic response. ‘Chanel always now’ (from a 1975 book) is dedicated to Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayrocker, two Viennese poets married to each other for a long time. This may be a hatch, because the style of the poem is arguably a homage to Mayrocker, a run of her style of tiny flakes which when scattered in large numbers create a pointillist picture of micro-transitions. It is amazing that Middleton can take such a style, something intricate and exotic, and produce something which is finished and volatile, nostalgic and bizarre. The “hatch”, the entrance hatch, is that if this poem is founded on a response to Mayrocker, almost a dialogue, then others may be too –and he is undertaking a long-term conversation with other super-cultured people. He has that power which is either warm, and based on artistic empathy, or cold, and based in technical knowledge of language which is too detailed for most poets to take in. It would be hard to do a homage to Middleton because his poems are not recognisable. The level of repetition is spookily low – again the skill and good taste, but they can also be part of detachment. How detached can we be while being involved? Some of the poems are so good – but he keeps on shifting theme. (A note says the Chanel poem is based on a collage of bits of a Vogue article.)

After listening to a Internet talk on art history by someone (also a poet), I think a key fact about Middleton is that he lives in the world of ideas, abidingly, but has no thesis. The talk went from dynastic Egypt to Harry Thubron, but had a constant theme. Middleton is always talking about culture, but he doesn't like a sense of risk so he doesn't want to set up an unproven but exciting hypothesis. I can see that this would draw focus away from the specifics of any artwork he talks about. But there is an anomaly here – most poets either have the wish to project their personalities, or they have a thesis to prove. Middleton has neither. Well, we shouldn't underrate serenity.

I am really sorry that I never wrote a satisfactory description of Middleton. I was unable to think clearly about him while he was alive. I didn’t feel right about his work. I was a germanist and he was so much the top germanist and the top translator. I don't think the account in my book Failure of Conservatism is very good. It gets into an essay by CM (a great essay) and avoids close comment on the poems. Let’s try one poem 

Southern Electric Teddygirl

And less dull than I, gazing,
Since ribs with mackintosh plates
(Belt on the ninth hole) must make,
For ease, one vertical
Brief tube, topped by a face
Eye-staring at a moon 
So Pomona, worn thin by fish and comics,
Hair yet
Bushes of torchlight
Bounding over hills through whose glades
Cool surf burrows
Here knees and nose going
No particular way
Back, insistent, toward
Algae, plasma in pools that Pomona inched
Her million years from, now
Leaning back, on springs,
She peers for huts flash by,
Blinks with blued condescending
Eye slides over roof seas
And yellow skies that roar,
Recrossing the ankles
Her winkle-pickers bruise, to resume
Into Orpington
Her airy trail.

This may come from the late fifties, and Teddy boys then had girlfriends. Southern Electric is probably a south-eastern railway (Brighton, Portsmouth, and London) and he sees the teddy-girl on a train. Pomona is the goddess of fruit, named after apples, and somehow the teenage girl is involved with this goddess. It is possible the train is going through orchards. Somehow the time-frame goes back a million years and the girl makes a journey of that amount of time. The girl reads comics because “public opinion” was concerned at the time that teenagers read comics and not books. This poem feels like the 1920s to me, with the arbitrary and shocking montages of disparate things, which however produce a plausible and maybe satirical surface, flowing smoothly. Middleton may be the genuine heir of the Modernism of the 1920s. It is key for his poems that they don’t just take an artefact and give a literal description of them, but usually take more than one artefact, then think about both of them together – something we can do if we are in a museum and form abiding images of the exhibits we see. If he was just describing works of art, it would be much simpler. He is never flat-footed.

He several times wrote poems or groups of poems purported to come from a persona, so WV Balloon or Saul Pinkard. This did not work well, in my view. He changed all the time as a poet but was unable to project into an invented character. He had intricate designs for the lens through which a poem sees its material, but that is distinct from creating characters.

The internet shows debate about two artefacts allegedly dredged up in Mobjack Bay, Virginia, off Chesapeake Bay, which are Solutrean and allegedly support a marginal theory that Palaeolithic men came to North America from France when the Atlantic was frozen. You can or could buy these flakes for $20,000.
This is the kind of entangling & fascinating junk you find if you surf the Net. Adjacent posts cast doubt on the provenance stories (of which more than one is in circulation). There is a book about the “migration from France” idea, which I saw in a bookshop but avoided buying.
The theory has been somewhat popular with people who wanted to believe that the land of the USA wasn’t originally the property of Native Americans. Andy White was posting in 2015 and is a touch sceptical about the “frozen Atlantic” stuff and indeed the whole world of woo. I believe Dennis Stanford is the archaeologist who connected North American flints with Western European ones. The book was Across Atlantic Ice and I will not be buying it anytime soon. The flints in question don't appear in the Eastern United States, which is why ones from Virginia would be worth many dollars.
Other Net sources show people not agreeing that the super-thin blades were for show only.
It has been pointed out to me, by people more learned than I, that Tiny Tim was singing about the ice-caps melting already in 1968.

No comments:

Post a Comment