Wednesday, December 02, 2015

`The Abiding Sense of the Inevitable'

In the final phrase of an email devoted to other matters, Norm Sibum told me Christopher Middleton was dead. I knew the English poet and translator largely through the company he kept. He was a longtime friend of Guy Davenport, his classmate at Merton. In “Ezra Pound 1885-1972” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Davenport writes: “I first read The Cantos years before meeting Pound. One fine summer Christopher Middleton and I walked about Italy and France with two books only, a Donne and a Cantos. Neither of us, I think, had much notion as to what the long poem was about, except that it had strangeness and beauty in great measure.” Each dedicated poems to the other. So too did Middleton and Marius Kociejowski, and together they published Palavers and A Nocturnal Journal (Shearsman, 2004), their transcribed conversations. See also Kociejowski’s essay “C.M.: A Portrait” (The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose, 2014). In it, Marius writes: “One’s comprehension of any poem of his is never complete . . . there is, ultimately, something in them quite unfathomable.” I wrote to Marius, expressing my condolences, and he replied:

“It was not unexpected but a shock all the same, perhaps even more so for the expectation, which, after all, is the hallmark of the greatest literature, the abiding sense of the inevitable, and which makes the `surprises’ so heavily sought after by the surrealists and their ilk so tedious. I suspect you have yet to get Christopher’s measure, which is no criticism but, rather, an acknowledgement of just how abstruse he could be at times.”

His suspicion is correct. I’ve browsed among Middleton’s poems, looking for entries, with little success, thus far. Reading him sometimes feels like climbing a ladder without rungs. This has happened before. I still wrestle with Edgar Bowers’ early poems and Geoffrey Hill’s late ones. Marius continues:

“There are few writers worth the effort, however, and he is most certainly one of them. The book of essays The Pursuit of the Kingfisher has got to be one of the most unusual and striking of recent times, certainly on a par with Guy Davenport. Many of the pieces were collected in the later Jackdaw Jiving (Carcanet, 1998). Ah yes, and I greatly loved the man.”

With Jackdaw Jiving: Selected Essays on Poetry and Translation I’m familiar. In Middleton's prose, some of the rungs are still missing but with effort I’m able to climb. In “On Imagination and Lyric Voice” (1996-97) he writes:

“Currently in the English-speaking world, lyrical imagination and lyrical voice are, to my thinking, in an analeptic or reactive phase—between extremes of introversion and stridency—and for decades they have meant little or nothing to public persons . . . Still, it is not for me to play Jeremiah: and possibly it is only the sheer numbers of poets on the ground that make the poets of rare distinction hard to pick out.” 

He goes on to say that “exacting critical criteria must have been forgotten” when “loquacious vers de société” is “heartily consumed,” and when “a poem with the luminosity and magnitude of Marius Kociejowski’s `Doctor Honoris Causa’ is disregarded or found unintelligible.”

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