Tuesday, 10 December 2013

No Longer a Mere Blob: Christopher Middleton’s ‘Reflections On a Viking Prow’


   This was a piece I wrote hastily in September for the Christopher Middleton tribute in The BowWowShop, a festschrift collated by Michael Glover and including figures such as Tom Lowenstein, Alison Brackenbury, Roy Fisher, Rosemary Waldrop and August Kleinzahler (http://www.bowwowshop.org.uk/page10.htm). Middleton, now 87, has been in poor health for a while and this eloquent, enthusiastic honouring of his achievements seems wholly appropriate and timely.
    My contribution didn't quite make the cut but I include it here as my own meagre tribute to one of the poets who has meant most to me over the years:

    In a recent blog-post, Todd Swift waxed doleful about the relevance and status of poetry in our dumbed-down age: “the efficacy of poetry has long been a myth.  Poems, except to poets, are a rather dull affair.  They sit there on the page like a lump of cold meat.” In our digitized, bleeping world of never-ending distractions and designer time-saving devices, who wants to go to the effort of reading the kind of stuff we were forced to plough through in English lessons at school? “Poems are often remote, and indifferent, objects.  Their technological prowess is equivalent to that of the gramophone.  We have moved on.”
     And caught at a jaded moment, considering how difficult it is to make one’s own poems heard above the twittering, text-alerting clamour that surrounds us - let alone the maunder of self-advertising slapdashery that all too often passes for poetry these days, so derivative that serial plagiarists are only outed after they’ve won prizes and had books out, less a “lump of cold meat” than a sliver of microwaved spam – I wondered if Todd’s bleak estimate wasn’t right after all and if poems had regressed into fusty museum-pieces read only by a coterie of leather-elbowed cranks?
     Glover’s email snapped me out of it, reminding me that one of the most important English poets alive was ill in bed in another continent, one of the few contemporaries who has figured in my personal pantheon over the years. I reached down the dog-eared Paladin Selected Writings from my shelf (on the back: “a poet with the disconcerting knack of making it new in almost every poem”) and my flicking sortilege immediately found this:
     'What troubles us now is the likelihood that some sort of vacuum, having eroded the presences of original things, artefacts and handiworks, is eating away the awesome reality of individual human lives...The totally politicised world, with its economic imperatives, grievances, greeds, is punctured all over by ideological syringes that suck and pump singularity out of everything, and flood, with embalming fluids, every vein of difference, every muscle of human oddity...A nightmare of designification is running its course...The (poet’s) regard resting on the object is thus the key to self-affirmation: a self reclaims itself from nonentity and, as the object reveals itself in a certain light, that self can gaze into its own depths as an agent of interiority, no longer a mere blob to be pushed around in a flat world'.
    If, in a time of cultural vacuity, you want an ars poetica that goes to the roots of how poetry remains inextricably bound up with the whole process of societal myth-making and human identity, a reinvigorating jolt of primal poesis elaborated in a style that is wittily vivid and learned yet the opposite of academic, return (or turn anew) to Christopher Middleton’s ‘Reflections on a Viking Prow’, an essay that’s as intricately-wrought and rich in imagery as any prose-poem. If, like me, you need to periodically “recapture poetic reality in a tottering world”, this is the most resonant emergency-resource I know, delineating the short-sightedness of the autobiographical default-setting of so many contemporary poems (“foregrounding his own subjective compulsions, ...cataloguing impressions,...hanging an edict from an anecdote”) and outlining in its place a potent conception of poem as thingly artefact and the poet as historically-grounded artificer whose “writings are formal creations which enshrine and radiate poetic space”.
     Needless to say, the essay also affords illuminating perspectives on the kalleidoscopic array of verbal artefacts – at times dizzying in their diversity and range – that make up Middleton’s Collected Poems. Never allied to any school and wisely self-exiled from the trivial rivalries of the UK scene, he is one of the two or three absolute originals of the post-war period, doggedly pursuing his own prolific course through enthralling congeries of forms, themes and ideas that aren’t even on the radar of most English poets. In this he is also one of the very few English-born poets to have achieved anything like international stature in our time, his standing in fact higher in the States and in Germany than in his own country.
       But if Middleton is less appreciated here than he should be, I see him as the osmotic forebear of two major tendencies of recent years. Firstly, decades before it became the done thing to claim Rilke, Leopardi, Celan, Rimbaud or whoever else you can think of as your key antecedent and model, Middleton was not only assiduously learning his craft from difficult, outré continentals but also translating them, his explorations as a translator (of prose as well as verse) having proceeded in closely-knit tandem with his own writings.
       Secondly, if we have finally now managed to get over the reductive dualism of mainstream versus avant garde that has lead to such pointless “poetry wars” over the years, with a more “hybrid” approach now becoming increasingly adopted, Middleton’s oeuvre has again been ahead of its time and always demonstrated too much breadth and scope to be crowbarred into either camp, an ongoing object-lesson in how experimental poetry can be made inclusive and approachable, and how clarity and emotional depth need not be incompatible with formal inventiveness and play.

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