Friday, 13 April 2018

From Metamorphosis to Molossus: Riley on Middleton

Just came across Peter Riley on Christopher Middleton's Collected in the excellent Fortnightly Review, a book I reviewed myself but I feel didn't get to the nub of as Riley does here:

"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...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"

Doesn't this hit on a process which occurs in all effective poetry, a "transformative drive" which enacts a corresponding shift within the reader, his or her brain and body and nervous system; certainly a jolt that runs through one's auditory/linguistic proprioception (so to speak)? I also like the fact that Riley - a not inconsiderable poet himself of course - spends quite a while examining the opening poem in the Middleton, 'Objects at Brampton Ash', which was always a favourite of mine (having come across it in the Penguin Modern Poets three-hander in which CM appears - number 4 I believe - before I'd got hold of before any of his full volumes), an enthusiasm apparently shared with RF Langley and JH Prynne.

"The quick thrush cocks his head,/bunching his pectorals" was what got me: the stressed syllables are bunched too, attentive and alert, bristling with assonance, getting ready to launch off into the poem. Also, a metrical feature I always look for (as Charles Tomlinson said that he always looked out for spondees), an example of the molossus - three stresses in a row, an intense compression of pent-up energy which is then furthered by the spondaic impact of head/bunch and only finds release in the run of unstressed syllables in the second line. A whole mimetic drama is played out here just in these two short lines, capturing the transfer of energy the jumpy thrush embodies, asking the reader to cock their head and bunch their pectorals too, ready to take on board both the other objects encountered at Brampton Ash and by extension the whole astonishing world of Middleton's Collected.

Read the poem and Peter Riley's review here.

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