Christopher Middleton Essay - Middleton, Christopher

Middleton, Christopher


Middleton, Christopher 1926–

Middleton is a British poet, editor, and translator now living in the United States. Avowedly modernist in his poetic theories, Middleton writes oblique, sometimes obscurely allusive poetry. A translator of recognized skill, he is especially well respected for his translations of German poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

John Simon

Individual poems by [Christopher Middleton] in magazines always gave me the feeling that a genuine sensibility was at work here, and that if only I were reading some other poem of his, it would surely satisfy me completely. Well, Torse 3 ranges from obscurity to banality, and the two successful poems, "Amigos de Corazon" and "At Porthcothan," are both of them narrative, which I consider the least interesting form of poetry. Nonetheless, some of "Alba After Six Years," the first stanza of "Waterloo Bridge," and parts of "Rhododendron Estranged in Twilight," for all its indebtedness to Rilke, hold out promise of better things to come. (p. 464)

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1962 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XV, No. 3, Autumn, 1962.

Thom Gunn

[Christopher Middleton's] epigraph, a dictionary definition of his title [Torse 3], runs: "A developable surface; a surface generated by a moving straight line which at every instant is turning, in some plane or other through it, about some point or other in its length." If I understand this correctly, it is a description—a very apt and ingenious one—of poetry as craft, and in fact the concern of his book is usually more with how he is writing than with what he is writing.

Mr. Middleton uses several clearly distinguishable styles, ranging from that of direct statement to that of impenetrable obliquity…. The quick changes from style to style may be partly explained by the fact that Torse 3 is a collection of twelve years' work, but even so the effect is less of an evolution in the writing than of a man trying on different coats.

Mr. Middleton is at his best in "Ode, on Contemplating Clapham Junction," "Objects at Brampton Ash," "The Guest," and "The Thousand Things." The textures of style in these poems never seem superimposed on the meaning. The oddity and particularity of the imagery are not gratuitous, because the sense exists in terms of it. (pp. 135-36)

Thom Gunn, in The Yale Review (© 1963 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1963.

Ian Hamilton

Just as it is hard … in Torse 3 to pin down Middleton to any one poetic manner, to say—for instance—that surrealistic flights of fancy were better for what he had to say than Dylanesque labyrinths of rhetoric, or the optical exercises of Wallace Stevens, so in his … Nonsequences it is enormously difficult—and in spite of the sub- or joint-title, Selfpoems—to discover him. The style is more consistent, a chaste, neutral, rather laborious diction that can tighten up where it needs to but is mostly low-pressure and very humbly painstaking; he toys a bit with pregnant line-breaks and odd layouts but never takes the full experimentalist plunge—he is most easy, in fact, with longer lines and fairly formal stanzas. What mostly worries, though, throughout the book is this absence of any unifying personal pressure, an absence which one suspects to be deliberate. This is not to ask for autobiography or straight confession …—but somehow to miss the sense that all the words come naturally or necessarily from the one mouth, or are even weighed by the same imaginative measure. Middleton writes about his cat, his travels, his family and so on, and does so with an intent accuracy of detail but they all appear as features of a drama that is kept firmly distant from whatever the poet might feel about it; a drama in which the liberated, uninterfering eye, is allowed to call the tune. Never far from each of his situations there seems to be the...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Douglas Dunn

Christopher Middleton's work shows [his] way of reflecting the self-conscious seriousness of art and poetry. His new book The Lonely Suppers of W. V. Balloon is his best yet. He has also been one of the most scrupulous of British poets involved in following the innovations of modernism. Indeed his work strikes me as having derived itself from modern painting as much as poetry. Imagination is used as an instrument for the precise measurement of observations and experience. Forms of writing are austerely devised to allow imagination its exits from mind and poem without distorting the accuracy of pictures and sensations as these are presented. His concentration is almost painterly in poems like "A Cart with Apples."… Middleton apparently considers it a moral responsibility to present sensations as much as possible in their own terms. He writes of nature as-it-is instead of as-it-is-significant….

But while he is inventive, and, in his new book, productive …, [a sheer relish and exuberance of language] simply is not there…. Something constrictingly intellectual, I suggest, prevents that. Indeed, that is the hallmark of the deliberating, over-deliberating, modernist poet….

"Le nu provençal" … begins

     The wooden shutter hanging open,
     sunlight commands the shapes around the room.
     A jug has left its ovals on a flagstone,
     and tilts a little, as if listening in
     to a kneecap or a buttock

which illustrates what I meant earlier by accuracy through the use of imagination. The lines have their own tilt of surprise and charm. Middleton recreates the photograph on which the poem is based, specifying almost invisibly a sort of "point of view", a conclusion about what has been seen which is not exactly a conclusion but left open to our own experience. That Middleton is able to use objects in this way, cleverly, but with no obtrusive gimmickry, suggests that he is a poet of considerable importance—an avant-garde poet we can actually read. (p. 80)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1975.

Jay Parini

I took up The Lonely Suppers of W. V. Balloon with some excitement. I expected a little more, perhaps; but I can recommend this volume nonetheless…. (pp. 139-40)

[Middleton's] art is an elaborate personal mosaic of "fragments shored against our ruins." Middleton cares deeply for "… things / their mass & contour / & all beginnings" ("In Balthazar's Village"). Objects interest him in the same way they did Picasso, and the poems often remind one of Cubist paintings; the artist views the same thing from different angles, and the work becomes a dance around the object, an exercise in perspective. Wallace Stevens is a precursor in this vein, of course, and Middleton's "A Cart of Apples" resembles a poem like "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," in which each stanza shifts the scene slightly, juggling the same elements in search of a new perspective…. This is the poetry of process; in effect, the poet enacts before his reader the progress from what Coleridge termed the Primary to the Secondary Imagination…. The poet sees the object once, then breaks it up into constituent elements and reassembles it. In doing so, he imitates God; he restores the image to his reader in its original freshness. This theme links Middleton back to the Romantic poets, especially the English Romantics, who developed the heterocosmic analogue—the parallel between writing poetry and creating the universe anew.

Perhaps the most attractive of Middleton's poems on this theme is "A Drive in the Country / Henri Toulouse-Lautrec," which takes the process of re-creation one step...

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Alan Young

There is little doubt that of contemporary poets Christopher Middleton is in theory among the best equipped to lead an English team into post-modern Europe. Two important practical considerations stand in the way of his being selected. First, he is not naturally a team-player, preferring the accomplishment of dazzling but solitary runs and displays of pure skill. Second, and more alarming, he likes to make up new rules and does not really seem to care which way he is playing, being likely therefore to nod the ball with equal nonchalance into either team's net. Pataxanadu and Other Prose … exhibits more than ever before those cultivated eccentricities of Middleton's art which by turns fascinate, mystify and...

(The entire section is 801 words.)