Christopher, born in Truro, Cornwall, in 1926, grew up in Cambridge, served in the Royal Air Force, and studied at Merton College, Oxford. He taught at the University of Zurich, at King’s College, London, and was Professor of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas, Austin. Geoffrey Hill described him yesterday as ‘a major poet of our times’.
Middleton has gained a small though loyal public, which is the case with many poets whose work I care about, but, for reasons I find perplexing, he has never crossed the line into the realm of wider recognition—Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe, Louise Glück, Paul Muldoon, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, and his friends Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are practically famous compared to him. Outside his books, you are not likely to come across his name; he isn’t mentioned on literary blogs; year after year, he isn’t listed among the nominees for prizes; and he isn’t a past winner of an award or fellowship we immediately recognize; he isn’t talked about as a teacher of creative writing—all those measures we use to determine a poet’s importance. As far as I know, he has never received a Guggenheim Fellowship or, perhaps better yet, if he has received one, he has chosen not to list it among his achievements.
Aside from these mainstream markers, you don’t hear him being mentioned as an example of some tendency, good or bad. Certainly, no ready profile, however misinformed and generalizing it might be, comes to mind when we think of him, which isn’t the case with his peers: John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, andW.S. Merwin. In fact, I can think of many slightly celebrated poets whose work I don’t ever want to read again—even if I am stuck in a dentist’s waiting room, sitting next to the latest issues of the New Yorker—being embraced far more often, and tendentiously, in literary and semi-literary periodicals. And it is certainly easy enough to think of figures whose very names are mentioned in a hushed voice befitting a martyred saint—a status that Middleton has clearly shunned. What I am lamenting, however, is his absence from every list that I can think of, except neglected poets.
His poetry, which was rooted in a scholarship very lightly worn, drew its sources from whatever happened to be preoccupying him at the moment of its creation, be it Roman numismatics, a Cretan deity or the proud grace of a passing feline. He could be very fastidious about small things. He wrote well, and with a good-humoured, impassioned eloquence, about the animals and birds with which we are fortunate to share this planet. The word "creation" was one that he loved.
Middleton hated the ego-boosting reportage that often passes for poetry in our time, and what he dismissively described as "prosing". Art was too serious for such casualness, he believed. He believed in the power of the Muse to seize hold of and direct the powers of the imagination. Poems, which issued from a kind of elsewhere, were acts of creation themselves, not drearily dutiful acts of recording. "Language," he once said, "functions to create experience anew."
A poem by the late Christopher Middleton admired by RF Langley and JH Prynne pic.twitter.com/4VKSHK2oxK— Jeremy Noel-Tod (@jntod) December 1, 2015
I’ll never forget sitting as a teenager on the hot pavement of the tiny enclosed patio at 6744 Milne Blvd. in New Orleans—now a vacant lot thanks to Hurricane Katrina—reading Middleton’s translations of stories by Robert Walser and trying to figure out how he did it. My own first attempts at turning sentences written in German (a language I was just learning) into English prose were not going well. “The songbird songs heard already such a long, long time ago by human beings!” I wrote, trying clumsily to approximate the flourish with which Walser ended his “Biedermeier Story”: “Die Singvögellieder, die vor schon so langer, langer Zeit von Menschen vernommen worden sind!” Middleton’s version of this sentence was lyrical, offhandedly elegant: “All the songs of singing birds heard by people such a long, long time ago!” Check out the assonance of “birds” and “heard” that gives this line its artful caesura, rhythmically setting up the reader to place another well-timed (if more muted) caesura after “people.” The line sings, it’s translation-by-poet.
I had him for a Comp Lit poetry seminar when I was a grad student in Slavic Lit at Univ. of Texas in the 1990's. He was droll and irritable. Loved Georg Trakl, I remember that. Had us over to his little house near campus to listen to Spanish classical music and drink wine. I'll never forget him talking about how his students were always trying to get out of exams: "Always some dead grandmother in the mix". Quite a character. Rest in Peace.