Christopher Middleton

b. 1926
Christopher MiddletonGuney Dal

Described as “one of the most scrupulous of British poets involved in following the innovations of modernism,” by Douglas Dunn, poet and translator Christopher Middleton holds a unique place in contemporary British and American verse. Born in Truro, Cornwall in 1926, Middleton served in the Royal Air Force before attending Merton College, Oxford. He has taught at the University of Zurich and King’s College in London, and from 1966 until 1998 was Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature at the University of Texas-Austin. Highly regarded as a translator, Middleton has translated the work of major German authors including Robert Walser, Gottfried Benn, Christa Wolf, and Paul Celan. In 1987 he was awarded the prestigious Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize. Middleton’s own poetry is notable for its erudition, playfulness, and openness to experiment. “Although its roots are in surrealism …and German Expressionism,” Brian Swann commented in Library Journal, “Middleton’s poetry is unlike any other. He specializes in lively juxtapositions, incongruities of collage, the play of forms …Vistas recede in a number of poems into the prehistoric so we are aware of mysterious correlations.”

Middleton’s first collection of poetry to be widely published was Torse 3 (1962), which shared the Geoffrey Faber award. Describing the volume as an “apprentice book of experiments,” Oliver Dixon in The Wolf noted the range and variety of Middleton’s effects: from blank verse to off-rhymed couplets to sonnets, the book is full of “‘developable surfaces’ that lay the foundations for later work,” according to the reviewer. One of Middleton’s continuing concerns has been the shaping of each individual poem to suit its particular subject. “His concern to produce an individual structure of perception for every place, thought and experience he writes about,” noted Alan Brownjohn in the New Statesman, “results in a ceaseless and challenging originality.” Such originality has often put Middleton at odds with the British poetry mainstream, though his stubbornly experimental streak is sometimes seen as a corrective to it. In his collection of essays titled The Pursuit of the Kingfisher (1983), Middleton calls for an “exigent poetry, hard-bitten poetry, which goes to the limits of the conceivable and thus relocates the centre,” descrying the “suave poetry” which he sees as dominating the British literary scene. Critic George Steiner has argued that Middleton’s “linguistic range, the severe seriousness of his conception of the role of the poet and of the poet’s reader in these ‘terrible times’, his unembarrassed celebration of the visionary, ‘transcendent’ potentialities in art and the imagination, are correctives to the retrenched provincialism of the current English manner.”

In books like The Lonely Suppers of W. V. Balloon (1975), 111 Poems (1983), and The Balcony Tree (1992), Middleton continues to explore a startling array of topics, themes, and forms. Denis Donoghue, in the London Review of Books, called 111 Poems “metrically inventive and various, these poems are remarkably alive to ‘the unknown thing beside us’; they listen for ‘the due sound’, and, as if watching birds, register ‘the timed flight of words.’“ Though not solely concerned with its own status, Middleton’s poems frequently interrogate the limitations of poetry as such. Perhaps as a result, Middleton’s poetry has been lauded and queried in almost equal measure. Critics have at times misunderstood his intentions or failed to appreciate his innovations. Reviewing his “vast and inventive” Collected Poems (2008) in the Guardian, Frances Leviston noted that imbalances occasionally occurred when “enthusiasm for continental philosophy or theology can seem to overwhelm the structure in which it appears.” Middleton’s perceived obscurity or idiosyncrasy may also be connected to his residence in the United States; Dixon noted that, like W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn, “relocation to the States seems to have been…a liberating move” for Middleton. “The approach towards language is increasingly fluid and Joycean,” Dixon wrote. “There are no pre-set formal templates within which to fit neat portions of confessional or descriptive subject-matter; each text is an inclusive act of discovering, through animated dialogue with some point of focus (be it human, animal, household object, historical locale), its own organic form.”

In addition to three collections of essays and expository writing, Middleton has published three books of prose: Pataxanadu (1977), Serpentine (1983), and In the Mirror of the Eighth King (1999). Although he has lived in Texas for over thirty years, Middleton is still a vital part of the contemporary English poetry scene, and his influence as an innovative poet open to the traditions of other languages, cultures, and even genres is increasing. The British literary scene hailed the publication of his Collected Poems as a major event. Even the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted: “Middleton has been an increasingly important influence on writing in English since the mid-1950s. His poems, stories, translations, and essays have demonstrated consistent refusal to disregard the more unsettling discoveries of both romanticism and high modernism.”


Career

Writer, poet, editor, and translator. Zurich University, Zurich, Switzerland, lecturer in English, 1952-55; University of London, King's College, London, England, lecturer in German, 1955-56; University of Texas, Austin, visiting professor, 1961-62, professor of German literature, 1966-98. Exhibition of forty collages with texts, "The Troubled Sleep of America", at the Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin, TX, 1982.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • Torse 3: Poems, 1949-1961, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1962.
  • (With David Holbrook and David Wevill) Penguin Modern Poets 4, Penguin (New York, NY), 1963.
  • Nonsequences: Selfpoems, Longmans, 1965, Norton (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Our Flowers and Nice Bones, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1969.
  • The Fossil Fish: 15 Micropoems, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1970.
  • Briefcase History: 9 Poems, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1972.
  • Fractions from Another Telemachus, Sceptre Press (Frensham, England), 1974.
  • Wild Horse, Sceptre Press (Frensham, England), 1975.
  • The Lonely Suppers of W. V. Balloon, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1975.
  • Razzmatazz, W. Thomas Taylor (Austin, TX), 1976.
  • Eight Elementary Inventions, Sceptre Press (Frensham, England), 1977.
  • Anasphere, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1978.
  • Carminalenia, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1980.
  • Woden Dog, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1982.
  • 111 Poems, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1983.
  • Two Horse Wagon Going By, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1986.
  • Selected Writings, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1989.
  • The Balcony Tree, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1992, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992.
  • Some Dogs, Enitharmon Press (London, England), 1993.
  • Intimate Chronicles, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY) and Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1996.
  • Twenty Tropes for Doctor Dark, Enitharmon (London, England), 2000.
  • The Word Pavilion and Selected Poems, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 2001.
  • Of the Mortal Fire, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 2003.
  • The Anti-Basilisk, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 2005.
  • Tankard Cat, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 2005.
  • Tenor on Horseback, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 2007.
  • Collected Poems, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 2008.

PROSE

  • Bolshevism in Art, and Other Expository Writings, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1978, Humanities Press (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1980.
  • The Pursuit of the Kingfisher (essays), Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1983.
  • Jackdaw Jiving: Selected Essays on Poetry and Translation, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1998.
  • Pataxanadu and Other Prose, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1977.
  • Serpentine, Oasis Books (London, England), 1985.
  • In the Mirror of the Eighth King, Sun and Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1999.

EDITOR

  • (With others) Ohne Hass und Fahne (title means “Without Hate and Flag”), Rowolt Verlag (Hamburg, Germany), 1959.
  • (And translator, with Michael Hamburger) Modern German Poetry, 1910-1960: An Anthology with Verse Translations, Grove (New York, NY), 1962.
  • (And translator, with William Burford) The Poet’s Vocation: Selections from the Letters of Hoelderlin, Rimbaud and Hart Crane, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1962.
  • (And selector of texts) German Writing Today, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1967.
  • Selected Poems by Georg Trakl, J. Cape (London, England), 1968.
  • (And author of introduction; and translator, with others) Selected Poems of Goethe, Suhrkamp Insel (Boston, MA), 1983.
  • (And translator, with others) Lars Gustafsson, The Stillness of the World before Bach, New Directions (Newton, NJ), 1988.
  • Elegies, New Directions (Newton, NJ), 1999.

TRANSLATOR

  • Robert Walser, The Walk and Other Stories, Calder (London, England), 1957.
  • (With others) Gottfried Benn, Primal Vision, New Directions (Newton, NJ), 1960.
  • (With others) Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Poems and Verse Plays, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1961.
  • (With Michael Hamburger) Günter Grass, Selected Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1969.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Selected Letters, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1969, reprinted, Hackett, 1996.
  • (With Michael Hamburger) Günter Grass, Poems, Penguin (New York, NY), 1969, published as Selected Poems, 1980.
  • Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T., Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1970.
  • (With Michael Hamburger) Paul Celan, Selected Poems, Penguin (New York, NY), 1972.
  • Friedrich Hoelderlin and Eduard Moerike, Selected Poems, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1972.
  • Günter Grass, Inmarypraise, Harcourt (Boston, MA), 1974.
  • Elias Canetti, Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice, Schocken (New York, NY), 1974.
  • (With Hamburger) Günter Grass, In the Egg, and Other Poems, Harcourt (Boston, MA), 1977.
  • Robert Walser, Selected Stories, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982.
  • Gert Hofmann, The Spectacle at the Tower, Fromm (New York, NY), 1985.
  • Gert Hofmann, Our Conquest, Fromm (New York, NY), 1985.
  • Gert Hofmann, The Parable of the Blind, Fromm (New York, NY), 1987.
  • Gert Hofmann, Balzac’s Horse and Other Stories, Fromm (New York, NY), 1988.
  • (With Leticia Garza-Falcón) Andalusian Poems (from Spanish versions of the Arabic), David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1993.
  • Faint Harps and Silver Voices, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 2000.

 


Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Writers Directory, 15th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

  • Chicago Review, Volume 29, 1977; spring, 2000, W. Martin, review of In the Mirror of the Eighth King, p. 104.
  • Encounter, September, 1975; October, 1979; December, 1983.
  • Hudson Review, autumn, 1962.
  • Library Journal, November 15, 1975.
  • London Magazine, February, 1966.
  • London Review of Books, October 4, 1984.
  • New Statesman, December 24, 1965; September 5, 1975; June 3, 1983.
  • New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1982; May 20, 1984; November 15, 1987.
  • Ninth Decade, Number 2, 1983.
  • Observer (London, England), January 2, 1966.
  • PN Review, Number 18, 1980.
  • Stand, spring, 1981.
  • Times (London, England), June 9, 1983.
  • Times Literary Supplement, February 17, 1966; January 13, 1978; May, 16, 1980; March 9, 1984.
  • Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1982.
  • Yale Review, autumn, 1963.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION England

LIFE SPAN 1926–

Christopher Middleton

Biography

Described as “one of the most scrupulous of British poets involved in following the innovations of modernism,” by Douglas Dunn, poet and translator Christopher Middleton holds a unique place in contemporary British and American verse. Born in Truro, Cornwall in 1926, Middleton served in the Royal Air Force before attending Merton College, Oxford. He has taught at the University of Zurich and King’s College in London, and from . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.