Academic journal article Chicago Review

Habitation for a Spirit: The Art of Christopher Middleton

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Habitation for a Spirit: The Art of Christopher Middleton

Article excerpt

In his essay "The Pursuit of the Kingfisher: Writing as Expression," Christopher Middleton is suddenly arrested by a memory: "I built a nest for a bird once, in my childhood." (1) With this memory, I feel, we are introduced to the original impulse that would define Christopher Middleton's mature imagination: an impulse at once playful and keenly receptive to the poet's fellow creatures. The idea of Middleton as a nest-builder calls to mind Emily Dickinson's "Nature is a Haunted House--but Art--a House that tries to be haunted." (2) Dickinson and Middleton are markedly different poets; what they have in common, as well as an individual sense of humor, is their conception of the poem as habitation for a spirit.

Recalling his boyhood nest-building, Middleton immediately adds: "Of course, no bird ever so much as looked at it." We may reflect that had the boy constructed a nest-box, it is probable that a bird would have nested in it. From all we know of Christopher Middleton from his mature imagination, however, it is evident that solemnly contriving a box--an object with a common design--would not have been his way. In terms that the man would develop, such a thing would not have been "singular" (JJ, 34). In the words of the opening of his great essay "Reflections on a Viking Prow," it would not have been capable of expressing "the 'contents' of a subjectivity." "Some poems," he says there, "constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where 'self-expression' has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being" (JJ, 24). He makes the same point more simply when he says: "the slightest poem can be thrilling with the breath of life itself" (JJ, 1).

Middleton frequently makes links between birds and poems in his expository prose. In "The Pursuit of the Kingfisher: Writing as Expression," for example, he writes: "For the poet, as for birds, what is expressed has validity and interest only insofar as it initiates, elaborates, and projects a distinct structure. An appropriate structure" (JJ, 12). In the same essay he speaks of contemplating "the figure of the poem as a labyrinthine nest in which the kingfisher might want to settle. The poem is a lure for an elusive and speechless spirit which we can think of as the real basis of the lyrical impulse" (JJ, 15). Birds are frequent presences in Christopher Middleton's poems, too. Middleton is at once a modernist, recalling James Joyce's bird-man, Dedalus, the "old artificer" of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the philosophy of art that his namesake, Stephen Dedalus, evolves, and a poet who invokes the shamanistic figure of the bird-man of Europe's primordial cave-art.

The art of poetry, as Christopher Middleton practices it, is a form of mediation. He is one for whom "the central fact of language ... is relation" (JJ, 40). When he speaks of subjectivity it is clear that he is referring not to egotism, but to the poet as a channel between inner depths of "the body-mind" (JJ, 33) and the cultural and natural worlds in which he participates. "Reality" he describes as "between what is out there (the other) and what you are imagining about it. In brief, reality itself is essentially liminal" (JJ, 52). With wit and modesty Middleton effectively adopts the shaman's traditional role as mediator between the human and the other. In "On Imagination and Lyric Voice," he claims that imagination as "art ... constitutes a channel of feeling, fraught with memory and desire, without which a well-being in the very nature of things would not be conceivable." One name he proposes for this is "birdsong in the universe" (JJ, 4).

As mediator, the principal connection in Middleton's thinking is between making (the poem as artifact, as structuring) and opening or channeling, and between making and voyaging. Hence his preoccupation with birds (their nests and songs as containers of life) and boats (built to ride their element and carry mariners on dangerous voyages). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.