David Middleton is a renowned metrical poet from the American South. In his poems, as Catharine Savage Brosman writes, “His broad, sympathetic vision and the sense of order that it implies are supported throughout by his seasoned command of formal verse.”
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, he completed his B.A. at Louisiana Tech in 1971 and his Ph.D. in English at Louisiana State University in 1979. He then took a position at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where he has taught for the past thirty-two years. He now serves as an Alcee Fortier Distinguished Professor, Poet-in-Residence, and Head of the Department of Languages and Literature.
David Middleton is the author of three collections of poetry and six chapbooks. His three full-length collections, all published by The Louisiana State University Press, are The Burning Fields (1991), Beyond the Chandeleurs (1999), and The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet (2005). His chapbooks are Reliquiae (Robert L. Barth, 1983); Under the Linden Tree (Robert L. Barth, 1985); As Far As Light Remains (The Cummington Press, 1993); Bonfires on the Levee (Blue Heron Press, 1996); The Undivided Realm (Robert L. Barth, 2000); and The Language of the Heart (Louisiana Literature Press, 2003). Currently the poetry editor at Modern Age and The Classical Outlook, he has also served in that position at The Louisiana English Journal and The Anglican Theological Review.
This interview was conducted at the University of Evansville on September 11, 2008. For more information on the university’s book Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, click here. For more information on its co-editor, Rob Griffith, click here.
W.B: After you were born in Shreveport’s North Louisiana Hospital, your parents brought you home to a crib that was uniquely prepared by your mother.
DAVID MIDDLETON: Yes, it was. It contained a semicircle of children’s books which had one picture and one word on each page – like a picture of an apple and the word “apple.” It was my parents’ intention that, from the very beginning, I would think about words and language as a natural part of the world around me – as natural as the sun, the moon, and the stars. They also read to me every night until I was about ten years old, and we went through a children’s Bible, the Greek and Roman myths, and the Arthurian legends. So language was an integral part of my life from the very beginning.
W.B: You once said that during your childhood and adolescence, your father, who was an artist and elementary school principal, read a chapter from the King James Bible every morning at breakfast.
DAVID MIDDLETON: That’s true. It was a red-letter edition, and I loved the beautiful poetic prose rhythms of the King James Bible. I think it’s interesting to note the prominence of poetry in the Bible – and not just in the Psalms. Even in the book of Matthew, for example, the last words that Jesus speaks are, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and that’s poetry. It’s the first line of the 22nd Psalm.
W.B: In your youth, you often left Shreveport in the summers for the small town of Saline, Louisiana, (population 400) where your maternal grandparents lived. Saline was very special to you, and you’ve often called it your childhood “Eden.”
DAVID MIDDLETON: It was my poetic home – my equivalent to Sligo for Yeats. Growing up in Shreveport, I was a city boy, so my trips to Saline were my only encounters with country life. My grandparents had a huge garden and a corn patch and a watermelon field, and an uncle would take me hunting and fishing. Southern writers are often deeply attached to agrarian life, and that was ingrained in me as a very young boy.
W.B: Do you ever get back to Saline?
DAVID MIDDLETON: Although I don’t have any relatives living there now, I occasionally get back. When I was a boy, my grandfather was mayor of the town and president of the bank in Saline, and they recently turned that building into a small local library. Then, just last year, I had the thrill of a lifetime when I was able to bring copies of my books, which are full of poems set in the region, to the library in Saline. So now my poems are available in my grandfather’s old bank building, and it felt as though a great family circle had closed. In fact, one of the poems is called “The Old Bank in Saline.”
W.B.: When in your youth did you first start writing poems?
DAVID MIDDLETON: I can recall my literary beginnings with more exactitude than may be the case for other poets. I was in the ninth grade, and our English teacher wanted us to write a short story. We’d recently read a short story version of Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and she said, “Write a story that tells what happened after Amahl and the Three Wise Men leave his home to make their way to Bethlehem.” All I can remember of my own attempt is that I made some use of Superman to get them there quickly, but that experience made me want to write fiction. I soon discovered that I had very little talent in fiction, but my teacher had awakened in me the desire to be a writer, so I quickly turned to writing poetry.
W.B: I realize that Frost was an important early influence, but what other writers affected you before you went off to college?
DAVID MIDDLETON: Dylan Thomas was an important influence.
W.B.: That seems a bit young for Dylan?
DAVID MIDDLETON: Well, I’d read a feature story about him in The Atlantic Monthly, and I immediately read all his work. Of course, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, you’re naturally overwhelmed by his powerful use of language. I also became aware of T.S. Eliot around that time. When Eliot died in 1965, my high school English teacher talked about him in class and that spurred my interest. I was also reading and enjoying e.e. cummings to a lesser degree. But, as you mentioned, Robert Frost was the poet who meant the most to me in my earliest years. Later, I temporarily moved away from writing that kind of poetry, but eventually I returned to writing metrical verse set in a specific rural area in the way that Frost does so well. The impact of Frost also fits in with the influence of the Bible because, in both cases, you find a poetic language that is simple, in the best sense of the word, yet deep. And that’s always been my ideal: to write poems that are crystal clear on first reading, but in which there are other levels of meaning if the reader decides to go back for subsequent readings.
W.B: You’ve also spoken about your adolescent interest in the music of the times, particularly the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, and others. Do you think those songwriters affected your development as a poet?
DAVID MIDDLETON: Absolutely. That was the one part of the Sixties that I really enjoyed. I wasn’t interested in the drugs and the promiscuity and the rest of it, but I did love the best of the music – and, of course, all of it was rhymed metrical verse! In fact, I remember the irony of those times when free verse poets would read at the colleges, and then, later, at the receptions and parties, they’d all listen to Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez and enjoy metrical verse – although they might not have realized it at the time.
W.B: When you went to Louisiana Tech as an undergraduate, you were writing free verse, which was perfectly reasonable for a young poet at the time. So what brought you back to formal poetry? Did it happen at L.S.U., or did it start at Louisiana Tech?
DAVID MIDDLETON: It really happened at L.S.U. During my senior year at Louisiana Tech, a good friend of mine had preceded me to L.S.U. His name is Lindon Stall, and he’d met another poet at L.S.U. named John Finlay. So I was hearing from Lindon that they were both changing the way they were writing verse, especially under the influence of Donald Stanford.
W.B: Let’s talk about Professor Stanford, who’d been a student of Yvor Winters and was the co-editor of The Southern Review.
DAVID MIDDLETON: Donald Stanford was not only an influential teacher, but he was the driving force behind reviving The Southern Review in 1965. Then he and Lewis Simpson co-edited the journal for the next twenty years.
W.B: When was the first series discontinued?
DAVID MIDDLETON: The first series ran from 1935 to 1942, and it was discontinued ostensibly because of World War II, although Mike the Tiger, the L.S.U. mascot, and his air-conditioned cage, managed to survive the same budget cut.
W.B: Did you study with Professor Stanford in your first year at L.S.U.?
DAVID MIDDLETON: I did, and I remember that when I took a number of my poems to him for criticism, he gave them the “Yvor Winters treatment,” meaning that he told me that they were all terrible – except for one about a bird. He said, “This one isn’t too bad,” and I later learned that he had a special fondness for birds. He had hummingbird feeders in his backyard, and he’d written a number of beautiful poems about certain birds native to Western Massachusetts where he grew up. At any rate, he saw how disconsolate I was by his severe treatment, and he told me something that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “David, I’m comparing you to the great Southern poet Allen Tate. That’s the mark I’m setting for you to reach.” So he challenged me from the start to become a better poet. In time, I took his courses in modern poetry and in the poetry of New England, and I had many private conferences with him as well. I also attended the famous sherry parties that he and his wife Maryanna hosted for years, as well as his steak and beer cookouts for the group of poets who surrounded him. During those years, we talked about metrical verse, and I was introduced to Yvor Winters’s poetry and the work of J. V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, and the other senior Wintersians. This was the Seventies, and the New Formalist movement was just beginning, and Stanford was publishing young poets like Timothy Steele in The Southern Review, and I became aware that there were other poets out there, some not much older than me, who were writing metrical verse or returning to metrical verse. So this was the period of my own return to formal poetry, and the crucial turning point was meeting Donald Stanford. At the time, there were four of us who formed a little group of graduate student poets around Stanford. One was the well-known poet Wyatt Prunty, and the others were John Finlay from Alabama, and my old friend Lindon Stall. We were later dubbed “The L.S.U. Formalists,” and that greatly pleased Don, who had once been part of a group of poets around Yvor Winters.
W.B: Did Stanford continue to write poetry himself?
DAVID MIDDLETON: Although he published two books of poetry in the Fifties, he’d given up poetry for criticism and editing. But he was always proud of his poetry, and it certainly meant a lot to him that, late in his career, a number of poets had gathered around him for guidance. It was a wonderful experience for all of us.
W.B: Of that impressive group of young poets, it seems that John Finlay had the most influence on you.
DAVID MIDDLETON: At that time, very much so. John was about eight years older that I was, and he’d discovered Winters as a student at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. So he enrolled at L.S.U. in 1970 with the intention of studying with Don Stanford. John had read an essay that Stanford had written for The Southern Review in 1969 entitled “Classicism and the Modern Poet,” in which Don argued that Pound and Eliot, although they claimed to be classicists, were not, and that the real contemporary classicists were the metrical poets. So John arrived at L.S.U. a year before I did, and his primary influence on me was not so much whether I should return to metrical verse, but rather what kind of metrical verse I should write. At the time, I was writing in a very dense manner, reminiscent of Dylan Thomas. I’d also been influenced for a while by the poetry of Geoffrey Hill. But John took the opposite approach; he wanted to write in the “plain style,” as it’s called. And I eventually came to agree with him. Although I think my verse is a bit more highly colored than John’s, I do, as an ideal, try to write in the plain style as Winters defined it, following Ben Jonson. So, aside from our friendship, that was John’s most important influence on my own development.
W.B: Your doctoral dissertation at L.S.U. was about Dylan Thomas, and I wonder how you evaluate his overall achievement?
DAVID MIDDLETON: I think his best poems are truly excellent, most of them syllabic or rhyming, and, of course, he wrote the great villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Fern Hill was to Dylan Thomas what Saline was to me, and, in the last few years of his life, he wrote a series of poems called “In Country Heaven,” in which he went back to his agrarian roots in Wales. In retrospect, I think there were definitely points of contact between Thomas’s life and work and my own interests. But, to be perfectly frank, the reason I did my dissertation on Dylan Thomas was because I’d done so much research on him during my first three years at L.S.U. I had an NDEA Fellowship, and I’d gone to the British Museum in the summer of 1973, and I’d read and taken notes from all the secondary criticism on Thomas that wasn’t available in the United States. So when it came time to write my dissertation, although I was, at that point, clearly under the influence of Don Stanford, I didn’t want to start over on some other project, so I pressed ahead with Thomas. It was a monster dissertation, and I hate to admit it, but it was 778 pages! I did a new critical analysis of every one of his poems, and there was a separate chapter on the history of the term Romanticism because I believed that Thomas was clearly a Romantic poet. In the end, I think he was a fine minor poet who wrote a handful of excellent poems, for which he’ll be remembered.
W.B.: After receiving your Ph.D. from L.S.U. in 1979, you took a position at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on the Bayou Lafourche. At the time, your wife, Francine, was a librarian there, and you originally took a temporary non-tenure-track position, but you’ve now been teaching there for over thirty years.
DAVID MIDDLETON: That’s right. In those days, teaching jobs were hard to come by. In that sense, I suppose, the job market hasn’t improved very much in all those years. As you mentioned, we originally moved to Thibodaux because Francine had a job in the library, and I was originally planning to have no association with Nicholls at all. I was determined to finish my dissertation, and then we would go on the job market nationally. But when a member of the English Department took a sabbatical to return to L.S.U. to finish her Ph.D., I was offered a one-year instructorship, which I gladly took to make some money. Back then, instructors taught a five-five load, four of which were comp classes. But that still left me enough time to read the books and articles I needed to research my dissertation. Then, the following year, they offered me another five-five load, but I turned it down to teach a two-two load so I could finish my dissertation. I was determined not to be ABD forever! Then, at the end of my second year, a senior faculty member took early retirement, and the department head came up to me in the hallway and said, “David, would you like a tenure-track assistant professorship?” and I said, “Yes!” And that was my whole experience of the academic job market. Eventually, Francine and I both got tenure, and we decided to stay where we were. I prefer working at a smaller college rather than an R-1 research institution, because, even though the teaching load is heavy, I can publish whatever I want – at my own rate. I’ve never been pressured to crank out footnoted, peer-reviewed articles twice a year to maintain my status on the graduate faculty. If I want to take a year to research and write a long poem, I can do it at Nicholls State, and I’m very grateful for that. I’m also grateful for a class load reduction to three-three that I’ve had at Nicholls as poet-in-residence.
W.B.: In your adolescence, as you’ve discussed quite candidly in a memoir, you turned away from your religious upbringing, formal poetry, and your Southern heritage, but I believe it was the Southern Literary Festival in 1985 that led you to reconsider your Southern roots.
DAVID MIDDLETON: That’s correct. When I was a young boy growing up in Shreveport, it was still the era of formal segregation. I can clearly remember segregated buses, water fountains, bathrooms, and doctors’ waiting offices. So, in my adolescence, like so many other young Southerners, I became very liberal in my political views. I was ashamed of many aspects of the history of the South, although, prior to that, like many white Southern boys at the time, I was totally fascinated by the Civil War, and I’d read numerous books about the conflict, and I could tell you about all the battles, and how many troops were on each side, where they were positioned, and all the rest of it.
W.B: Lee’s Lieutenants.
DAVID MIDDLETON: Exactly. But during my undergraduate years, I definitely wanted to move away from all that. I also decided that north Louisiana offered me nothing to write about. It was just a rural part of a Southern state, with the exception of three or four medium-sized cities, and I was much more interested in writing about Greco-Roman myth or the Arthurian legends. I’ve always been an Anglophile. I have an aunt who’s English, and I’d visited England several times in my early twenties, and I no longer thought the American South was worth writing about. But then, in 1985, when the Southern Literary Festival was held at Nicholls, my wife and I decided to do a book display in the library during the festival, and we were determined that this wouldn’t simply be a matter of putting out a few books and standing some pretty vases around them. We carefully read the books – writers like Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle – and took out interesting quotations and wrote them out on note cards with various props. For example, if one of the writers mentioned a particular kind of wine that one of the characters preferred, we’d find a bottle of the exact same wine and place it there next to the quotation. So it turned out to be a major undertaking, almost like a research project, and it gradually reawakened in me the idea of writing about what I knew best. I remembered the old story about Sherwood Anderson telling William Faulkner in some Parisian bar, “What are you doing here? Go back to northern Mississippi and write about what you know.” Ironically, around the same time, a fine English poet named Clive Wilmer whom we’d visited in Cambridge, England, had given me the same advice: “Why don’t you go back to north Louisiana and write about what you know?” So that’s what I decided to do. Even more influential was similar advice given to me years earlier by my lifelong friend, Dr. Susan Roach, our preeminent north Louisiana folklorist whom I first met in the 1960s at Louisiana Tech.
W.B.: Then you met George Core.
DAVID MIDDLETON: Yes. At that same conference I was luckily chosen to drive to the New Orleans airport and pick up George Core, who then, as now, was editor of The Sewanee Review. On our ride back, I was able to talk with George in great detail about Southern literature – mainly because of the book display that Francine and I had put together. During my conversations with George, I never mentioned that I was a poet because he was a guest, and I didn’t want him to think I was trying to work on him to get myself published in The Sewanee Review. But later, after a farewell cookout on the last day of the festival, my wife and I were leaving when we heard someone running down the driveway. It turned out to be George Core, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Why didn’t you tell me you write poetry? Send me something to consider for The Sewanee Review.” So I did, and he eventually published my work. So I was very fortunate, at a relatively young age, to meet two of America’s premier quarterly editors and receive their support. Don Stanford had published me earlier in The Southern Review, and George Core has been a great supporter from 1985 to the present time.
W.B.: You once described yourself as an “inheritor of the Tate-Davidson school,” and I wanted to ask you about the Fugitives. It seems to me that, with the exception of Robert Penn Warren, the Fugitives are, unfortunately, being forgotten—even John Crowe Ransom, whom I consider one of the best American poets of the Twentieth Century.
DAVID MIDDLETON: I think that’s true, and I agree it’s unfortunate. It’s especially true in the case of Donald Davidson, whom I consider a fine metrical poet, but Davidson, unfortunately, never altered his views about segregation, and I think that’s had an effect on his reputation because even in anthologies of Southern literature, you’ll often get Ransom, Tate, and Warren, but not Davidson, even though his best poems are not about segregation. Also, interestingly enough, the Fugitives usually wrote formalist poetry, and they need to be included in the history of formal poetry in the Twentieth Century. It was Winters, and the Fugitives, and various others like Auden who kept the tradition alive during the Thirties and Forties.
W.B.: Let’s turn to your own work. After two chapbooks with the distinguished publisher R.L. Barth, your first full-length collection, The Burning Fields, was published by L.S.U. Press in 1991. Since that time, along with other chapbooks, you’ve published two more books with L.S.U.: Beyond the Chandeleurs (1999) and The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy (2005). In these books, certain subjects and themes predominate, and I’d like to start with your poems about family. Two of my favorites are “The Maker in Lent” and “Night Fears: A Lullaby,” both related to your daughter Anna Marie, when she was very young. In the first poem, the poet is walking with his colic infant after midnight, and he hums the child to sleep rather than trying to lull the child asleep by reciting poetry, and he reflects on the fact that someday the books that surround them will both comfort and instruct her.
But now, how great the good
We share in wordlessness,
This Lenten fatherhood
When love may quietly bless
As much as those hard texts
Where wifeless, childless, deep
In their profound and sterile rest
Cold Paul and Plato sleep.
Thus faith, literature, and fatherhood all intermingle.
DAVID MIDDLETON: They do, and, for me, fatherhood was deeply involved with my return to faith. As you mentioned earlier, although I was raised a Southern Baptist, I eventually went through a long period of not attending church and not necessarily being a person of faith. The best part about my Southern Baptist upbringing was learning the King James Bible and my many years of close Bible study. This is, of course, crucial for anyone interested in literature, whether he or she’s a person of faith or not, since, if you don’t know the Bible thoroughly, you won’t understand much of the great literature of the Western tradition. But, at that point, I no longer appreciated other aspects of the Southern Baptist denomination – such as the great emphasis on guilt – and, as a result, I lapsed from the church and my faith. But even before Anna was born, Francine and I felt that we had to raise her in a Christian church, whatever my doubts might have been. I didn’t want her growing up in a community where everybody went to church and where she wouldn’t even have the opportunity to decide for herself. Eventually, my wife and I decided to come back to the church as traditional, conservative, High-Church Anglicans. I did want to get all those adjectives in there because I feel less comfortable with many of the current teachings of the Episcopal Church than I do with Anglicanism as it was known and practiced by persons such as George Herbert, Samuel Johnson, C.S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot, different as they are from one another in some ways (and not all of the Anglo-Catholic). So it was fatherhood that really brought me back to religion, and it also led me to shift from my previous liberal/moderate perspective on things to a more conservative one. It seems to me that there are certain givens in human nature and that there are certain innate God-given qualities in all of us, and this fits in with a belief in religious absolutes. As for the poem you mentioned earlier, it has to do with language and communication, which I think is one of the great mysteries of human life: that we’re able to develop the ability to speak and to understand the world around us through words. As a father, like all parents, I was able to actually witness the process with my daughter. It was truly miraculous.
W.B.: You’ve also written a lovely tribute to your wife, Francine, who’s an accomplished needlewoman, once honored by the state of Louisiana for her craft. The poem is called “For a Needlewoman,” and it reads in part:
She soaks her strands in colors of the South
And Old-World tinctures such as Pliny praised—
The saffron asphodel, bayberry gray,
The yellow weld, blue woad and indigo…
DAVID MIDDLETON: I’m very fortunate that Francine and I are fellow artists, and this has been an important part of our relationship throughout the years as we’ve encouraged each other to develop our separate crafts. A number of years ago, in fact, she needlepointed a couple of my poems which are now hanging in the house, and, in so doing, she brought our arts together. I tried to do the same thing in my poem about her and her artistry.
W.B.: You’ve written about other relatives as well, including your mother.
DAVID MIDDLETON: My mother was a traditional housewife, a stay-at-home mom, and my poem “A Quiet Reply” was written in her honor. My mother was perfectly happy being a housewife. She didn’t find it constricting, and she didn’t harbor other ambitions, like being a lawyer, for example. She came from a generation where it was perfectly acceptable to be content caring for one’s family and doing the cooking, and the cleaning, and, in her case, taking care of me, her only child. Those were wonderful things in her life, and I inherited that sensibility from her. So family life means a lot to me, and I try to observe it carefully and reflect it in some of my poems. I think that one of the most effective kinds of poetry is the kind that’s rooted in the particulars of a locale that you’re familiar with, but which can also have universal implications. Thomas Hardy is a perfect example. Or Robert Frost. They knew their landscapes, and even though they’re so different, they knew the details of the life around them – like the specific dyes which I mentioned in my poem about Francine. So family and locale are crucial for me.
W.B.: This brings us back to the South, and your acceptance and respect for your Southern heritage. This is discussed in many different ways in many of your poems – and very beautifully in the four quatrains of the poem “The South,” where each stanza represents a season. For example, the second quatrain reads:
Then summer heat’s oppressive strokes
Made drunken sons of memory
Raise Dixies under courthouse oaks
To the sober bust of Lee.
At the end of the poem, even in the chilling winter, the great oaks silently endure:
Now trembling ironweeds rust and fold
At a touch of winter chill
While round the courthouse, green and old,
The pastoral oaks grow still.
DAVID MIDDLETON: In the Middle Ages, there was what was known as the “Matter” of Greece and Rome. Later, there was the “Matter” of Britain that English poets wrote about. For my own purposes, as I wrote in the poem “Oak Alley,” there’s “the Matter of the South.” The Matter, of course, is the inheritance of history, culture, and folktale. Some of it’s myth, and some of its aspects are clearly over-idealized, and there’s always a mixture of both good and evil. Obviously, slavery was a terrible blight on the South, and we’re still dealing with its consequences today. On the other hand – and I’m certainly not the first writer to point this out – the South, although it’s now becoming more and more industrialized and urbanized, still has its agrarian roots, and there’s still the lingering suspicion that what we term “modernity” is not only the wrong way to live, but that it also might not be sustainable. Now I’m not suggesting that everyone in Manhattan should leave the city for forty acres and a mule. That’s not going to happen. But maybe there is another way, and I’m a great admirer of the writings of the essayist Wendell Berry, who not only questions our urbanized society, but also works his own farm in Kentucky. In my opinion, he’s a modern prophet, rightly pointing out that we can’t go on forever using up our natural resources. All over America, we’ve lost the family farm, and we’ve lost the sense of living according to the slower rhythms of the agricultural year, which are so deeply intertwined, as you know, with the church calendar. So this is an important theme for me, and, of course, it comes straight from the Southern Agrarians and Robert Frost and from my own youthful experiences in Saline.
W.B: You’re consciously concerned with what you call the “commonplace” aspects of life.
DAVID MIDDLETON: I am, and I find it to be one of the strangest things about life that we tend to overlook the “everyday” and the “commonplace.” Personally, I’ve never understood people who say they’re bored; I’ve never been bored a moment in my life because the world around me is fascinating. I can look out the window and watch the seasons change, and observe the trees and the other plants and the animals, and I can do it endlessly – with a true sense of wonder about life. I believe the universe was created by God; that it has intent and purpose; and I know that we’re only here a short time. So things that others might not consider of much interest are truly fascinating to me. I don’t want to waste my time playing video games. I want to enjoy the mystery and wonder of our lives. I believe it was Philip Larkin who said, “Everyday things are lovely to me.” I feel the same way, and I like to write about them.
W.B.: This is especially true in your most recent collection, The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy, inspired by the pictures of the French artist Jean-François Millet. The poems in the collection deal with – as did Millet’s pictures – the commonplace aspects of life, and even when the poems don’t specifically dwell on the details, the insinuations are always there. For example, your wonderful poem about the Millet’s picture “Farmyard in Winter,” which ends with the quatrain:
What farm folk do inside the distant house
Is unexpressed, though through the chimney-keep
Smoke slips from fires whose silent tongues caress
Baked chicken, apple brandy, sex, and sleep.
DAVID MIDDLETON: I definitely felt that I’d had found a common spirit with Millet. My father was an artist, and even though he didn’t do it for a living, I often watched him paint, and I watched him make wood sculptures. I also watched him build his own kiln in the backyard and take the pots out for the bisque fire and then back again for the glaze firing. I also accompanied him to art galleries and helped him to hang paintings, and so on. So I was very comfortable with art from a young age, and I found Millet’s world to have many parallels with the American South since it was essentially an agrarian society. Millet clearly believed that his people, his subjects, were worthy of representation and study. Despite his realism, he wasn’t afraid to elevate the dignity of these people in his pictures. I’m not enough of an expert on Millet to recognize all his classical models from Greco-Roman art, but many are obvious – like the Apollo Belvedere, which is clearly behind the central figure in “The Sower.” So Millet was always saying that these hardworking agrarian people are worthy subjects, and Millet knew what he was talking about since he grew up on a farm.
W.B: It’s a fascinating book, and the parallels with the American South are clear, but why did a Southern Anglophile decide to write a whole book set in Nineteenth Century France?
DAVID MIDDLETON: The truth is, after writing two books of poems set almost entirely in the South, I realized that I really didn’t have anything else to say for a while about the rolling pinewood hills and cottonfields of north Louisiana, and the marshes and swamps and barrier islands of south Louisiana. I needed a new landscape – at least for the time being. But, originally, I’d only intended to do one Millet poem. I went to the library, and I found a catalogue from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which has the greatest Millet collection in America, and it was full of extraordinary color plates of different paintings. Now, I’d always admired the poem “Humility” by Fred Chappell. It’s five quatrains of blank verse, and it’s about life on a North Carolina farm. So I shortened Fred’s form to four quatrains of blank verse, which created a four-by-four effect – like a picture frame – and I wrote the poem. Then I decided, “Well, that was fun; I’ll do another one.” Soon I was thinking, “Why not go for a chapbook? Maybe Bob Barth will publish it.” But the white heat continued over a few years, and it expanded into a whole book. In truth, it seemed to come out of nowhere. I certainly didn’t intend it. It was almost as if I was taken over by some inspirational force. Eventually, before I submitted the manuscript to L.S.U. Press, I sent it off to Fred Chappell, asking, “Would you mind critiquing this, Fred?” As always, he was completely generous with his time, and I mentioned in my cover letter that his poem “Humility” had been the model for the form for all the poems in the book. Then he wrote back and asked, “Did you know that ‘Humility’ was inspired by Millet’s picture ‘The Gleaners?'” I was truly amazed, and another circle had closed.
W.B.: That’s an amazing story, David, but I don’t want to give the impression that all of your poems are of a single agrarian type. You also have a number of poems that move away from your more common subjects and themes. I’m particularly fond, for example, of “Blue Essences: The 1890s.” And there are other poems like “From the Journal of Branwell Brontë,” and your very affecting trimeter poem called “On the Suicide of the Chairman of the Math Department,” which ends:
Until explosion triggered
A final train of thought,
Your brain reduced to naught.
Factored out, beyond persuasion,
You balanced the equation,
Finding the terms you sought
In the barrel’s double-ought.
DAVID MIDDLETON: I began each of those poems for a different reason. The one about Branwell Brontë was the result of a visit to Haworth Parsonage and reading about the brother of the Brontë sisters, who was supposedly the most artistically talented of them all. But he ended up an alcoholic and a drug addict, and he accomplished very little.
W.B.: Wasn’t he a pictorial artist of some kind?
DAVID MIDDLETON: Yes, he was, and the poem is about the relative value of the different literary genres. “Blue Essences” is about a late 19th century aesthete who attempts to become a better writer by losing himself in absinthe and daydreaming. Maybe it’s not unlike “Miniver Cheevy,” except without the humor. “On the Suicide of the Chairman of the Math Department,” which is full of mathematical terms, is about a mathematician who’s normally rational and logical, and yet he does something inexplicable and irrational.
W.B.: In another vein, you’ve written some of the best Christian verse of recent times, and, as we know, religion is a subject that many contemporary poets shy away from. But you’ve written many poems that recognize our sinful failings while still maintaining optimism in the grace of Christ. I’ll just cite one, “Azaleas in Epiphany,” which ends::
Thus taken, in their stations,
All things are angels sent
Blazing into creation,
The Word’s embodiment.
DAVID MIDDLETON: That comes out of the Aristotelian-Thomistic argument from design – that the world obviously has order. But the world also has evil, and suffering, and chaos, and that brings up something else that I often write about because I definitely believe that there was something that we refer to as “The Fall.” It may be hard to reconcile that notion with modern theories of evolution, but it seems, nevertheless, that we’re all haunted by this sense that there was once another way in which we lived: something we call Eden, something which we’ve lost. From a completely rationalist point of view, many of the things that Christians believe may be hard to comprehend, but I prefer the vision of someone like William Blake who saw beyond simple Deism. So I’m comfortable with the mysteries of life and the mysteries of Christianity, and I believe in a universe that’s providentially ordered. In my case, I believe that the radical specificity of the Incarnation and the Passion are the key to everything.
W.B.: I’m particularly fond of your translation, “Final Prayer,” from the Latin of Samuel Johnson. Have you done many other translations?
DAVID MIDDLETON: Just a few. I’d studied Latin in graduate school at L.S.U., and when R. L. Barth decided to do a small anthology of Johnson’s Latin poetry in English translations, I was glad to translate a few of the poems. It’s clear that Johnson put many of his deepest personal feelings in his Latin verses, and the one that you mentioned relates to his profound gratitude to God for curing him of an eye ailment, which was quite terrible, and which the poet believed might lead to blindness. It’s also about using one’s personal “gifts,” and I often close my poetry readings with that poem. Johnson is clearly saying to God, “You’ve given me a gift to be a writer, and I want to be able to realize that gift, and I thank you for giving me my eyesight back.” It’s like a happier version of Milton’s famous sonnet on his blindness. He’s saying that all such gifts come from heaven, and I end my poetry readings by reminding the audience, especially the young students, that they all have special gifts that they should pursue, whether they’re religious or not.
W.B.: Over the years, you’ve written in a variety of poetic forms, but much of your work is either blank verse or quatrains. I wonder if there are any forms you’d like to try?
DAVID MIDDLETON: I’d like to try writing longer narrative poems. I’ve done a few in the past, but the problem is that they’re so hard to publish, and when you put them in a collection, they take up so much room that they can often make the whole book seem lopsided. But there are a number of poems that I’d like to write about north Louisiana and various people I knew there, and those poems would require an extended narrative. But I’ll probably have to wait until I’m retired, because, like a novelist, I’d really have to have the time to re-immerse myself in that world, and time for that is hard to find now that I’m department head.
W.B.: I know that you’re a firm believer in what you call the “habitude of craft,” and I wonder if you could describe your own writing practice? Do you have favorite places to write? Favorite times of day? Or any rituals?
DAVID MIDDLETON: These days, now that I’m the department head, I work from 7:30 to 4:00, five days a week. So I can’t come home in the early afternoon as I’d done for so many years in the past. So I get off at 4:00, I come home, I check the mail, look at the paper, take the dogs out, and by 4:30, I’m sitting in my big rocking chair in my study. Usually I’ll have some Medieval or Renaissance music playing – maybe Tallis or Byrd – and I immediately start writing, and, except for a supper break, I work until bedtime, and I do that every night, even on the weekends. So it’s a discipline that I’m comfortable with, but, I must admit, poetry isn’t first on my list. First are family, church, and my job, but after that, it’s almost exclusively poetry or reading and meditating in preparation to write poetry. I don’t socialize very much, or attend many readings or conferences, simply because there’s not time enough for everything. When I’m actually writing, I use a ball point pen on either long legal sheets or in little notebooks that I’ve used for many years. They have a dark blue cover, with even darker blue tape on the spine, and when you open them up, it’s light green inside and the pages are numbered from one to one hundred twenty. I do all my rough drafts by hand, but once I’m into the second or third draft, I’ll type it up on the computer screen and edit from there. Fortunately, I’m able to work in unfavorable conditions. I’m not someone who has to have some sort of clinically pure and silent environment. For example, when my daughter was home, and the TV was tuned to MTV, I still found that I was able to work.
W.B.: You’ve done a lot of editing over the years, serving as the poetry editor at The Classical Outlook, The Louisiana English Journal, The Anglican Theological Review, and, currently, at Modern Age.
DAVID MIDDLETON: I’ve always had the desire to serve the world of poetry in some way, and I seem to do that best by editing. After all, I expect other people to edit the journals that print my poetry, so why shouldn’t I help out as well? Anytime that I can have the opportunity to publish good poets, I’m delighted. It also allows me to promote the kind of poetry I prefer: metrical verse.
W.B.: Like me, you’re a great proponent of Timothy Steele’s brilliant and brilliantly original book, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990). What do you feel are some of Tim’s main points that we need to constantly reconsider?
DAVID MIDDLETON: The most important point is that we shouldn’t confuse revolutions in poetic diction with a revolt against metrical verse. This was the great mistake that the modernists made when Ezra Pound decided to get rid of the pentameter line. Every other poetic revolution, as Tim clearly illustrates, from the Greco-Roman period through the Romantics, was a renewal of poetic diction by bringing it closer to the speech of the time but never by revolting against meter. This was the tragic mistake that Pound and others made, and I feel Tim’s arguments are irrefutable. He writes in such a reasonable, cool, restrained, and inviting manner that unless you’re irredeemably prejudiced, his book will convince you – whether you write free verse or not – that metrical verse has a continuous 3,000-year tradition that goes back to Homer, a tradition poets should know and try to master. Why should anyone think that meter is a “straitjacket” when it accommodated the poetry of Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, and all the rest? It defies common sense to ignore the power of the tradition.
W.B.: All forms have constraints, and constraints create opportunities.
DAVID MIDDLETON: Exactly. I like to think of the game of chess. If the players could move any piece to any square on any move, there’d be no game. It’s only because there are a limited number of squares and because individual pieces can only move in set ways that one can experience the joy and beauty and innovation of the game. I always found it interesting that in John Frederick Nims book Western Wind, he and David Mason take a number of lines from Whitman, and they illustrate that they’re all metrical. Maybe not perfectly metrical, but it’s clearly not “free.” So I always tell my students in my writing classes, “Even if you write free verse, you still have to know what a trochee is, and what an anapest is, or else you’ll end up writing chopped-up prose.” If we want our verse to be effective, we have to master the same techniques as the great metrical poets.
W.B.: Do you have any new projects under way?
DAVID MIDDLETON: I have a new collection that’s about 95% finished. It’s called The Fiddler of Driskill Hill: Poems of Louisiana North and South. Driskill Hill is the highest point of elevation in north Louisiana, although it’s only 535 feet. It’s located near Saline, my poetic home, and the fiddler represents the artist, perhaps myself, and the collection contains a ballad called “The Fiddler of Driskill Hill.” So, in this newest collection, I’ve returned to and extended the interests of my first two books for L.S.U. Press, having renewed myself by working with Millet.
W.B.: I’d like to ask the inevitable but still important question: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
DAVID MIDDLETON: I believe that we need to master our craft before we seek publication. I know this is hard for young poets, but they need to be patient. After the death of my good friend John Finlay, I became his literary executor, and when I opened up his very first notebook, I saw that he had written the words “BE PATIENT!” in capital letters with an exclamation point on the very first page. I would also suggest that young aspiring poets read widely, and, by that, I mean not only literature, but history, philosophy, and theology. In addition, serious writers need to read more than contemporary poetry; they need to read the classics. You can learn a lot more from Shakespeare and Dante and Homer than you can from the comments of your classmates in your creative writing class. Poetry takes a lifetime of commitment. It’s something you have to devote yourself to, and it has to be very high on your list of priorities.
W.B.: I’d like to end today with the final lines of your tribute to your friend and fellow poet, John Finlay. The poem is called “For John Finlay (1941-1991)” and it closes with a remembrance of two young poets trying to establish their priorities in graduate school:
Both natives of the South trying to reclaim
Something of Greece and Christendom, we’d walk
To the Union from our desks in Allen Hall
Talking of Homer, Dante, Winters, Tate,
A “Stanford” or a “Simpson” Southern Review,
Finding ourselves as poets and as friends
There, at LSU, in those sweet-olive days,
Summer seeming endless in sunlit colonnades.
Thank you, David.
DAVID MIDDLETON: Thank you, Bill.