It has been much too long since so-called “serious” poetry has had a legitimate hold on the affections and imagination of the American reading public at large. Many culprits stand guilty for this breach between what is one of the most natural forms of literary expression, one closely akin to music, and the time and attention of non-academic readers. Only one or two need be mentioned here: one is the swift onslaught of technology which has robbed so many people of the ability to sit and spend time with a poem not printed on a Hallmark greeting card or not the enclosed “lyrics” of the latest hip-hop-rap god but a genuine attempt by a serious poet to transform thought, experience, and imagination into verse. Another is the current literary establishment, which seems to confer its book review space and its laurels upon poets insufficiently lucid or musical to have a wide appeal beyond the academy or the café.
Luckily, there exist among us several first-rate poets determined to re-establish the primacy of poetry as a mode worth a grown man or woman’s time. These poets are often referred to collectively as “Formalists,” meaning they have shrugged off the trendy obscurantism of many celebrated poets and embraced the traditional forms we associate with poems that have truly stood the test of time. Among these literary rebels is David Middleton, native of Shreveport, Louisiana, a longtime resident of Thibodaux, where for many years he was English professor and poet-in-residence at Nicholls State University. His latest book, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill, is his third collection from Louisiana State University Press, following Beyond the Chandeleurs and The Burning Fields, and continues his mission of restoring gracefulness and melodicism to contemporary verse. It also happens to be the best collection of American poetry in many a moon.
Middleton’s formalism requires him not only to employ rhyme scheme in much if not most of the poems contained therein; it also dictates a sense of structure to the work as a whole (his formalism and his traditionalism, for Middleton is very much a man of tradition in every sense, not just as a poet). Here he chooses to unify his poems by having them set in places familiar to him – namely Shreveport, his birthplace, and Thibodaux, the scene of his life as a husband, father, teacher, and creative artist. He also makes detours to Baton Rouge, home of his alma mater, and to Saline, Louisiana, birth place of his mother, and elsewhere. Such a structure might strike the casual reader as peculiar, given the placelessness in which we live, the time in which geographical borders may hold but cultural and social lines are rapidly being erased, so that a city in Louisiana may look and move to the same rhythm as a city in South Carolina or South Dakota or Massachusetts. Middleton is aware of such homogeneity and the danger it poses for culture and literature, and he is one of the dwindling band of poets striking out against the diminishment of distinction that spells cultural and historical demise.
Memory is his chief instrument against such diminishment. Not memory sustained by gadgets or gimmicks, preserved on Facebook or contained in a “selfie” to present to friends or strangers but memory preserved in the amber of his own imagination, in the rich loam of his deep affections, carefully tended to over the years, never vulgarized by need for “confession” or exploitation as other decorated poets have seen need to do to make their names.
Shreveport is the place of Middleton’s beginning, and in “Leaving Drexel Street: A Wife’s Goodbye,” dedicated to his mother and ostensibly narrated by her, he presents a picture of devotion and domesticity that a number of readers in 2014 may find alien, given the high rate of divorce and the tendency to the peripatetic in pursuit of greater career opportunities. After painting an exterior kept bright and alive by decades of love (“Outside, the front yard’s red-brick flowerbed” / “Still blooms with portulaca planted there” / “When these splotched hands were rosy as the heads” / “That bow and close in latest summer dusk…”) the poet moves inside:
The parlor where we met in formal dress
The pastor, salesman, candidate, new friend;
The dining room where fasting met repast,
Those bowls and greens our kiln and garden gave;
The kitchen whose bright rites of knife and fire
Prepared the table’s meat, fish, leaf, and root;
The bathroom where we washed, then drained away
The soil and oil and dust – refuse of all our days;
The bedroom where we lay to gaze and love,
At deepest peace with seasons of the stars,
Where, when our son was born, we snuggled up
To read him lore of Mother Goose and Grimm,
Of Greece and England, Rome and Bethlehem –
Fathering wonders hidden in the words
That call all children home from the absurd,
Great stable tales that lift the bidden heart and mind.
Thus, in eight lines, we are given a picture not only of loving parents but of the poet-to-come nourished by the literary and historical treasures of Western civilization and instilled with an appreciation for and love of what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things..”
Even a severing from the home place, however, does not diminish the speaker’s devotion to what has been grown there:
But now the movers come: the dark van waits
To haul off all these recollected things
In one blank clanging chamber to our boy
With whom we now will live in love’s last rooms
Near the Arcadian marshes well below
This river bluff’s crimped hills, these Southern heights
We’ll leave when one more watering’s done,
A parting bride’s moss roses still touched by setting suns.
The poet’s father is celebrated in the elegiac “Daddy,” whose subscript reads “After Sylvia Plath, author of ‘Daddy’,” yet one could not imagine two more dissimilar poems. Plath’s is a grotesque, nightmare recollection of a tyrant who contributed profusely to the poet’s neurosis and ultimate mental and emotional breakdown; Middleton’s is a warm pastel of a man devoted to family and place and imbued with a courage that will not let him go bitter even in the ravages of Parkinson’s. He is a man worthy of emulation, not perfect, but guided by all the right instincts and embodying the right values.
Thibodaux, in the southwestern part of the state, is the poet’s home and place of work. Wordsworthian in his estimate and appreciation of lives great, small, and in-between, he writes of his colleagues at Nicholls State University and even the institution’s janitor, its doorman, a once-promising student himself who had to drop out of college after his father’s death to help the family but who continues his education by reading discarded copies of Milton and Emily Bronte, among others. In Baton Rouge, at LSU, the poet sees published copies of his first book, The Burning Fields, in 1991:
To see them here brings humbleness, not pride,
Poems so well printed, jacketed, and then
Braced by comments made by generous men
Whose works my own could never stand beside.
Here also is that absence, black despair,
That stared from blank white spaces at my face
Until the courted muse released her grace
And words flowed into verses like a prayer.
Such moments of eternity-in-time
Confirms the Maker in each maker’s rhyme.
In New Orleans he attends a reading by Christian poets sharing “Verse fleshed with images that bear the Word” which turns into a chance to remember deceased friends and colleagues. In Bienville Parish in northern Louisiana he listens to his haunted uncle tell tales of the mysterious Black Lake and of his own World War II experience which leaves him screaming in the night. Outside Louisiana, in Virginia, he limns the voice of a Confederate sniper who in the winter of 1864-65 fights not to have his home state be some “mere possession of the realm” / “But that same Old Dominion which lives on” / “In steepled villages and freehold fields,” / “The better dream of Lee and Jefferson.”
As for Driskill Hill, “the highest point of elevation in Louisiana,” the title poem makes a fitting close to a collection concerned with the permanence of place and people, for the eponymous musician is a fiddler who goes as high as he can to “…sing what is and ought to be” / “And will until I die:” / “For that’s what bow and strings are for,” / “To raise things up in song” / Between The Fall and Paradise” / And urge the world along.” In some sense Middleton has provided an anthem for himself, for surely he too is acting the role of the singer/musician whose mission it is to remember and preserve what is best in the culture that formed his heart, mind, and talent and to transmit that culture, one of humility, piety, and wonder at God’s creation, to up upcoming generations. His is, as the redoubtable Fred Chappell points out in a blurb on the book’s back cover, a “stately” music with the power to draw in readers not normally engaged with contemporary poetry.