The Problem of Not Resembling Yourself.

In an essay from 2010, John Yau wrote about the poet Christopher Middleton, asking “Why isn’t Middleton’s work more widely read or, barring that, more widely praised, however little impact that might have on sales and reputation? Why has this poet glided gracefully under the radar for his entire career?” I confess that though the name was familiar to me, I couldn’t have told you anything about Middleton’s poetry; Yau writes:

Again, Kleinzahler’s observations are helpful: “The poetry of Middleton is not easy to characterize, not least of all because no one Middleton poem truly resembles another, much less one book resembling another in style and subject matter.” In other words, there is no carry-over, nothing that might, after you’ve read one of his poems, help you read the next. You always have to start all over again. If you look at a Jackson Pollock painting from 1948—a so-called drip painting done during the period after he made his first breakthrough to abstraction in 1947—whatever you glean from it (method, all-overness, accretion) will help you look at another done by Pollock a year or two later. This is less the case with Middleton.

One might think that shouldn’t matter, but obviously it does; I think similar situations have caused problems for Russian writers I admire, from Veltman to Buida. If people don’t have a hook to hang you on, you may wind up forgotten on the floor of the closet.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    As if all the steps had stopped
    As if all the takes had token
    As if all the creaks had croaken
    As if all that weeps had wopped

    As if all that flips had flopped
    As if all that mocks had moaken
    As if all that speaks had spoken
    As if all that drips had dropped

    As if all that hopes had hopped
    As if all that leaps had lopped
    As if all that aches had oaken
    As if all that peaks had poken
    As if all that creeps had cropped
    As if all that peeps had popped

    –this leapt (or maybe lopped) out at me

  2. Harlan Ellison had similar problems, which he compensated for by being so abrasive that nobody could forget him. As he put it himself (more or less), first he wrote “‘Repent, Harlequin!’, said the Ticktockman” (in 1965), and for years everyone he met wanted to know why he wasn’t writing more stories like that. (Read it and see: note that the title is wrong.)

    Then in 1977 he wrote “Jeffty Is Five” (read that too), and then for more years everyone wanted to know why he didn’t write more stories like either of them.

    (For obvious reasons, I cannot link to “‘Repent, Jeffty!’ said the Harlanman”; you’ll just have to imagine it. Be warned that Ellison had a propensity for suing people, proclaiming that whoever puts his hand in Ellison’s pocket will draw back a bloody stump.)

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Unless I am sadly mistaken (again ?!), I spoke to Middleton briefly the last time I was in Austin, almost 20 years ago. I went into a small diner or restaurant, and there sat someone who seemed familiar, so I said hi, I think I know you from the 60s classics department circle. We did some smalltalk, and that was it. An anecdote of small import.

    I don’t remember anything about poetry, just that he was a translator.

  4. But the two Harlan Ellison stories referenced do resemble each other, as does the equally notable “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.”

    They’re all about time. What we do to it, and what it does to us.

    TICKTOCKMAN: “Live in the world around you.” “I can’t, it’s a terrible world.”

    JEFFTY: On its headlong suicidal flight toward New Tomorrows, the world had razed its treasurehouse of simple happinesses, had poured concrete over its playgrounds, had abandoned its elfin stragglers, and all of it was being impossibly, miraculously shunted back into the present through Jeffty.

    SCREAM: Inwardly: alone. Here. Living under the land, under the sea, in the belly of AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known unconsciously that he could do it better.

  5. as i’m thinking about writers whose work doesn’t, to my mind, resemble itself, i’m having a funny sort of uncanny valley experience. with writers whose work i know very well, i find i can see throughlines across quite different styles (the early delanys [delanies?] of Jewels of Aptor, Among the Blobs, Equinox/Tides of Lust, and Empire Star, say). and with writers i’m new to, whatever few things i’ve encountered, however varied, define my understanding of what they do (the perets hirshbeyn of “a malakh veynt” and “sheydim veysn vos”, for example). the middleton problem* only seems to come up for me – as opposed to for the world of publishing/marketing/criticism, which i think is yau’s focus – in the middle space.

    * embarassingly, it took me a moment to be entirely sure christopher and thomas weren’t the same person.

  6. I can see a line between The Jewels or Aptor and The Fall of the Towers. The Nevèrÿon series and Dhalgren are another thing. Chip might disagree.

  7. waldrfsalad says


    You may be interested in this poem by John Whitworth:

    Old Bull and Bush

    How many hands have I shaked?
    How many geese have I cuken?
    How many bribes have I taked?
    How many lies have I puken?
    How many promises breaked?
    How many enemies nuken?

    How many saves have I baconen?
    How many bulls have I shatted?
    How many earths have I quakenen?
    How many highs have I hatted?
    How many grasses bin snakenen?
    How many scenes bin well quatted?

    How many warms have I freezened?
    How many nonsenses natteren?
    How many palms have I greasened?
    How many truths have I ratteren?
    How many reasons unreasoned?
    How many stinking fish batteren?

    How many documents fakenen?
    How many treaties forgotted?
    How many bad guys outstakenen?
    How many terrorists potted?
    How many widows upwakenen?
    How many kiddikins shotted?

  8. I don’t get cuken or quatted; the rest is transparent.

  9. Geese are cooked, scenes are quit(ted).

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    What I found notable in the Middleton, in addition to the language play:
    1. Contrast between (cold) classical form and (hot) emotional response to an overwhelming sensation, event or disclosure.
    2. Suggestion of (faux-?)Scots accent or tonality
    3. Placement within an otherwise (to me) unfocused and rambling poem.

  11. He’s a decent essayist as well as a good minor poet. I an fond of his ‘Palavers, and A Nocturnal Journal’

  12. Thanks for that, I’ll have to check it out. By the way, I visited your (most interesting) blog and tried to leave a comment on the post “Universality of the Mundane,” but the software would not let me do so (I tried to click on the “log in via WordPress” button but nothing happened); here’s what I wanted to say:

    Morson is one of my favorite critics, so I am glad to learn about his new book (I’ll wait till it gets cheaper, though). I highly recommend his Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time.

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