by Carol Rumens)
This week's poem, Sonnet of Irreconcilables, is from the 2006-2009 section of Christopher Middleton's Collected Later Poems, a magnificent winter harvest of recent work. It belongs to a gathering of poems headed For Want of an Axiom, whose epigraph quotes from Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia: "What an antique air had the almost effaced sundials, with their moral inscriptions, seeming coevals with that Time which they measured, and to take their revelations of its flight immediately from heaven, holding correspondence with the fountain of light!"
"Time is for music, on with it," proclaims the speaker in Vasily Kalinnikov Composes, a neighbouring poem in For Want of an Axiom. Music and time are recurrent themes. Another preoccupation is corruption – not as a natural, physical effacement, but as moral evil. That the breakdown may begin with language is implicated in the splintered structure of the sonnet, and the Orwellian insistence on responsibility towards "sensitive words" and, no less, to honest "statistics of bloodshed".
The poem's occasion is a radio broadcast. I admit I thought at once of Classic FM, but, of course, there's any number of stations and arts programmes that might be implicated in cultural dumbing down. The speaker at first seems playful. Sly musical puns lighten the tone: the announcer has as "audible smile", she "recites" and "notes", and her "time" is managed. The device suggests how the finesse of Mozart and his interpreter Alfred Brendel is crammed into a formulaic package. Even the "spurts of chatter" are subjected to minutely apportioned radio time.
Time so measured makes space neither for the expansions of art nor history. A sonnet, however, can open connections or expose fractures. Line four resembles an intrusive newsflash from elsewhere, as if the radio's dial had been twitched. The word lifted from the musical lexicon, "soloists", works in various ways. All artists may be termed soloists, and some are idealists. Individuals have always been prompted by their art to fight for a bigger cause. However, the reference may not be so literal. The soloists who are fighting "radicals" are perhaps defending injustice rather than justice: they may be the soloists of terror.
The octet ends with the rhetorical but profound question about responsibility ("What are we doing to ourselves … ?"). The ninth line answers it forcefully, if indirectly, with an image of the starkest "irreconcilables". The wheelbarrow that's "stacked with body-parts" perhaps originates in another poetic universe. Could it be the once joyously "red wheelbarrow" of William Carlos Williams?
The triplet and couplet that conclude the sonnet seem to argue that music, contrary to the announcer's declaration, is not wholly sensuous. It goes beyond the senses to become, "As Rilke felt, 'breath of statues' …" It excites the intellect. "Temporal brain" suggests the "temporal lobes" and the evanescence of perception and knowledge. While the "mobility" of music has a bright agility that "thrills" the brain, "brute force", by contrast, "crawls subtly into the speech of a culture". Yeats's "rough beast" seems implicit in the deliberate, illustrative cliche, "brute force". There are instances, of course, where speech is more obviously debased than in the popularising spiel of an arts programme. Attention to the earliest "subtle" stage of "cheapening" demonstrates how, in undramatic and even well-intentioned ways, mass brutalisation may begin.
Readers new to Middleton's work might enjoy John Yau's thoughtful introduction in The Brooklyn Rail. Yau quotes another fine poet and critic, Alan Brownjohn, who wrote of Middleton in the New Statesman: "His concern to produce an individual structure of perception for every place, thought and experience he writes about results in a ceaseless and challenging originality." These words succinctly convey the poet's special quality. From syntactical organisation and vocabulary to the span of his intellectual sympathies, his "voice" is unique. But where there's little uniformity, a single example can't possibly do its creator justice. One might well infer that the poem of the week series is no more culturally responsible than the packaged Alfred Brendel recital, but at least this announcer can add: "Read the books!"
Sonnet of Irreconcilables
With an audible smile the announcer confides to us
That Mozart is sensuous: 'In fifteen minutes
Alfred Brendel will show our listeners how.'
Soloists perish fighting radicals in the mountains.
Next she recites an anecdote and notes her liking of it.
Her time is managed, spurts of chatter come on cue.
What are we doing to ourselves, cheapening
The sensitive words, or statistics of bloodshed?
There goes the wheelbarrow stacked with body-parts.
While music is intangible, 'breath',
As Rilke felt, 'breath of statues', and while
Bodies respond to it without sight or taste,
While its mobility thrills my temporal brain,
Brute force crawls subtly into the speech of a culture.