In poet David Middleton’s newest book of published poetry, “The Fiddler on Driskill Hill,” he has a brief poem hearkening back to the first book of poems he ever published. He speaks of despair staring from blank pages “Until the courted muse released her grace/ And words flowed into verses like a prayer.”
And that is how Middleton’s work often seems — a poetic prayer.
Middleton will be visiting Hillsdale College Oct. 28 and 29. He plans to read to students from his poetry and give a lecture on the life and poetry of Wilmer Mills. Both events will take place in the Dow Leadership Center, rooms A and B.
This is the first official installment of the visiting writers program’s “Wilmer H. Mills Visiting Writer” series. Professor of English and Director of the Visiting Writers Program John Somerville said Mills’ personal friend and fellow poet Jeff Harding, was technically the first visiting writer to pay tribute to Mills during his Hillsdale visit, but the fall program had not been officially named the Wilmer H. Mills Visiting Writer at the time.
Mills visited in the fall of 2010, staying only a short time but making a marked imprint on students and faculty through his poetry and lecture. He died the following summer after a brief, courageous battle with liver cancer.
“It’s odd for having known a person all of about two days and one hour of my life,” Somerville said, “But the connections were just amazing. We decided to do this in honor of him, in a large part because of the impact he had here and his early death.”
Middleton is specially equipped to speak on Wilmer Mills and his poetry, having written a memorial essay on him that was published in Modern Age magazine. The piece was titled “Singing the pieces back in place: The life and verse of Wilmer Hastings Mills.”
“I first heard about David Middleton from a student, Alex Merigaglia (’13),” Somerville said. “He went to a conference in South Carolina in the summer after his junior year and heard David Middleton read. He came back raving about it.”
Middleton knew of Hillsdale through Imprimis and various interactions with Hillsdale professors like Professor of English Michael Jordan, who published some articles in Modern Age, and he was happy to receive the invitation from Somerville.
Middleton said he knew he wanted to be a writer in the fall of 1963, when his ninth-grade English teacher gave a writing assignment based on Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” She told the students to image what adventures Amahl and the three wisemen had on their way to Bethlehem. Middleton hurried the travelers journey on a bit by introducing Superman into the story. His teacher loved it.
“She told me that I had talent and I caught fire,” he said. “Who wasn’t going to believe something like that at age 14?”
He said he quickly realized he was not good at fiction and started writing poetry.
Now he serves as the poetry editor for two literary journals, including Modern Age, a journal founded by Russell Kirk that has accepted poems from Hillsdale professors.
He has published multiple books of poetry, the most recent being “The Fiddler on Driskill Hill.”
Middleton said while many poets have influenced him over the years, the top two texts that have affected his work are the King James Bible and the poetry of Robert Frost.
“I don’t write free verse,” he said. “I’m not against free verse, but I find I do better when I have a set form with rhyme scheme and a certain number of syllables per line.”
He added that Frost’s work is clarifying.
“‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is like looking through a clear window,” he said.
Frost wrote poems in a particular place — New England — and Middleton said his poetry, grounded in Louisiana, has a similarly rooted location. He was born in northern Louisiana, which he described as “protestant and rural,” but moved to Cajun, swamp-filled southern Louisiana later in life. He now lives in Thibodaux, La.
It was Middleton’s childhood in Northern Louisiana that familiarized him with the King James Bible.
“I was raised a Southern Baptist, although now I am an Episcopalian,” Middleton said. “At breakfast every morning my father read a chapter from the Bible to my mother and me. Every morning until I left for high school I heard those beautiful poetic rhythms of the 23rd Psalm, the first chapter of Genesis, etc.”
Senior Ethan Showler, a student familiar with Middleton’s work, said that interwoven through the southern framework of Middleton’s poetry is a deeply liturgical, spiritual sense of the world; references to the incarnation, the Eucharist, and especially the Father’s creation of the world through speech.
He added that Middleton is unafraid to use images of sensuality, despair, destruction, and “visceral signs of the Fall.” This darkness is answered by the liturgical thread lacing Middleton’s work.
“He’s always writing with a view to the end of things; this stuff has all already been redeemed, so he can look at it head-on and see it for what it is,” Showler said.
Showler’s favorite poem of Middleton’s is titled “For an Artist with Parkinson’s.” The poem is a tribute to Middleton’s father, examining the struggle of an artist cut off from artistic interaction by disease.
“It is haunting, but redemptive at the same time,” Showler said. “This is our world and Middleton captures it perfectly.”
Middleton’s status as the first official Wilmer H. Mills Visiting Writer is a significant one for many students, including senior Ian Andrews, who had the opportunity to spend time with Mills when the poet visited campus in the fall of 2010.
“I enjoyed his poetry immensely,” Andrews said of Mills. “His visit seemed to me to set the tone for the few that have followed, as the majority of the visiting writers have immersed themselves in culture of the student body, and lent to us their own mature affirmation of our love for poetry. It seems fit that the writers to come should bear his name.”
Showler never had the chance to meet Mills personally, but he said he has fallen in love with his writing and thinks it fitting for the fall Visiting Writer Series to be named after the beloved poet.
“It’s a little strange to say it, but because he visited here and made such an impact, when Wilmer died he just instantly became a legend for the poetry community here,” Showler said. “I don’t know how it happened, but it most certainly did, so I can’t think of anyone better to honour in this way than Wilmer Mills.”