Battle of the Bards: Ted Leeson vs. Harry Middleton

Brown Trout

Brant He. Fageraas photo

Since this week finds all of us walled in between two holidays (and some of us between cliffs of snow), the time feels ripe for the next Battle of the Bards.  Today we pit Southern mystic Harry Middleton against Midwest-born Ted Leeson.  Both are contemporaries of each other (though Middleton passed away at the premature age of 38).  Both are highly literary writers with penchants for esoteric language.  And both write towards the centers, the cores of things.  It’s the ultimate object of penetration, however, that differs between the two:  one plumbs a personal, primordial center, the other a collective, societal core.

We start with an excerpt of Middleton’s The Earth is Enough.

Slipping into the creek after dusk, casting for the big browns, I crossed into another world, dark, sublime, both frightening and glorious. Each moss-covered rock seemed a primordial step backward, back, back until sometimes I was there utterly alone in the darkness and it suddenly as ancient time, the creek a Devonian bog, and I had no voice, no recognizable shape. I was just something different and alive, rising up out of the coal-black water. Starlight Creek at night seemed altogether different, a stream of brooding, limitless, inexplicable contingencies. On such nights even my mind drifted as a black stream full of the mystery of fish, flowing on and on without end.

My practicing paid off and in the blink of an eye I became with every feeble cast as expert at hooking trees. Even when I did manage to get the fly line forward, it inevitably landed ten feet in front of me in a wadded mess that looked something like tossed spaghetti, clump of frustration and dismay. In the evenings, I worked on knots, knots with names like nail knot blood knot, surgeon’s knot, which suggested to me that perhaps they’d been handed down from some more vulgar vocation such as that of a hangman. Fortunately, since I received no instruction, was under the tutelage of no master, I never really knew just how unsightly my efforts were, otherwise I would have certainly, out of respect for the grace and tradition of fly fishing, have stepped aside, laid down my rod forever. Indeed, there are many who still think such a decision would restore much of angling’s former irreproachable reputation.

The most notable thing here is the sturm und drang cadences of Middleton’s prose.  His sentence structure changes wildly throughout each paragraph, here stretching, vying and straining, there skidding, skipping and sliding.  This rhythmic restlessness speaks to a greater tension in Middleton’s worldview.  It’s a world characterized by difference and conflict—things are not what they are supposed to be.  We ourselves are not even who we are.  He has a shape in this strange, new world—it’s just not “recognizable.”  Middleton’s method of inquiry is indeed highly speculative, inquisitive, groping and wandering.  In his resistance to certainty of meaning, he resembles a cat playing with a piece of string.  The cat comes so close to apprehending its object–only to kick it back out again.  To capture meaning with certainty is the end of exploration, the end of the fun.  Middleton believes in the rhetoric of stalking more than he does reward of clean comprehension—the kill shot.

Now let’s compare this to a passage from Leeson’s Jerusalem Creek.

The driftless area, like the English chalk streams and indeed like a great many spring-creek landscapes, has a kind of gentleness about it. A pastoral place of small farms nestled in hollows between wooded hills, the countryside is settled but not settled out of existence, a compromise of sorts between the civilized and the wild that gives the land an intimate, domestic quality. I have no doubt that the first fly fisherman, sitting before the hearth, fashioned the first flies from the materials of this same domesticity–from ram’s wool and cock feathers, horsehair and beeswax. The tying of flies and fishing them and the landscape itself all share the same mesmerizing quality of looking into a fire. A trout fly recalls the land in the way of all handmade things, and a fishing vest is nothing if not a small household that we carry with us into the field.

The irreducible fact of fishing, of course, is water, and around water there hovers always the possibility if mishaps, sometimes serious ones. The big trout rivers of the West, slippery, swift and powerful, do injure people and, more rarely kill someone, though most often the river is only incidental to something else–strong drink or a weak heart. Remote as the danger may be, particularly if you refuse to court it, it is nonetheless real on rivers of any size. No such risks lurk on the small spring creeks of the Midwest, however; they post no threat to life or limb. They inflict no harm but, like flyfishing itself, merely visit a thousand humiliations upon your head. All important things in life possess the capacity to humble you, and there is little wonder that a spring-creek fisherman learns to address the water from his knees.

Leeson is a much different writer, one not so much interesting in charting a shifting inner cosmos as he is in identifying roles and locations of things and ideas in a shared world order.  Whereas Middleton is the proverbial mad scientist instinctually plying dark matter, Leeson is the logical empiricist demonstrating how things in the visible world work and why. He “has not doubt” about his connections and convictions. Leeson is confident of his knowledge of the system and how things work within it.  Just look at how much he uses that word of ultimate certainty: “is.”  Middleton, as we’ve observed, is less comfortable with the certainty of things: an object, idea or perception in Middleton’s world is more likely to “seem” something than “be” something.

The two also differ in the type of material they give themselves access to, the referential bricks of their prose.  Middleton’s mind makes use of what’s lying immediately before him–water, darkness, starlight–putting them together in whatever way they will fit.   But Leeson’s mind is more acrobatically associative, able to draw connections across time and space and cultures.  It’s the precision of his movements, the clarity of his language, the measured character of his cadences that make this work.  “A fishing vest is a small household,” he writes.  And it’s convincing: Who would have thought our wild enterprise could be understood so domestically?

There they stand: the mystic and the maven, the primevalist and the professor.  Who would you, left to choose, share a beat of river with?  Why?