David Middleton's memoir "In Allen Hall: LSU, the Southern Review, and Baton Rouge" evokes the university's rich literary heritage.
Middleton recalls one of LSU's bright eras, the early 1970s, when a group of writing students tutored by Southern Review co-editor Donald Stanford devoted themselves to formalist poetry, becoming known as the "LSU formalists," a major influence on the new formalist movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Along with Middleton, the group included Wyatt Prunty, longtime director of the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and John Finlay, an Alabama native who intensely pursued Catholic theology as well as poetry.
Stanford and co-editor Lewis Simpson returned the Southern Review to international prominence in its second flowering beginning in the 1960s. The literary journal was one of the most influential in the nation in its first incarnation under Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks during LSU's great days of the 1930s. The publication known for first publishing writers such as Randall Jarrell, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter was discontinued in 1942 by a short-sighted budget-cutting bureaucrat.
Middleton's remembrances of Finlay and his ascetic devotion to intellectual pursuits is the focus of the article, a chapter of a forthcoming memoir about Middleton's poetic life. His description of Finlay's sparsely furnished apartment and Baton Rouge's warm and humid climate will bring vivid memories for those who've experienced the LSU student existence.
A longtime professor at Nichols State in Thibodaux, La., Middleton also evokes landmarks such as Pinetta's restaurant, LSU's Allen Hall (named for Huey Long confidante O.K. Allen), and Tiger Stadium. His narrative covers the entire state, recalling trips down U.S. 71 from Shreveport, Louisiana's strange mix of Protestant and Catholic culture and the passion for art and knowledge that seeks its place among the love for sports and pleasure.
The remembrance is paired with Middleton's poem, "The Break-in," about a burglary of Finlay's apartment in which the criminals found nothing worth stealing, a sign to Finlay about the worthiness of his scholarly vocation.
Like the essay, the poem catches the essence of the old Mississippi River city and its proud university: the haphazard grad student's life, the city's grubby poverty and criminality, Southern nights with their heat-drenched longing.
Over the years, I've read many of Middleton's poems. His occasional verse reverts to 18th century pre-Romantic rhetoric in the manner of Alexander Pope, giving narratives of mundane events in drab, wooden language.
Middleton's manner in poems such as "The Break-in" achieves great beauty, giving deep significance to recollected experience. At his best, Middleton reveals the highest pleasures of traditional poetry.