Poet Visits Campus in Late Friend’s Honor

Written Ian Atherton

On Monday, October 28, Dr. David Middleton was announced before a crowd of students and faculty as Hillsdale College’s first Wilmer A. Mills Visiting Writer. Middleton delivered a lecture on Mills the following evening, reminding the student body that Mills himself had visited campus only three years prior, in November of 2010—a short few months before he succumbed to liver cancer the following July.

As Middleton delivered his Tuesday lecture, it became apparent why Dr. John Somerville, a Hillsdale Professor of English and the Visiting Writers’ Program Director, had waited three years and some four writers to rename the program in Mills’ honor; when Mills was only fifteen, he attended a lecture by Robert Penn Warren at Middleton’s own Nicholls State University. Middleton was also in attendance. A number of years later, the two poets began an intimate stream of correspondence, first by mail, and later – despite Mills’ resistance—by email.

Much of Middleton’s narrative of Mills’ youth in Brazil and his eventual move to his ancestral family farm in Louisiana echoed what Middleton had said of his own work the night before. Both poets profess a supreme sense of appreciation for the divine beauty of the common world, a sentiment manifest in both mens’ musing on home, God, family, and the meaning of poetry. This is, as Mills told Middleton “the gift of adoration.” It is, according to Middleton, exactly what allows one who has lived a normal life, who has “never traveled, never done anything stupid, never been arrested” to write great poetry. “You’ve won the cosmic lottery, just to be alive,” he said to the crowd’s aspiring writers —“you’ve already had ninety percent of the great universal human experience.” He did, however, advise his young audience to remain patient and master their craft, drawing on Mills’ insistence that “poetry is about expressing the dictionary” rather than the all too egocentric self.

During his visit, Middleton also delivered a private lecture on seriousness and humor in poetry to the college’s English majors and conducted a small workshop on ekphrastic poetry.

As a junior English major with minors in Psychology and Classical Education, Ian Atherton hopes to pursue a career in teaching and, if possible, writing. He currently holds a position on the editorial staff of the Tower Light literary journal and is an officer in both the local chapters of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and Interfraternity Council.