24 May, 2010Issue 12.3LiteraturePoetry

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Peter Porter: 1929-2010

Jonathan Gharraie

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Poets might not have stopped writing for musicians or composers—think of David Harsent for Harrison Birtwistle, or Alice Goodman for John Adams—but it seems that they no longer write about them. The Australian-born Peter Porter, who has died aged 81, remains the most obvious exception among contemporary poets. He could probably have catalogued his responses and observations about music by the opus number; and a selection, consisting solely of his ruminations on the one art that he felt offers transcendence so freely, awaits compilation. In the early poem, “Walking Home on St. Cecilia’s Day”, he revealed:

There is a practice of music which befriends
The ear–useless, impartial as rain on desert
And conjures the listener for a time to be happy,
Making from this love of limits what he can,
Saddled with Eden’s gift, living in the reins
Of music’s huge light irresponsibility.

But “this love of limits” could ache and chafe as much as the bodily lusts that he documented with almost equal assiduity. Elsewhere, he wrote “music is all lies” (“The Lying Art”) and cautioned his readers that “art meets the world at an awkward/ Angle, offering no harmony/ Of fact and feeling” (“The Orchid on the Rock”). Such a nuanced attitude toward the reach of art either has no need of the more grasping reach of theory, or will eventually exhaust its totalising impulses. Nonetheless, this preoccupation obliged Porter to adjust his own practice as a poet, to make of his own work an embodiment of the values he clung to—values that were formed and not just sustained out of the effort of writing poetry.

What values were these? Careful, informed but sympathetic judgments, and no formal code beyond their aggregate. He avoided the patrician chill of the modernists by being so disarmingly open about his failings and his desires, but at the same time, he refrained from the maniacal candour of the confessional poets—Lowell, Berryman, and Plath—whose ethos was, at the time of Porter’s emergence, loudly championed by Al Alvarez. The aim of the latter poets was to conflate the private with the public, so that history read like a nervous breakdown and depression appeared as an event of epochal significance. Porter accepted that the two realms could not be so easily reconciled, and in his verse one learns how honesty can be attractively opaque, just as dissonance can also be beautiful.

Arguably, the major test of this fortitude was the death of his first wife, Janice, who committed suicide in 1974. The poems that compose the volume that followed four years later, The Cost of Seriousness (1978), acutely distil Porter’s extraordinary perspicacity, ably directed toward the natural as the social or cultural world, without quite becoming elegies. In them you can just about taste the bitter traces of Porter’s satirical mode, which had flourished in his earliest collections like Once Bitten, Twice Bitten (1961) and The Last of England (1970). Elsewhere, as in “A Lecture By My Books”, the focus of attention is directed on the ineffectuality of mourning, and so of poetry itself; and the effect is bleak and terrifying. How can a poet so completely free of illusion do without the one source of enchantment he had always allowed himself? It is a terrible question to ponder; but for Porter, who gropes in these reflections at “words for ending words” and “the picture of nobody there”, it is necessary all the same.

At the centre of the collection stands the daunting formal achievement of “An Exequy”, in which a numbing personal grief is evenly ordered by specific recollections and measured out by the tetrameter to achieve a verbal music of grave serenity:

I think of us in Italy:
Gin-and-Chianti-fuelled, we
Move in a trance through Paradise,
Feeding at last our starving eyes,
Two people of the English blindness
Doing each masterpiece the kindness
Of discovering it—from Baldovinetti
To Venice’s most obscure jetty.
A true unfortunate traveller, I
Depend upon your nurse’s eye
To pick the altars where no Grinner
Puts us off our tourists’ dinner
And in hotels to bandy words
With Genevan girls and talking birds,
To wear your feet out following me
To night’s end and true amity,
And call my rational fear of flying
A paradigm of Holy Dying—
And, oh my love, I wish you were
Once more with me, at night somewhere
In narrow streets applauding wines,
The moon above the Apennines
As large as logic and the stars,
Most middle-aged of avatars,
As bright as when they shone for truth
Upon untried and avid youth.

In the room, the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. But what is remarkable about this passage, as with so many others in this quietly astounding lyric study of ars moriendi, is Porter’s facility for blending social commentary with deeper personal and metaphysical reflections. Think of the disarmingly personal expression of loss, the shriek of pain muffled by the whimpers of a love curdled by deprivation, of how it emerges discreetly from the bumptious comedy of the English abroad while forming a separate and concise coda to the stanza.

Focus too closely on the solemnity, however, and you’ll miss, among other things, Porter’s open identification with “the English blindness”. When you notice this line, on re-reading, you feel compelled to ask, “Isn’t he meant to be Australian?” And then—”are we, the English, really that blind?” Like other poems in this collection, “An Exequy” attests to Porter’s deeper affinities with the verse traditions of the English language, the roads not taken as well as the major arterial routes. This poem is structured according to an elegiac form established in the 17th century by Henry King, Bishop of Chichester, who wrote a 120-line poem in iambic tetrameter to lament the death of his wife. But it says a lot about the complexity of his grief, and the texture of his introspection, that Porter revives our memories of the other uses that the four-foot metrical line has been put to: one thinks, for instance, of the cankered rants of Swift, or the dour provincial tragicomedy of Larkin. But this is not done at all facetiously, since the dominant effect of the poem is to deliver the proper scope of a tragedy that seems to have been as puzzling as it was devastating.

Such formal commitments stand in marked contrast to Porter’s great compatriot, Les Murray, who has brilliantly exploited the Whitmanian freedoms of a continent that Murray once argued is largely set over for mystic poetry. For Porter, the model was W.H. Auden, whose vast cultivation and aesthetic wisdom were richly bodied forth in verse of comparable sophistication. But while other epigones of Auden sometimes sink beneath the surfaces on which they attempt to skate, Porter refused to be dazzled by his precursor’s later bravura displays of connoisseurship. At times, it felt that he used poetry not so much as an elaborate trophy cabinet in which to display his learning, but almost as the excuse to extend his education. This was slyly commented upon and perhaps embodied by a poem from his final collection, Better Than God (2009), “Henry James and Constipation”, which focused on the young novelist’s acute gastric suffering while touring Europe and greedily consuming the sights. In a collection featuring a fairly randomly selected but wide ranging assortment of cultural luminaries, one could argue that the poem embodies precisely the sort of “inaction” and “looking on” that it appears to ridicule. In his later collections, though, his absorption was rescued by his conversational poise and gift for aphorism which flourished within the formal restrictions, the “love of limits”, he enthusiastically and characteristically embraced. Consider the following stanza from “No Infelicitous Phrases Need Apply”:

All sorts of tyrannies exist: the apple
Grows slow red in a freaky summer.
You see the fault of symmetry,
It excludes the metaphysic
You were planning for your entry into Heaven—
You say farewell to the idea of proving.

There is a sense in which this sort of lyric, rather than any dramatic monologue that attempts to mimic the voice of Stravinsky, say, or Voltaire, better incarnates the wisdom that Porter accrued across a lifetime.

Finally, there is at least one respect in which Porter can be considered the senior of most poets. Consider the following lines from Auden’s own tribute to The Master.

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead:
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

Porter was not one of those given over to such vanity, nor was he tempted to assume too great a role for himself in the public sphere. Younger poets, such as the late Michael Donaghy, Don Paterson, and Sean O’Brien, have paid generous tribute to Porter’s tutelary presence, his solicitude, and his erudition, which was as well-stocked as any university library, but more open to the reading public. Collections are available on request, even to those of us who didn’t have personal access to the source himself. To get the measure of the man, and to learn more about the casual ease with which one can deploy a lifetime of reading, I can do no better than recommend Porter’s conversations with his friend and fellow ex-pat, Clive James, to be found here. But these conversations, like the correspondence of any major writer, remind one of what’s already always there: the poems. Peter Porter’s achievement was to reverse the unforgiving elitism of the early 20th century, and to pursue the logic of Auden’s achievement into dramatising the accumulation not only of aesthetic knowledge but of lived experience too: his poems constitute the autobiography of an education that drew to a close only one month ago. Musical training might be helpful in penetrating his work, but curiosity is a far better guide.

Jonathan Gharraie is a writer. The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems by Peter Porter was published 21 May 2010.