What’s Eating Peter Porter?
Better than God
The title of Peter Porter’s latest volume seems to suggest a plucky young poet making a beeline for the Dawkins set of fashionable atheists. But Porter recently turned 80 and Better Than God is his 17th collection of verse. He is already half-a-century deep in considerations about the relative merits of faith and reason. The present volume makes it clear that, to him, belief in God is not merely illogical, but undesirable.
When he emerged in the early 1960s, Peter Porter was loosely associated with the Movement poets, but his work was distinguished from their anti-modernism by his recognition that aesthetic appreciation was vital to personal as well as creative fulfilment. Throughout his work, he has expressed distaste for the sort of corrosively quotidian existence that, in his first collection, he memorably described as “the life that kills, the death that lives”. Now that Porter’s “tired body” has obligingly caught up with the “ageing soul”, (a process he describes in “Opus 77”), we might expect a more personal fear of death to stalk his work, with the poet cracking the same grim jokes as before, but with a grainy croak to the voice.
Throughout Better than God, however, he chides the impersonal “sprawling melodrama of Creation” for its bad taste, and it becomes clear that what actually frightens Porter about the proximity of death is the likelihood that eternity will be dull: the afterlife that kills.
Once dead any half-decent line will seem poetry
And ‘pretty well’ may pass for priority.
You’re no longer tied to your pituitary.
Yet Life confronts the artist with an entirely different set of obstacles. In “Detoxing Dante”, it is a rigorously systematic view of the world. In “Money and Stravinsky”, he uses the example of the great Russian composer to address the fear that the invisible hand of the market might rudely clip the viewless wings of poesy. Elsewhere, he addresses the pressure of a great historical weight in his poem charmingly titled “Henry James and Constipation”:
De Quincey had my trouble—opium
For him; for me, inaction, looking on,
The bathroom stalled, the crucial moment gone.
The Bread of Culture, eaten crumb by crumb,
Chokes off all other appetite, and we
……Who will one day be prints exist in effigy.
Poems such as “What’s Playing in Eternity?” and “No Infelicitous Phrases Need Apply”, raise the prospect of infinity as a stifling aesthetic plateau, an “endlessly extended Eden” in which “the whole close patterning is seen at once”, where “everything is perfect, and of no concern”. Eternity, he suggests, would flatten the intimate thrill of experience. “Will there be sufficient here of stuff/ We call, if not quite Life, then circumstance?”
The octogenarian Porter clearly has a great deal more roughage in his aesthetic diet than the young Henry James, and—without straining too hard—has produced a witty and formally compact essay on the unthinking consumption of art and literature.
In his collected lectures, Saving the Wreck (2001), Porter identified Robert Browning as the poet who most successfully brought the past into relation with the present by perfecting the range and flexibility of the dramatic monologue. Browning used this form to give voice to a number of historical figures, allowing their concerns to address those of the poet’s own times. Porter argued:
The longer we live and the more art piles up, the more opportunities we have to choose from the complete range of the past those qualities we judge to be the most effective for us, and therefore most helpful to our contemporaneity.
For Porter, Browning’s work served as an example of how poetry could determine priority. The creative act could perform the work of criticism and select salient instances from the vast reaches of history.
But in Better Than God, Porter expresses less confidence, and he struggles to conceal his sense of powerlessness in the face of such abundance. If the craving for culture “chokes off all other appetite”, then how can it nourish us? Porter’s ventriloquist act provides few answers to this question. His dramatic monologues emphasise neglected figures and telling anecdotes from the past, but they are perhaps too concentrated and transparent to add up to anything other than an amusing lyric.
Paradoxically, Porter is a writer who reveals more when the scene he represents is deliberately oblique. In “Lost Among the Lizards”, he explicitly dramatises the attempt to infer significance from something opaque and unyielding. The poet endeavours to find out whether geckos dream and, if so, what this “Lizard Anthropomorphism” might mean, roping in Cicero, Leopardi and Empson along the way. Towards the end of this exercise, however, he admits defeat and retreats back into his imagination: “if I’m wise/ I’ll break into a book where living is/ Forever independent of surprise.”
But Porter is at his most effective when he drops the mask and unmuzzles his satirical fangs. He remains the poet who once translated Martial and channelled the spirit of John Marston to denounce the “Conde Nast world” of the swinging sixties. But in this present collection his disgust is tempered by compassion and a nagging awareness that this time his response might be disproportionate to what he observes. This is true of “Young Mothers in the Square”, which deliberately recalls “Afternoons” by Philip Larkin:
A shadow falls across the lawn;
Is it the poet’s unearned scorn?
How can they play, as Gray observed,
Unconscious of their fate? The curved
Blades of their death swing round
Like Frisbees looping to the ground
Where everything is burgeoning,
A rose, a laptop, someone’s bling.
At times, Porter can seem to play the part of a demented tarot dealer gratuitously flourishing death’s card, but his robust formal command prevents him from sounding grotesque. The neatly arranged couplets and the blithe trot of the tetrameter help establish the scene and the disapproving view of the poet. But just as the rose that sits somewhat anonymously alongside “someone’s bling” recalls the earlier description of the poet as “an old rose branching on a stem”, so his moralising perspective is shyly and gradually introduced into the scene he derides.
Is the scorn really deserved? Are the mothers any less conscious of their fate than the poet or his illustrious predecessor, Thomas Gray? Instead of vitiating the impact of his point of view, this troubled stanza seems somehow appropriate in a collection where Porter has thoroughly and conscientiously probed the value of his own writing in an increasingly distracted world.
Jonathan Gharraie is a DPhil student in English Literature at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is working on D.H. Lawrence and exile.