by George Szirtes
from Poetry London, Autumn 2010
It was Paul Verlaine, a poet Peter Porter didn't particularly like, who promised to take eloquence and wring its neck. But what was eloquence? What indeed was poetry? The first four lines of 'The Lying Art' show a distinct scepticism about the values claimed for it:
It is all rhetoric rich as wedding cake
and promising the same bleak tears
when what was asked for but not recognized
shows its true face after a thousand breakfasts...
Peter Porter spent much of his life with his hands round the neck of rhetoric. That was his great strength. Time after time he despaired of poetry, or at least of its idealization. He pursued the hopelessness of poetic ambition from 'The Great Poet Comes Here in Winter' (his early dramatic monologue about Rilke that begins 'Frau Antonia is a cabbage: / If I were a grub I'd eat a hole in her') through to the late poem, 'Tasso's Oak', where he writes:
The fault was Poetry's, those worlds which clashed
Like blades but never joined the field, the sound
Of truth but bearing no true weight,
Why should scepticism be a strength? The answer lies in the phrase, 'the sound of truth but bearing no true weight'. It is truth that matters. It is the care for truth, the demand for it that led him to doubt the claims of 'the lying art'. The tension between distrust and its object lies at the heart of Porter's entire enterprise. His true interlocutor is God, the god of death and art. So it was in 'Forefathers' View of Failure', the first poem of The Rest on the Flight—this vast four-hundred-page selection from his poems. It was the god of those he first knew: 'Men with religion as their best technique / Who built bush churches six days a week'. Those churches were built of 'weatherboard' and were 'bleached white'. Like the War Memorial, also mentioned in the poem, they led eyes to 'a plain Heaven'. An ironic distance is maintained between the poet and the church builders, his forefathers, but they are the plain heaven ghosts in the machinery of his imagination. Like Marianne Moore, like Peter Porter, they too distrusted poetry.
All the same—and this is the point—for someone who distrusted poetry so much, he wrote a great deal of it and that great deal comprises a great deal. That is because unlike a sceptic who shrugs, raises his eyebrow and has ever less to say, Porter possessed a restless, almost volcanic curiosity. Anyone who ever spent time in his company as I did, particularly as a young poet to whom he was typically generous, cannot fail to speak about his encyclopaedic reading and conversation. The last time I saw him he was in his chair reading a book of verse. 'I have read forty pages of this without coming across a memorable line', were his first words. Mine might have been, 'And yet you are still reading'. He absorbed everything, listened to everything, looked at everything, eager to examine and know the nature of it. The poet, regarded first as a turncoat then as a returning master in his home country Australia, filled his mind with the history and productions of the Old World, absorbing its pretensions, voluptuousness, decrepitude, power, ambition and grandeur almost by way of inoculating himself against it, while becoming of it. The monuments of European culture were both glories and puzzles. Chiefly, I believe, they spoke to him of vanity and mortality, a plain heaven transfigured into a Baroque ceiling by, say, Andrea Pozzo. Those pastoral scenes in Piero di Cosimo or Lorenzo Lotto were displacements of the forefathers' new land where 'the transplanted grasses root, / Waving as silkily as through old falling soot'.
Back in the early Sixties there was God, there was art, there was history and there was London: the London of copywriting and early satires like 'A Consumer's Report', 'The World of Simon Raven' and 'John Marston Advises Anger', which are really only partly satires. A comic melancholia haunts them: a sense that not only the Australian landscape but Porter himself was being displaced. He was by this time a member of The Group along with Peter Redgrove, Alan Brownjohn and Martin Bell, and was one of its leading lights. Not precisely the poetic equivalents of Osborne's angry young men, Group members were nevertheless class-combative and determined to address the world, to point out its hypocrisies, and to cut up rough if need be. Porter was not going to forget the obligations of plain heaven. As the speaker of the dramatic monologue, Fredric II of Prussia, reminds himself, in 'Soliloquy at Potsdam':
There are always the poor—
Getting themselves born in crowded houses.
Feeding on the parish, losing their teeth early
And learning to dodge blows...
('Forefathers' View of Failure')
In the poem Fredric goes on to consider his court composer Johann Joachim Quantz, weighing three sonatas against the march of a hundred regiments. That was the tension: the balance between Brisbane, Porter's birthplace in 1929, and Bayswater. Quantz would cut it in London but Quantz had a lot to answer for.
So it continued on ever-new ground: the same battles and fascinations, in ever-new corners of the cultural map (a map he would consider a spiritual map), in a craft so fragile it was always threatening to sink. There is a later parody of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon titled 'The Western Canoe'. A man may think he is paddling his own but must carry the list of approved passengers: George Steiner, the Theory Fairy, the Gulf War, Gibbon, Dickens, the Eco Pool, the Lady Murasaki, not to forget Harold Bloom himself. And Quantz is there, and Fredric II with his poor bloody armies. All this would be intolerable name-dropping if we were not convinced that he had read, listened to and looked at every item in the canoe and that it had mattered. But we are so convinced, because it clearly did and does matter. Italian Renaissance art is of vital importance. German music and philosophy are integral to life. The Latins and Greeks are the life-blood of Bayswater Road.
What have they to do with us? Everything. It is not that they must be taken seriously, meaning solemnly. It is not because they are the best that has been thought. It is not because they do so civilize a man. It is certainly not for the sake of after-dinner conversation. It is because truth matters. It is because Brisbane exists. This passionate, ironic flood of ideas carries Porter through some twenty books. Nor does he ever tire. Not every poem is deathless, not every line laden with ore: or rather, death itself is the ore. Nevertheless he turns a smart line when he feels like it, because the ex-copywriter knew a thing or two about hook-lines. Paradoxically, though, the figure of Porter the poet is so imposing that it will continue to fascinate and expand. The book by which he might best survive in terms of the overall strength of individual poems, his best loved book, is his least characteristic work, The Cost of Seriousness, published in 1978 after the death by suicide of his first wife, Jannice Henry. It is his most personal book, and certainly his most autobiographical. Here, the man has stepped out of his canoe and stands forlornly on the banks of the river, the Lethe, the Acheron, the Styx. The clutter of civilization does not desert him but almost everything else does. His response is in the title poem, the figure naked, clad only in art:
Once more I come to the white page of art
to discover what I know
and what I presume I feel
about those forgettable objects words
We begin with penalties:
the cost of seriousness will be death....
In poem after poem in The Cost of Seriousness he anatomizes art, seeking both consolation and desolation. Even nakedness is an art that must be mastered, he learns, never having loved nakedness. He cannot know naked feeling; he must, as he says, presume what he feels. That, paradoxically, is the nakedness.
The self does appear in Porter's work: it is never absent. It's in the voice, the pace, the subject matter, the humour. Porter was, after all, an Auden man but his God was sterner, more puritan than Auden's. Porter's God was guilty by way of non-existence, just as his own speech was guilty by way of silence. For his conventional Anglican funeral Peter Porter asked that Psalm Thirty-nine be read. It begins:
I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.
My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue,
LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.
This belongs with the plain heaven of the crowded houses: more Brisbane than Bayswater. Auden was never Brisbane. Porter's laughter, considering the god in question, was blacker and more bitter. The laughter was in the bones and the bones were many.
About the Author
George Szirtes's most recent collection of poems is The Burning of the Books and Other Poems (2009). A collection of lectures on poetry and historical knowledge, Fortinbras at the Fishhouses, was published by Bloodaxe this year.
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