When I read Peter Porter’s last published poem, “After Schiller”, in a copy of Ambit magazine, I was already half in love with his poetry. I had been reading him avidly up until then, but I felt always on the cusp of true love, unable to make a commitment, awaiting the depth-charge jolt of lines like this, from the poem’s penultimate stanza:
With looking upwards hardly in my power
And being forced to seek the stars on earth,
In this exacting planisphere I cower:
I have not moved one footstep from my birth.
As final poems go, it’s a remarkably controlled and unflinching performance. It may not seem immediately soothing, depicting as it does an almost Beckettian ennui, but the tight-locked power of the rhymes worked a hypnotic magic, and led me to spend another few months reading Porter’s poetry almost non-stop. I had previously been reading him with desperation, as if something was at stake, and somehow “After Schiller” paid off.
Peter Porter died one year ago tomorrow, on April 23, 2010. Around that date, by chance, I began to listen to his dialogues with Clive James, recorded from 2000 to 2004 for Australia’s ABC Radio. I knew who Clive James was, but the poet Peter Porter was only a peripheral figure to me then. The discussions ranged from Chaucer to Auden; from sex to politics; from surviving as a hack journalist to not really surviving at all as a working poet. It was a revelation to me. There are 36 episodes altogether, and I ingested the lot at full pelt in a few days, before devouring them all over again with redoubled hunger. After two listens I knew the dialogues well enough to pick out favorites, which I listened to out of sequence and at my leisure, over and over again. Reports indicate that my accent began to develop an Australian twang.
Despite my fascination with these dialogues, I wasn’t immediately attracted to Peter Porter. At first he seemed intelligent but supercilious, unsure of himself but lofty, and his wit didn’t have the precision of Clive James’ aphorisms. But slowly this began to change. Porter’s personality emerged and I detected a self-deprecation and a humility that few poets seem to have, or at least seem to display in public. He had a united vision of the arts, switching in his conversation between literature, music and painting on a whim, but talking about each discipline with equal authority and interest. And then I read his poetry.
Diving into a writer’s oeuvre, so to speak, is a lot easier than it used to be. Many of Porter’s books were a click away, and in one of those weird synchronicities which seem to strike as enthusiasm reaches its highest point, I began to see Porter’s poetry collections everywhere. Once Bitten Twice Bitten, Millennial Fables, The Automatic Oracle, Better Than God– the titles alone sparkled with promise. I felt the first pangs of excitement mingled with guilt as I realized all the books were out there, a completed corpus, freshly minted by the death of one of the very greatest post-war poets. I did my best to ravish each and every poem I found, but soon enough it became clear that I was in fact drowning myself in a way that doesn’t suit the reading and digestion of verse.
Even in my overwhelmed state, however, I felt individual lines digging their way into my memory and softly nosing out all the dross. If listening to the ABC broadcasts made me speak with an Australian accent, then reading Porter’s poetry made me think with an Australian accent; or, more accurately, an Australian accent that had been percolated through the filters of London literary life for a few decades.
Porter was born in Brisbane in 1929, but moved to England in 1951, and, apart from a brief interlude back in Australia in the mid-‘50s, stayed there for the rest of his life. It’s hard to imagine him anywhere else. His relationship with England was ambivalent but symbiotic: “You cannot leave England, it turns / A planet majestically in the mind” he writes in “The Last of England”. In “Fifty Years On”, from the late collection Afterburner, Porter writes:
Hell is a city just
like London, but I knew I had to find
a working Hell, I’d lived too long in books.
The thing I didn’t know was that I sought
a London which was in me from the start.
Porter’s voice is often one of an urban sage, helplessly part of his surroundings but with a mind full of exotica. In his earlier poems the voice is already there, but the young Porter was far from immune to the temptations of city life. In fact the best thing about the poems in his early collections (the first collection Once Bitten Twice Bitten perhaps more than any other), is the acceptance of the need for the more common (or uncommon, as the case may be) pleasures: namely attractive women and material possessions. One gets the feeling when reading a poem like “John Marston Advises Anger” (“All the boys are howling to take the girls to bed” rings the opening line) that the poet would very much like to be in his ivory tower. But how can he be when the scenery down below is so appealing? The “flesh-packed jeans” won’t be found at the central library. Or is it the other way round: the life of the intellectual walking among the dirty streets – walking, never riding – and the inheritors of money and beauty zipping around in their MGs towards a much more appealing ivory tower called Haslemere? “It’s a Conde Nast world and so Marston’s was.” Retreating to the Elizabethan age is futile; the sporadic sheen of privilege was there too.
And it was also there in Porter’s adolescence, as portrayed in “Eat Early Earthapples”, a remarkable poem about the scarring effect of being a child on the sidelines, swelled with a concoction of self-loathing and haughty indignation. The studs of school may be “thick men now with kids and problems”, but the resentment remains:
The boy with something wrong reading a book
While the smut-skeined train goes homeward
Carrying the practised to the sensual city.
It’s almost impossible for a young and daunted male to resist poetry this exciting. Book-learned wisdom and painful longing are combined in a viscerally honest way; it’s as if T.S. Eliot added a paean to tight jeans in “The Waste Land”. Bathetic but glorious, and very much in line with one of Porter’s poetic heroes, Alexander Pope, the 18th century master of shifting tone.
But it’s the mid-career poems that hit the hardest. I came back to them once I’d read and re-read “After Schiller”, and was struck by how deftly Porter deals with complicated feelings of loss, especially in his collection The Cost of Seriousness. Background detail is unavoidable: Porter’s first wife committed suicide in the mid-1970s, and many of his poems around this time deal with this tragedy, both explicitly and implicitly. They have been compared to Thomas Hardy’s famous “Emma” poems, and that isn’t hyperbole. “An Exequy” is a formal masterpiece, written in delicate tetramic couplets:
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.
The style is intentionally baroque. A poet of a more thoroughly modern sensibility would balk at “applauding wines” or “untried and avid youth”, but it would just mean they didn’t understand the artifice of verse. Throughout his poetry, Porter is aware of the weight of the past, all the previous poets and artists who have trodden the same heartbroken byways. To attempt a separation from this, even in the darkest moments, would be to falter in the face of poetic responsibility. In “An Exequy” Porter is implicitly stating that his grief is part of a tradition – a difficult thing to admit – and the imitation of Bishop Henry King’s own “The Exequy” (1657) is a characteristic reference point. His is not a special kind of grief, but it is no less all-consuming.
Many poets have used the subject of personal loss as a springboard for their most intensely felt verse, but as far as I am aware no one else has so fully realised the implications of such a decision. Brute personal experience is supposed to be fair game for writers and artists – more so now than ever – but just how fair is it? Porter realises he is “using” his wife’s death to create works of art. “The Delegate” is a poem haunted by this guilt, which is both denied and re-affirmed. “In the end, we are condemned / only for our lack of talent” – this, the poet tries to convince himself, is the only rule.
There is no morality,
no metered selfishness, or cowardly fear.
What we do on earth is its own parade
and cannot be redeemed in death. The pity
of it, that we are misled.
The artist, in his turn, “is being used despite himself”, his life transformed into words “which anyone may use”.
This is also an issue we have to grapple with as readers. Arriving late to Porter’s poetry – mere days after his death – fills me not just with regret (I could have seen him in person at one of his many readings, or read the poems as they were published, if I’d have been a few years earlier), but guilt. The guilt comes from a sense that my access to his poetry has been in some way assisted by his death. The career arc is set out, from “John Marston Advises Anger” to “After Schiller”. When a writer is alive his work is in progress and we as readers feel we have time to get to know them; the body of work is incomplete and not quite fathomable. The roundness of a writer’s complete output appeals to us, even when it is cut short, and it could be said that we desire for writers what we fear for our friends and loved ones. If someone close to us dies the span of their life from beginning to end is upsetting. The openness of our future is where hope lies, and death reduces a life down to a succession of events which probably won’t resolve into any coherent idea of progress or epiphany – life becomes “its own parade”. We think, Is that all a life is? Whereas with writers who have lived long lives we can measure the shelf space that their collected works take up and think, Look what a life can be!
More than anyone else Porter knew about the timeless salvation of art, the fine gauze of perfection which both intensifies and shields us from our existence. Unless we are very lucky – or perhaps unlucky – we can never know our favorite writers. Personal connection with them is an illusion. The guilt is there, but we “use” writers in the same way writers “use” everything else. Death may have spurred my own addiction to his poetry, but Porter wrote with a view for posterity, and he knew all the great artists were dead anyway.
And yet I can’t shake the feeling that I arrived late to the party, but still drank all the best punch. Porter’s own “Fossil Gathering”, from Preaching to the Converted, organises this idea better than I can: I am one of the children who with a paperback can “break an Ancient with impatient ease”:
A Little Guide in Colour tells us how
These creatures sank in their unconscious time,
That life in going leaves a husk the plough
Or amateur collector can displace,
That every feeling thing ascends from slime
To selfhood and in dying finds a face.