Saturday, April 24, 2010
Peter Porter has died. He was 81. I have exhumed and retyped (with a broken elbow, too, let me add, which I had for eleven full days before going to hospital!) – retyped, I was saying, the following review of his two-volume Collected Poems of 1999. Those volumes were intended to mark Porter’s seventieth birthday, but turned instead into dead-on-arrival funeral monuments to the OUP poetry list: the last books that imprint published, I believe.
Porter had odd views on Irish poetry, it must be said. He achieved a certain mythic, or was it urban-mythic, status for having rejected Mahon’s ‘Disused Shed’ while poetry editor at The New Statesman. Irish poetry, he thought, certainly when written by Seamus Heaney, was irretrievably mired in Georgian platitude. I think Muldoon and Carson gained a partial reprieve from this blanket condemnation, but, equally, I don’t think Porter spent overmuch time seeking out volumes by Maurice Scully or Trevor Joyce to prove himself happily wrong. It was just a pat generalisation he would trot out, repeatedly, year after year. But there is more to Porter than this. Let me not omit, too, a salute to his ailurophilia, especially in light of the heroic efforts Percy the cat has made this last hour to stop me typing the following, by sitting on the keyboard, repeatedly opening random programs (Powerpoint?) and looking up ’errrrrrr4444444445t’ in the Microsoft Word help dialogue box. And as for the poetry, here then is my review of Porter’s Collected Poems, which originally appeared in Poetry Ireland Review 62 in 1999:
In comparison to Auden and MacNeice’s Thirties, the Forties have always been seen as a poor decade for poetry. There was Dylan Thomas and his train of apocalyptic incantators, but things didn’t really pick up again until the Movement came along in the Fifties. That’s how the story usually goes, but hardly less influential (at the time at least) was the Group, of which Peter Porter was an early and prominent member. Both camps tried to drag poetry of the Forties’ slushy morass, but the Group was stridently opposed to the ‘gentility principle’ of Movement poems about country churches in neo-Augustan stanzas. For Porter and an associate like Al Alvarez, poetry was all about taking risks: it meant tackling subjects like nuclear war and being reminded of the holocaust when you saw scratch marks on the ceiling of a Tube carriage.
The young Porter is an angry poet, so angry you expect his poems to give off steam as you read them. ‘What a Lying Lot the Writers Are’ he titles a poem, before going into detail on ‘the tearing fingers of the ruck’, and his rising ‘bilge of hate’. There is something Jacobean in his indignation, as befits the author of ‘John Marston Advises Anger’, with anything smacking of upward social mobility coming in for particular ire. A frequently used symbol of decadence is a young woman marrying for money, as in ‘Made in Heaven’, whose housewife cheers herself up with:
Half a dozen lovers whose faces I can’t quite remember
(I can still start the Rose Adagio, one foot on the fender)
But at least I’m safe from everything but cancer –
The apotheosis of the young wife and the mediocre dancer.
Porters’ Sixties England is a world strangely devoid of even token rock and roll idealism: arty types in his early poems aren’t countercultural subversives, just so many cynics and lechers on the make. Larkin’s ‘Deceptions’ has taken a lot of criticism over the years for its awkward attempts to console a rape victim, but Larkin’s awkwardness is as nothing to the venom of Porter’s portrayal of a woman deciding not to lose her virginity in ‘Changes Wrung’. Sometimes Porter’s satirical manner becomes so tickled with its urbanity that it’s hard to say who or what the object of the exercise is. ‘Quatrains Dedicated to James Fenton’ is pure ‘Sweeney’-era Eliot-meets-Anthony Hecht, and none the better for it either. More enjoyable are the translations of After Martial, with their cuckolded husbands and malodorous orgiasts, their little gobbets of epigrammatic spleen. This is ribald contemporary satire at its best.
Written after the suicide of his wife, ‘An Exequy’ immediately stands out from all this banter. The Elizabethan Henry King is remembered for another poem of the same name and almost nothing else, and for Porter too this is surely his anthology piece. ‘The Easiest Room in Hell’ and ‘An Angel in Blythburgh Church’, also from The Cost of Seriousness, are uncharacteristic but fine poems on the same theme.
Porter didn’t go on being angry into middle age, or watch his poems slowly run out like Larkin’s. Instead he became a sort of millennial fabulist, toning down his persona to that of the wistful highbrow beached by the filthy modern tide. To put it in terms of Roman poets, since Porter himself so frequently does, he becomes less Martial than Horace. He has also become more productive, almost neurotically so: I can’t foresee too many readers resisting the temptation to skip a few pages along the way (and be warned, there are 788 of them). He buy his loquacity at a price: hand in glove with the Horatian pleasantries comes a hammered-home moralizing about poetry’s limitations and perfidies. As he puts it in ‘The Lying Art’:
It is all rhetoric rich as wedding cake
and promising the same bleak tears
when what was asked for but not recognised
shows its true face after a thousand breakfasts.
This, not Miss Moore’s disclaimer, tells me
why I too dislike it. It is paid to distract us,
to tell the man disappointed by his mother
that he too can be a huge cry-baby.
Too much of this becomes very tedious indeed, with its tone of woozy inconsequentialilty so familiar from late Auden. Was Porter being ‘a huge cry-baby’ when he wrote ‘An Exequy’ (separated from this by a mere four pages)? Of course not. But such is his fear of the lachrymose that he insists on planting the thought in our heads anyway. There’s only so much ground you can cut from under your feet without falling over, and Porter’s version of self-deprecation isn’t exactly slapstick fun. Opposing drippy consolation and manly restraint suits his purposes too well; if nothing else, a few embarrassing tears (or any other body fluids) might have served to lubricate the dry savannahs of volume 2. As he says in ‘Sticking to the Texts’ (ironic title, evidently): ‘Better to suffer the nightmares natural to /The body and tell what you have heard /Among your fellow-sufferers’. His best poems don’t need to prop up the tired old mind/body/art/life divides he makes so much of elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the words of ‘Sticking to the Text’ aren’t advice that he takes to heart. What he likes doing best in his recent work is playing the role of a Browning for our times. Wagner, Piero di Cosimo, Borromini, John Ford talking to T.S. Eliot, Bellini talking to Heine: the second half of Collected Poems can read like the Porter pocket guide to Western culture, with guilt, religion, sex and the decline of the West all written up in a tone of the utmost, maddening reasonablness. Late Porter, in other words, is essentially a poet of superior chitchat. His most memorable work in this vein includes ‘A Lament’, ‘A Great Reckoning in a Little Room’, ‘Bad Dreams in Venice’, ‘Woop Woop’, ‘Pisa Oscura’, ‘Copycat’, ‘The Chair of Babel’ and ‘Echt Deutsch’. But if you want something more gripping, stick to the ferocious satires and elegies in volume 1.