Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Best Book of 2010 - The Rest on the Flight: selected poems of Peter Porter

I approach this review with some trepidation: Porter, who sadly dies just before this book was published, wrote complex poetry in both traditional and contemporary styles. An Australian by birth, he was in some ways more English than the English: self-deprecating, reserved, prone to melancholy but also witty, imaginative and racy. He lived most of his life in England; yet, he engaged more and more with his native land as he got older, expressing deep connections with its history, culture and landscape. Devoted to classical music and Renaissance art, he refused to submit to the cultural isolationism of contemporary English verse which seems so rarely to celebrate or even absorb or acknowledge other art forms and resists cleverness or any other form of 'headiness' which transmits joy through language and thought. In some ways, he had a distinctly European sensibility, which sat alongside his English and Australian ones. I'd like to say something definitive about his work, but I find that what I end up doing is expressing views about him, which change according to the poems I am reading, all of which I find hugely engaging.

He wrote the sort of poetry I yearn to read: about history, philosophy, how he feels, about his marriage, his family, about contemporary mores. There is a restless quality about his work which I find attractive, and a love of memorable phrase-making which has the capacity to light up often dense, complex but always rewarding text.

I return to this book again and again, and I am indebted to Sean O'Brien, for his brief but excellent introduction, which defends Porter against those detractors who accuse him of relying on allusions rather than images. As O'Brien says so elegantly:
the constellation of overlapping worlds which his work evokes is open to anyone interested to explore for themselves, and his reflections on art are always connected to its human sources'.

I suppose the particular attraction I feel towards Porter's poetry is partly related to the influence of later Auden, whose work from the 50s to the 70s has never been fully appreciated in England. In a similar way to Auden, Porter writes disquisitions on culture (the phrase is Porter's own from Civilisation and its Disney Contents), but ones in which landscape plays on the inner forms of the psyche ( see The Ecstasy of Estuaries). Yet he does something which Auden generally didn't do - except in the form of gossipy asides or in relation to the landing on the moon in 1969- in his later work, he satirises the particular historical moment, such as in An Ingrate's England, The Workers or A Sour Decade.

Another point of attraction is Thomas Hardy. Thus, one gets beautifully ambivalent formal poems - part lyric, part narrative - like the amusingly entitled Let me Bore you with my Slides (appropriately enough about his family, of course), which finishes with the lines:
love's face peers between husband and wife,
a cautious colour like afternoon.

In fact, if I ever tire of reading the poems, I think I could spend half an hour oggling their titles: Fair go for Anglo Saxons, The Porter Song Book, the Automatic Oracle, The Easiest Room in Hell, That War is the Destruction of Restaurants etc. etc. etc.

Some mention must go to the poems from The Cost of Seriousness, which Porter wrote partially in response to the death of his first wife. My favourite poem from that collection is The Delegate, a post funeral poem which mediates not only on the sense of despair he still shares with his wife but on his relationship with poetry:
The truth
is a story forcing me to tell it. It is not
my story or my truth. My misery
is on a colour chart - even my death
is a chord among the garden sounds.

There is so much for the reader to do to fill inbetween the huge leaps that Porter - perhaps driven by grief - is making. On the way, we can savour paradox: the artist's impregnable ego and his subjection to higher purpose, his misery and his love of creation. Then there is the phrase: my misery is on a colour chart. This striking phrase (so typical of this amazing phrase maker) simultanously suggests

  • that his misery has a colour and his involuntary experience of the same is a form of synesthesia

  • that it may vary in intensity, or be intense

  • that it is a crude unformed emotion, not yet processed by Art

  • that it is now ordinary

I'm sure there are other associations that could be teased out. The point is that the phrase is not just colourful (sic), but vibrant with implications.

Having mentioned Auden and Hardy, I think it's also important to reference Ashbery. The great leaps in meaning his poetry makes are there from his early work onwards (O'Brien usefully points to Wallace Stevens as a major influence), but become more marked during the 80s. Both frequently use personification and seemingly absurd but razor sharp juxtapositions of phrases. Porter is less abstract than Ashbery, more fixed both on a 'subject' and on objects, but I think the influence is detectable.

Finally, I think it is important to say something about Porter's politics. Throughout his life, he was a radical social democrat although probably of the Fabian persuasion - but constantly aware of exploitation and abuse. His famous early poem Your Attention Please shows that he was sceptical about the arms race and the peace-keeping potential of Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD for short, if you're lucky enough not to remember). His devotion to high culture stems from his humanism rather from elitism. Yet he recognised the problems and limits of rationality and the absurdity of human behaviour and desire. This is part of what makes him interesting, and no consideration of his work should occur without referencing his social concerns and humanitarian values.

All in all, a wonderful poet, and, if I may say so, having met him a few times in the 80s, and drunk some beers with him, an open, interesting and kindly man. I miss him, man and poet.

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