- English Subtitles by Peter Porter
Oxford, 56 pp, £3.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 211942 7
- Unplayed Music by Carol Rumens
Secker, 53 pp, £4.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 436 43900 X
- Close Relatives by Vicki Feaver
Secker, 64 pp, £4.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 436 15185 5
Peter Porter’s imagination tends towards the epigram, but not quite in the popular sense which suggests brief, pithy encapsulations of wit or wisdom:
Believe me, Flaccus, the epigram is more
than just a cracker-motto or an inch
of frivolous joking to fill up a column.
When, in 1972, he published the selection of translations called After Martial, he tended to avoid ‘the two-line squibs ... which give people a wrong idea of the epigram’, deliberately went for some poems ‘of considerable length and serious import’, and indeed allowed himself to lengthen his originals because the English language encouraged a jettisoning of the Latin’s ‘economy’ and ‘precision’.
This has a bearing on the title-poem of English Subtitles and on another poem in the volume, ‘A Philosopher of Captions’. Captions, like the briefer kind of epigram, attempt memorable or summary definition, and subtitles, though in intention they translate a movie’s dialogue in full, have the appearance of captions. Both are meant to explain, and what they explain with their peculiar brevity is the larger and richer reality of the still or moving picture, a reality which is simultaneously on view, of which they form part even as they explain and comment upon and summarise it. And, like the type of epigram which it seems this poet prefers, they resist the autonomy and self-enclosure of the brief, pithy kind in favour of a more open-ended quality and a visible sense of being part of the surrounding life.
They become, in another word used in the title-poem, ‘annotations’. And this image from the scholar’s art is not, as in Stevens’s ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’, a coy underselling of what is really an ambitious and extended philosophical meditation, enclosed in a poetic structure patterned with almost numerological care, but genuinely a matter of hints at a commentary, rough-and-ready stabs at explanation:
As we sit in the dark,
I turn the more uncomfortable passions
Into slim sentences, such old words
As I know you know.
Inside the poem itself, the epigram as ‘two-line squib’ may rear its head as the poet’s own words address him:
Just as I was swearing to abjure them all:
‘Perhaps you should say something
A bit more interesting than what you mean.’
But even that piece of self-mockery escapes the epigram’s natural inclination towards reductive autonomies of phrase-making or pseudo-profundity. It is part of an ongoing movement, a tentative dialogue which the poet is having about the difficulties of defining his experience. The ‘philosopher of captions’ has spent
baffled if dutiful years putting down
Some order of words towards definition.
A remark at the end of Porter’s little blurb in the ‘Poetry Book Society Bulletin’ (this is a ‘Recommended’ volume) says: ‘I intend these poems to be the clues, but the mystery is built in to ordinary experience.’
So the poems themselves may contain epigrams, and even epigrams about subtitles and captions, but they always expand around them, before and after, as though the experience were too big for the caption, and naturally spread outwards. The spreading outwards is not a matter of engulfing superabundance or Whitmanian excess. It is a natural fullness of specific feeling, a largeness of dignity and pain, which exceed the bounds of aphorism while seeking exactitude within it. The implication is that only approximations are possible, so that definition is subjected to a tempered overflow. Insights come to rest with a finality that is, in Stevens’s words, only ‘for a moment final’, and the example of Stevens enforces the reflection that they are unprogrammed, fortuitous blessings, which ‘occur as they occur’. This can be said festively, as Stevens sometimes said it. The bleak version is in Porter’s ‘The Future’:
... are epitomes of chanciness,
none will get you through the day.