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.
Aphorism has from time to time in the last hundred years been a favoured mode: not, as in earlier times, in the form of the finished pensée of mature pondering, but as a stab of sudden comprehension, incomplete and fleeting, but capable of piercing deeper than discursive talk. In this guise, it sorts well with, and perhaps precedes, those doctrines which seek to replace the logic of reasoning with a deeper logic of imagination or feeling, encouraging a poetry of surface disconnection. It conforms also with most poetics of sudden revelation, despite its frequent air of clever rationality or witty pregnancy. It is in sequences of aphorisms and adages that Stevens, in verse and prose, often brooded on the workings of the imagination, and indeed announced their fortuity: ‘The acquisitions of poetry are fortuitous; trouvailles.’
In Peter Porter, ‘aphorisms’ are not accorded the pure, stark presence that some other poets give them. They readily merge, as I have suggested, into a surrounding context in a way which denies undue status, even of a momentary sort, to self-enclosed crystallisations of experience. But there is no doubting their importance in the poems, and in his ideas of how poems work. In one of a continuing series of deeply affecting poems about his dead wife, ‘aphorisms’, if I have understood the words rightly, are synonymous with poetry, one of ‘two goods’:
Aphorisms came. Not evil, but
the competition of two goods
brings you to the darkened room.
I gave the stone to a woman
and it glowed. I set my mind
to hydraulic work, lifting words
from their swamp. In the light from the stone
her face was bloated. When she died
the stone returned to me, a present
‘Not evil’ is surprising, unless one thinks of it as a denial of patnesses about poetry being a destructive force or some such thing (otherwise, why say it?). So is any opposite patness denied, for neither poetry nor marriage, ‘two goods’ in ‘competition’, offered the simple satisfactions of a golden rule. ‘Aphorisms’ were part of an unresolved contest, leading to nothing so grand or simple as either day or night, but only a darkened room.
The poem is called ‘What I have written I have written’. Another, ‘The Killing Ground’, contains a kind of exploding aphorism:
Each burly mote can tell
how she sat there at last breakfast,
ight fumes in her dressing-gown,
and how she said the sun upon the square
was a massacre if only we would see
the bodies. Then the cats walked straight to her
with authority from the tomb,
debating exits with their excellent tails.
The phrase about the massacre on the square is more than a sententious reminder of nature red in tooth and claw. It erupts from the quiet desolation of the domestic scene, and is charged with the sadness of the woman’s impending death. It suffuses the memory with its raw, untidy truth, and enters into an extraordinary orchestration with the grave, stately comedy of the funereal cats. (These are reminiscent, perhaps, of the spirits of the dead lady’s cats in Pound’s ‘The Social Order’, walking ‘with their tails up’.)
There are several poems like this, starkly meditative memorials of an unhealed distress. ‘Addio Senza Rancor’ is about two girls staying young in a photograph:
one was to die
at forty-one and the other at forty-four ...
Two friends high on death – what can I say to you,
not having experienced the mystery
which choked you? Nothing of the ordinariness
which lives in words and pictures trained you
for such priesthood. You are nowhere
in the evening light: what I see instead
are two white presences, playing with life,
smiling and letting it go without reproach.
The photograph is seen, in a way, as a visual counterpart of the aphorism, freezing a momentary truth. The poem is another way of saying that such momentary truths are grievously incomplete, exact as they are on their own terms. ‘But o, photography! as no art is, /Faithful and disappointing’: the lines from Larkin’s famous photograph-poem sound arch and trivial beside the delicacy and desolation of Porter’s. Beside it, too, Ted Hughes’s fine early poem ‘Six Young Men’ (‘Six months after this picture they were all dead’) lacks a whole dimension of personal suffering.
Carol Rumens’s Unplayed Music also contains a photograph-poem, ‘Before these wars’. It is about her parents ‘in the early days of marriage’:
I search their laughter in vain:
no baby twinkles there,
and Hitler has not yet marched on Poland.
It is flatter than Porter or Hughes, and free of those early Larkinesque archnesses, though a different Larkinesque quality is struck in the poem’s only aphoristic note:
But that the possible happens
eventually, everyone knows.
Other poems in Unplayed Music also recall Larkin or invite comparison. The beginning of ‘The Girl in the Cathedral’, especially
Princes and Knights still dressed for wars as dim
As bronze, slim feet at rest upon the flanks
Of long-unwhistled hounds,
shares some details with the opening of ‘An Arundel Tomb’. The poems quickly diverge, but Rumens’s meditation on a ten-year-old girl who died in 1804 has a faintly puzzled melancholy and a certain rhythmical sweep which bring other things of Larkin’s to mind.
Like many of Larkin’s poems, including the classic ‘Church Going’, Rumens’s poems often register a wry sense of disconnection from the past. It is there, all around us, full of evocations of how things once were, with the ability to take them for granted irrecoverably lost. But there is no ironic guard, as in Larkin. The pain, or luxury, of nostalgia is indulged, without self-conscious defences, in ‘Almost in Walking Distance’, or ‘Sunday Tea in the Village’. Other poems deal movingly with small, withered lives, habits formed by deprivation into prisons of the self, as in ‘A Poor Man’:
He never buys his wife chocolates
but brings her library books
chosen carefully, three-week gifts
she must learn not to love too much.
‘Rules for beginners’ is in the same emotional register. Formally, it resembles those ‘progress’ poems of the flat ironic sort (there was also a grandiloquent sort) that some 18th-century poets liked to write, outlining a life in some way typical or unhappily exemplary. It has an ironic pay-off of the surprising-but-only-to-be-expected kind, as in an extended epigram. It begins in the heroine’s schooldays, being warned off the disco and told to attend to her O levels. Instead she meets ‘this lovely bloke down at the Disco’, marries, has children, gets ‘a part-time job at the Disco, behind the bar’, and finds no fulfilment:
Her husband grumbled – ‘Where’s the dinner, mother?’
‘I’m going down the night-school for an O level
I am,’ said mother. ‘Have fun at the Disco,
kids! When you’re an adult, life’s all O level.
Stay clear of children, keep your figures nice!’
A different, more obliquely but more richly apprehended lifetime is captured in ‘December Walk’, about the death of the poet’s father. It is a small masterpiece of understated pain and delicately exact memory, a family world structured around remembered moments of the parent’s life.
The title-poem, ‘Unplayed Music’, ‘describes the very early stage of a relationship when only a few looks and words have passed between the people concerned, and yet all the unexplored potential of the union – which may, of course, in actuality never begin to be fulfilled – shimmers with a clairvoyant brilliance in their minds’. There is no great sense of unheard melodies being sweeter. The unplayed music is a missed opportunity or a question-mark. Several poems delicately explore those spaces before a bond is formed, or when it begins to loosen, or never completely occurred: ‘The Strawberry Mark’, ‘Late Gifts’, ‘Birthdays’, ‘Double Bed’, ‘Mondays’ chart this territory movingly.
Vicki Feaver’s book has the same publisher and format as Carol Rumens’s. Some of the poems have similar themes: death of a parent, parents and children, the tentative loosening of friendship or love, sentimental journeys or travelogues with an erotic flavour. Feaver’s idiom is more direct and matter-of-fact, with an easy-going assurance that is not glib but seems less immediately fraught with the painfulness often present in Rumens or Porter. There is a powerful poem about her father’s death, but the most striking poem of bereavement, ‘Mr Sparke’, is about a neighbour’s, and its chief experience for the poet is embarrassment, not grief:
And Mr Sparke is crying; rubbing
at his eyes with a work-swollen hand.
‘What I always say is,’ he shouts
above the noise: ‘It’s my belief
that time’s a great healer.’
She also has two poems about photographs. One, ‘Le Palais Royal’, is dedicated to Cartier-Bresson and describes the photographer’s capture of ‘his moment’: a man ‘walking hands in pockets’, perhaps thinking ‘Of his mistress or the government. We’ll never know.’ In the photographs of the other poets, we know, or they do, all too well. In Feaver’s poem, the quizzical subject is contemplated with a corresponding detachment: an unknown person, matter for a story. ‘A Quiet Wedding’, Feaver’s other photograph-poem, is actually about not having photographs, so that the poem sets out to supply them: scenes a camera might have caught, but actually re-imaginings in an essentially narrative mode. Again, the subject is not, or not overtly, the poet: ‘They have no photographs,’ not we.
‘They’ are also the subject of ‘Pigeons and Cherubs’, an account in six short vignettes of a couple’s weekend in Holland, a second honeymoon which ends inconclusively:
‘It was wonderful’
They smile complicity
As if the failure
Of their second honeymoon
Had left them
This reads like an epigram, and, indeed, all six poems in the sequence have that quality: a sharply captured glimpse with an ironic payoff. Like Porter, but very unlike at the same time, Feaver is drawn to epigrammatic arrangements. Another of her sequences, ‘The Female Sins’ (there are nine, not seven), is a set of tight, tart encapsulations, some recalling classic maxims or pensées. The one on ‘Envy’, for example, is a reworking of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim about finding pleasure in our friends’ misfortunes. But its form, if we are noting Classical precedents, is more that of a ‘character’ than of an aphoristic aperçu or reflection, and tends more than is perhaps usual in the Classical ‘character’-tradition to have the sharp tang of an individual case. The sequence, unlike ‘Pigeons and Cherubs’, does not tell a story, but individual pieces tend that way:
on hard times.
She lives alone
in her draughty palace.
They have offered her
a small house by the gates
and a generous pension.
She would rather starve.
Feaver’s gift is in the end not that of the aphorist but of the short-story writer. That tendency has, I think, been strong in the short poem of this century as perhaps never before. It is sometimes a means of distancing formally an experience too intimate or painful. But some of these poems are short stories in a sense which does not suggest a transposed lyric. The best of these is ‘The Collector’, about the tangled love-life of a philanderer and aesthete, whose objets d’art compete with his women for his affections, but who can’t do without either. Then comes the gradual decline, until this scene with the latest mistress:
Once, he boasted,
He was a marvellous lover.
Now he begged her to be kind.
And how could she refuse?
As afternoon dragged into evening
At last he left his sour
Gooseberry taste in her mouth.
And she, long after, would wake
And think she’d been sealed up
With him: the masks like shadow-eyed
Voyeurs, the Bacon portrait
(One of his solitary wankers)
Watching from the walls –
His grave goods come into their own.