My subject-matter is subject-matter. Is it true, as it sometimes seems, that certain subjects are inevitably more interesting than others, however much we may protest that they are merely different? For instance, does Robert Lowell’s Life Studies intrigue us more than, say, Tony Harrison’s family reminiscences in Continuous? If so, is it because Lowell’s technique is more sophisticated and fluid than Harrison’s vigorously clanking sonnet sequence in which the rhymes come like a boisterous game of snap? Or is it because the Lowell family tree is richer in eccentricity and event than that of Harrison? Where Lowell can boast a Great Aunt Sarah thundering ‘on the keyboard of her dummy piano’ and ‘risen like the phoenix / from her bed of trouble-some snacks and Tauchnitz classics’, Harrison’s relations are more familiar figures, bickering on Blackpool’s Golden Mile or locked into their ordinarily absurd theatre of non-communication:
Your life’s all shattered into smithereens.
Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.
As this last line makes amply clear, Harrison is the only eccentric in his family. Even so, the predicament of the deracinated scholarship boy is a familiar enough subject. That is its appeal. Any upwardly mobile reader will identify with it. I suppose, too, that it is just possible there are upper-class readers so articulate and cocooned that they find Harrison’s background exotic in a way comparable to Lowell’s. I doubt it, though. In any case, shouldn’t both hypothetical readers reject that padding ‘all’, even while they reluctantly accept the decorum of the cliché: ‘Your life’s all shattered into smithereens’? Not to mention the awkward rhyme, ‘between’s’, which boldly attempts vernacular, though the actual phrase remains maladroitly formal: ‘what’s still between’.
As far as subject-matter goes, Lowell unquestionably appeals to the snob in us, the desire to know the secrets of the grand. Harrison appeals to the inverted snob in us and, for some, that will be a greater appeal. Most readers, though, will react like Elizabeth Bishop:
And here I must confess (and I imagine most of your contemporaries would confess the same thing) that I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say, – but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of the time fishing ... and was ignorant as sin. It is sad; slightly more interesting than having an uncle practising law in Schenectady maybe, but that’s about all. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names!
Elizabeth Bishop is, of course, overstating the case. One of the reasons why one withholds one’s agreement is precisely the wish that she had written about her uncle Artie. Few poets have written better about the apparently insignificant – from her ‘Filling Station’ to the anonymous, timid commuter-soul of ‘The Man-Moth’, from ‘Jeronimo’s House’ to ‘Manuelzinho’:
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
– All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
Clearly, there is a place for interestingly uninteresting subject-matter. We know this from Miss Bates and the spectacle rivet. We know from Chekhov that the provincial and the defeated have their proper significance. Even Tolstoy, dealing with grand themes in War and Peace, succeeds best, not when he ruminates about History, but when he adds brilliantly mundane footnotes to the illuminated scroll of recorded events: Rostov’s fractional pause and subsequent guilt because his French opponent has a dimple in his chin; ‘one bandy-legged old French officer, wearing Hessian boots, who was getting up the hill with difficulty, taking hold of bushes’. These details are more memorable than the names of the battles in which they occur.
All the same, it is difficult to resist the appeal of striking subject-matter. In ‘The Music of Poetry’, Eliot remarked: ‘the best contemporary poetry can give us a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfilment different from any sentiment aroused even by very much greater poetry of a past age.’ Eliot assumed the reason for this to be that contemporary poetry was nearer to the reader’s own everyday speech. I think it more likely that immediacy of subject-matter is the proper explanation for this excitement.
For example, Carolyn Forché’s recent book, The Country Between Us,received great acclaim in America – largely, one suspects, because a number of her poems were about El Salvador. Her impact in England, a year or so later, was considerably less as the frisson of actualité diminished. (This has since reappeared – too late to affect her reception.) Yet if it was possible to see the unevenness of her work more clearly, it remained true that, technical deficiencies aside, some poems retained a crude momentum. In particular, a prose-poem, ‘The Colonel’, in which gruesome events were baldly narrated, with only a couple of disastrous poetic flourishes. War and atrocities are powerful subjects. Nevertheless they are subject to the law of diminishing returns, however strong their initial impact. Hardly any good poems came out of the conflict in Vietnam and most of those were written by James Fenton, a poet alert to the eerie surrealism of war. What happens when the war is banished from the front page and into the history books? Pound said, in the ABC of Reading, that ‘literature is news that STAYS news.’ Eliot, on the other hand, was less sanguine and noted ruefully that even good literature dates: ‘the majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions: Dante’s is one of those which one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life.’ Moreover, Eliot was sceptical about the capacity of style to preserve dead subject-matter. Discussing journalism in his essay ‘Charles Whibley’, he writes: ‘literary style is sometimes assigned almost magical properties, or is credited with being a mysterious preservative for subject-matter which no longer interests. This is far from being absolutely true. Style alone cannot preserve; only good style in conjunction with permanently interesting content can preserve.’ ‘Even poetry,’ he tells us, ‘is not immune,’ and he asks rhetorically: who ‘can now read through the whole of The Faerie Queene with delight’?.
Yet there are good poems with ostensibly dead subject-matter. For instance, Herbert’s ‘A Wreath’, which explores the Christian idea that humility contains a greater glory. For most non-Christian readers (and for a few Christians) this proposition can hardly seem the red-hot tip it once was. It is no longer news. No one is going to reel away from the notion seared with surprise. However, a Christian might easily re-formulate Pound’s dictum to read: literature is truth that STAYS true. For the moment, I address myself to agnostic readers.
A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise,
Of praise deserved, unto Thee I give.
I give to Thee, Who knowest all my wayes,
My crooked winding wayes, wherein I live –
Wherein I die, not live; for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to Thee –
To Thee, Who art more farre above deceit
Then deceit seems above simplicitie.
Give me simplicitie, that I may live;
So live and like, that I may know Thy wayes;
Know them, and practise them; then shall I give,
For this poore wreath, give Thee a crown of praise.
What remains news here is not the ostensible, paraphrasable subject-matter, but its stylistic demonstration. Herbert’s lines are themselves braided with repetitions like a wreath: the end of each line turns to become the beginning of the next. The plaint is also a plait, in which the repetition is at first inverted (‘deservèd praise’, ‘praise deservèd’) and finally straight-forward as simplicity wins over crookedness. Even as he prays for true simplicity, then, Herbert demonstrates his own human reluctance to forsake intricacy, ‘the crooked winding wayes’, though he does so up to a point. The subject-matter of the poem is also its form. In this case, the style does preserve the subject-matter because it is the subject-matter. Equally, Napoleon’s Russian campaign is not news any longer, but Tolstoy’s treatment of it is. Later in his career, Eliot came to see this: ‘Real poetry survives not only a change of popular opinion but the complete extinction of interest in the issues with which the poet was passionately concerned.’
If the treatment of subject-matter is every-thing, we should not be too worried when Peter Porter tells us, referring to his family, that they are ‘quite without distinction’. In this, he is at one with Elizabeth Bishop and Tony Harrison, the former a great poet. However, like Elizabeth Bishop, Porter feels the immediate force of Lowell’s claim on our interest: ‘[my family] may be reasonably called “Old Colonial”, but hardly in the patrician sense of Robert Lowell’s or, to stick to Australia, Patrick White’s. None of the Porters has ever made Who’s Who in Australia, though family legend has it that my great grandfather was Lord Mayor of Brisbane for a time in the 1880s ... I have to dress up my material: it is very ordinary stuff.’
This is modest and charming. It will also serve as an introduction to Peter Porter’s primary subject-matter. He is richly intrigued and preoccupied by status throughout the collected poems – social status, sexual status (‘trying to keep it up with the Joneses!’) and literary status. He is baffled and resentful about his own ontological status, the given and apparently unalterable climate of unhappiness in which he lives and moves and has his being:
It is the little stone of unhappiness
which I keep with me. I had it as a child ...
He is fascinated by the ability of others to commandeer status, the effortless arrogance of, say, Joyce:
I never knew when to stop
If I’d been christened Stanislaus
I’d have claimed the throne of Poland.
The early and middle satirical poems bring a connoisseur’s eye to the world of consumer durables and status symbols. It is hardly an accident that two poems, one early, one late, are entitled ‘The Picture of Nobody’, or that the phrase turns up in yet a third poem.
‘I have to dress up my material.’ One turns forewarned to Porter’s poems about his ancestry – looking forward, indeed, to the poet’s promised ‘cavalier indifference to fact’. But a poem like ‘A Christmas Recalled’ leaves one baffled by its dullness. If this is the dressed-up version, what can the plain truth have been like? Only a moral addiction to the truth, however flat, could explain this stanza:
In this time I heard my uncle calling mother:
‘Marion, I’ve made a new one, give it a try.’
I saw my face stretched in his cocktail shaker
When I wiped the condensation off. We were
A drinking family and I would quietly lie
Eight years old drinking Schweppes in bed, their
Noise a secure lullaby, drinking up my fear.
This is, of course, an early poem and Peter Porter’s preface states clearly that he does not want ‘to act the prig to the man who wrote these poems’ and has therefore changed as little as possible. But was it, one asks, really a ‘cavalier indifference to fact’ that produced the line: ‘Marion, I’ve made a new one, give it a try’? Was his uncle Ron Glum? The undemanding rhyme scheme creates its own problems, too: the penultimate line of the stanza, for instance, with its protrusive ‘their’ jutting out like a leg in traction. And there is a fidelity to the echoic hangover in the three times repeated ‘drinking’ that may not be intentional. Only the cocktail shaker begins to approach the vivid and even that is ponderously imagined beside Lowell’s particularity in a similar vein of childhood reminiscence:
his illegal home-made claret
was as sugary as grape jelly
in a tumbler capped with paraffin.
Despite Porter’s sense of Lowell’s patrician grandeur, I doubt if one can account for the qualitative difference by the superiority of the Winslow cocktail cabinet. For one thing, the hooch is illegal. For another, in all probability Lowell invented the drink with a ‘cavalier indifference to fact’.
The aural shortcomings here are not an isolated instance in his work and bother even his admirers. For John Lucas, who admires Porter’s savage attacks on metropolitan manners, verbal clumsiness is simply the price to be paid for Porter’s fecundity and invention – the cost of weariness after years at the typewriter bashing the smoothies. For others perhaps less taken by the satirist, less nostalgic for consumer bric-à-brac and brand-names, the difficulty is in deciding whether the ear is tin, zinc or, on occasion, polythene:
What is locked in a book
Of a Civil War, of a king ...
Might this be King Ofa, by any chance? Double genitives, rush hours of present participles, clumsy repetition, syntactic chaos, whimsical punctuation, ugly assonances and a widespread aural ineptitude never leave Porter’s poetry. In the end, one becomes an indulgent screw greeting familiar old recidivists. A brief anthology from the early volumes: ‘The Unicorn’s Horn’, ‘In the shrinking morning shadows’, ‘Dangling in his hessian wrap. / In his own house an old mother’, ‘Time eats savoury lechery,’ ‘Old Terrestrial in hospital’, ‘O the cancer atolls, growing by writing light’, ‘After the pictures of the sweetness of fonts’, ‘Have nothing to lose but your brains but you cry’, ‘To wearing old stockings’, ‘Picture, or when I joined in when they’, ‘I came to this spot full of the smell / Of wild honeysuckle,’ ‘And fish choking in unbreathable blue’, ‘He came to hear / the silver pornographer lecture,’ ‘Within an ant’s tremor’. The later work supplies: ‘grilling all writing but his own’, ‘God make gardeners better nomenclators,’ ‘stripping for the shining theatre instruments’, ‘looking at me to turn me to stone’, ‘Vulcan’s and Venus’s trespasses’, ‘Offering shining emphasis’, ‘Mornings weaving through the mud’, ‘You asked in an uncharacteristic note,’ ‘I see her hand on an envelope,’ ‘She in an urn’. What have you done this time, In An Un? Though Porter swears by the English language (‘This is language / I would go into the jungle with’), in practice his deployment of it is back-slappingly enthusiastic rather than subtle:
so useful for asking for fasteners in
As well as for caning professors
The strange thing is that, in the later poetry, these inveterate faults begin to co-exist with a genuine eloquence, a gift for phrase-making which Porter sums up shrewdly in the title ‘A Philosopher of Captions’. The other thing that remains the same is his obscurity. It is often said that as his poetry has developed it has become more obscure, but two early poems, ‘Jack and Jill’ and ‘The Unicorn’s Horn’, will disabuse anyone of that notion. Porter’s own account (in a recent interview) is accurate and endearingly funny:
it’s interesting that what I regard as my best book, the one published in 1972, called Preaching to the Converted, marks the point at which my poetry got farthest away from Group practices, and returned to what I’d been doing before I entered the Group; a rather dense, oracular, even obscurantist, rhetorical kind of writing. I think I’ve always had that side to myself, which many of my friends deprecate. When I told Vernon Scannell that I’d had some poems translated into German, his reply was ‘I thought they were in German already.’
The relationship of eloquence to obscurity in Porter’s later work is revealingly glossed in a New Statesman piece he wrote about William Empson. Porter’s own poetic strategy is expounded along with Empson’s: ‘people were not used to poems which began so laconically: “and now she cleans her teeth into the lake.” But the originality of the poem lies in its enormous power of modulation, within a few lines, so that it ends as magnificently as anything in Milton or Pope.’ Again, and even more revealingly: ‘it departs from the plain and known into the empyrean (so many of his final lines are resonantly in the stars), and does not need to cross continents or fill up Broch-like spaces with lexical soup.’ In fact, this is what Larkin does so well – the shift from the blunt and sometimes foul-mouthed to the final singing resonance. The difference between Larkin and Empson and Porter is the undistributed middle in the work of the latter two – the reader doesn’t get it. What lexical soup there is contains enigmatic lumps that are difficult to swallow.
Consider Porter’s ‘A Philosopher of Captions’. It begins laconically enough (‘The knowledge anyway is worth something’) and ends in the stars (‘That pain is the one immortal gift of our stewardship’). The problem is that, while the last line bursts brilliantly in the dark empyrean, it leaves behind a milk bottle thick with smoke – the rest of the poem. As far as I understand ‘A Philosopher of Captions’, it seems to be about a perennial Porter concern – namely, his poetic status: a subject which exercises most poets but which most prefer not to write about since it is a vulnerable area, though Seamus Heaney’s ‘Exposure’ is a brilliant account of poetic uncertainty. And a lucid account, unlike Porter’s:
The knowledge anyway is worth something,
That no person from this liner-browed brain
Will reach the height of those grave captains
Whose Dantesque walk and Homeric facing
Still flare on our desolate concrete plain
So late; that I am a philosopher of captions.
In this opening stanza, the metaphor is fudged but just intelligible. Lines on the cogitating brow suggest, via a pun, an ocean-going liner with captains on the bridge. At the same time, the ringing plains of windy Troy are brought up to date with ‘our desolate concrete plain’. The gist seems to be that the poet will never be Dante or Homer, only a philosopher of captions. This is clear despite the bodged dovetailing of ship and concrete plain. The final line of the poem (‘That pain is the one immortal gift of our stewardship’) relates to this presumably by the menial role of steward in which Porter casts himself in contrast to the captains.
However, the centre will not hold. Stanza two describes (I think) poetic apprenticeship prior to the gradual sense of individual poetic identity:
This special authenticity must grow on one
After baffled if dutiful years putting down
Some orders of words towards definition –
Here space a fear and there placate a pun,
Or adjudicate through childhood, one noun
Up and another down, with everything a fiction.
The last three lines are a confused evocation of confusion – the poetic process as placating now words themselves, now autobiography, according to their needs and demands. But I am unsure what exactly is being described by ‘one noun / Up and another down’. It is a poetic process I am unfamiliar with, though I recognise the influential presence of Eliot’s ‘intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings’. Nor do I like the sound of ‘words towards’.
The third stanza attends to those who have achieved a measure of success. But they are no longer naval types bent over the binnacle. They are ‘the shouters, the ones met at stations by crowds’:
One can only admire them, join the acclamation
And worry at their simplifying stance. The text
After all, belongs to its explainers; those clouds
Are felt only as rain; an acceleration
In the speed of madness, harder saving from the wreck.
Eh? Half-way through, the light is switched off. It never really comes on again either. Do the lines mean that Porter is puzzled at the way poetic heroes accept their success – because finally everything lies with the critics, not in their own hands? The clouds are presumably an illustration of this thesis: they make their effect only as they touch others down below. The last line and a half return the reader abruptly to P – O and may mean that failure after success is worse than no success in the first place. The bigger you are, the harder you fall: ‘In the speed of madness, harder saving from the wreck.’
The final stanza refuses nevertheless to relinquish all hubristic poetic ambition:
But the power is still somewhere in us, hovering
In the forehead auditorium of sounds ...
Why? The answer seems to be that one has a responsibility to one’s lived experience, one’s past, one’s memories, that will not go away. But the image for this is hermetic and bizarre.
These who were with us and have changed their shape
Come back, like old ladies with parcels moving
To the chair beside us; embarrassment abounds
That pain is the one immortal gift of our stewardship.
The psychological wrinkle about old ladies and parcels is too idiosyncratic for me to understand fully, altogether too personal.
Though it is possible, then, to salvage meaning from this poem, it remains a disaster. The nature of the disaster is interesting and typical: the metaphors are mixed and mismanaged. Metaphor is never an agent of clarification in Porter’s work. It is a device for disguising the banal: ‘Perhaps you should say something / A bit more interesting than what you mean,’ words tell him in ‘English Subtitles’. In fact, he usually says less, not more than he means. Porter’s strength is for quasichoral last lines, like this evocation of marital difficulty in ‘Old-Fashioned Wedding’, which is indebted to ‘The Whitsun Weddings’:
After this huge
Joke, a terrible deluge
The speeding innocents know nothing of,
Mad hours, silence, subterfuge
And all the dark expedients of love.
In the same poem, sexual misadventure is treated metaphorically and ponderously, first impotence, then defloration:
In the flurry of guy ropes let down,
And crushed flowers in delicate cups.
‘Cups’, which is needed for the rhyme scheme, is inappropriately rigid and unyielding for what it describes and ‘delicate’ does not save it.
‘Old-Fashioned Wedding’ is typically pessimistic, part of Porter’s poetic personality and of a piece with the early poetry: ‘honest, loveless, childhood Peter’, the poet dogged by bad-luck and self-disgust. In this area, there is little of Larkin’s saving humour. The dominant note is anger and envy:
To be above the tearing fingers of the ruck
You need good teeth, a good income, good luck.
There is something so persistent in the rage that it becomes depressing and unattractive. You want the poet to change the subject.
In 1974, tragically, it was changed for him by the sudden death of his wife:
Rather, I think of a woman lying on her bed
Staring for hours up to the ceiling where
Nothing is projected – death the only angel
To shield her from despair.
The preoccupation with the literary ladder survives since it was evidently a topic much discussed:
it is not a small thing to die,
But looking back I see only the disappointed man
Casting words upon the page. Was it for this
I stepped out upon the stairs of death obediently?
(My tetchy italics.) In the poems about his wife, Porter’s new eloquence, already evident in Living in a Calm Country, sadly finds an adequate subject. The poems are freighted with remorse, regret, tenderness, guilt and memory. Obviously harrowing to write, they are also difficult to criticise. The best moments are the most simple:
The curtain of your life was drawn
Some time between despair and dawn.
These are not fine lines. They are great poetry. So is this passage from the same poem, ‘An Exequy’:
I owe a death to you – one day
The time will come for me to pay
When your slim shape from photographs
Stands at my door and gently asks
If I have any work to do
Or will I come to bed with you.
There are other great moments, too, never sustained for long enough. But they serve to make the reader feel the anguished force of Porter’s outcry:
Her clothes are syntax, so that I read
someone else’s poem and I am there
on the banks of salvation
or crying in a furnace. Why has thou
held talent above my head
and let me see it, O my God!
In the face of this, who has the temerity to notice the slight ungainliness of ‘Why has thou / held talent above my head’ – and to wonder why the poet resisted the full Biblical ‘hast’, creating instead an awkward hybrid? ‘An Exequy’ has its moments but always it stands in the shadow of its great predecessor and the eloquence isn’t always pure:
This introduction serves to sing
Your mortal death as Bishop King
Once hymned in tetrametric rhyme
His young wife, lost before her time ...
Isn’t ‘mortal’ an otiose adjective? What other kind of death can there be? ‘The hand is stopped upon the clock’, ‘Upon a sculpted angel group’: isn’t ‘upon’ archaic padding? ‘With what halt steps’ is similarly antiquated. Yet criticism seems an impertinence. Certain poems in this group stand out: ‘The Delegate’, ‘An Angel in Blythburgh Church’, ‘The Easiest Room in Hell’, ‘Non Piangere, Liu’, ‘Talking to You Afterwards’, ‘Alcestis and the Poet’. None of them, though, are perfect, however much the subject-matter tells us that they must be.