Craig Raine

  • Peter Porter: Collected Poems
    Oxford, 335 pp, £12.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 19 211948 6

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.

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[*] Cape, 63 pp., £3.95, 24 March, 0 224 02095 1.