Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Peter Porter: Settling for Dust |
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Peter Porter: Settling for Dust

Peter Porter: Settling for Dust

The Last of England is the fourth Peter Porter collection to appear, and the first to be published by Oxford, who have issued it in paperback at fifteen shillings, which is steep but in his case the market will probably stand it. Porter’s first collection, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten (1961), was published by Scorpion, who were also responsible for its two successors, Poems Ancient & Modern in 1964, and A Porter Folio in 1969. Added up and rounded out, the four books represent about ten years in the creative life of an Australian expatriate settled in England — the seventh decade of the century and the fourth decade of the poet’s age.

Before the age of thirty, Porter simply drops off the map: by British standards he’s almost completely untraceable, whether to school, university or class. When he does get on to the map, he can be only approximately identified, as the man from nowhere who talks with a slight Movement accent in Group company. In 1962 he was a Modern Penguin, provoking a deathless question from Stephen Spender (‘Who is Peter Porter?’) and slicing straight through to a new public which was eventually to render categorical labels less important — on the practical level, at any rate — for everybody. His own practical reasons for pursuing the Group association notwithstanding, the tacky label slowly worked loose of its own accord, and by now Porter is solidly established as an individual voice. But since even individuality must have its tag, he lately finds himself regarded as the social poet who sees English life all the more clearly, all the more remorselessly, for having come to it as an outsider — a wrong-way D.P., or a ‘reffo’ on the rebound. There is certainly this element in his work. But there is also something more, something deep-seated and permanently disturbing: a referential scope which enables him, perhaps even forces him, to deal with cultural breakdown on a European scale.

The eschatological thread in Porter’s work would seem obsessive if it were pinned — as criticism tends to pin it — to an exclusively personal concern with his own certain doom. Equally it would seem tiresomely provincial if it were pinned to the declining quality of life in a supposedly debilitated England. The fearlessly reported ordinariness of one’s own mortality, and the progress of English life towards characterlessness — these are the two main thematic areas which have not only served the best of recent poetry in this country but have made all save the very best of it predictable, spiritually constricted, emotionally insufficient. Porter certainly deals in both these areas: in his more mechanical poems he deals in nothing else. But below them, bubbling fiercely and waiting to be drawn upon, there is this deeper and more important referential area, which when tapped gives him the imaginative power to bring his own past (including his Australian past) into the service of interpreting his English present, and simultaneously to bring the European past (particularly the cultural past) into the service of interpreting the disintegrated European present.

Ideally (I mean as an aesthetic ideal: it could be nobody’s personal ideal) these two interpretations combine to provide the unsettling spectacle of an individual history and a cultural history arriving at the finish line locked together. The eschatological boast of Porter’s work is consequently on a far grander scale than is commonly appreciated. Similarly the poetry is of a rather higher order than is commonly appreciated. It has flaws, flaws which are lately becoming more glaring: density now verges on incomprehensibility, as the poet gathers in and fuses the historical details — the Last Things — which he alone will contemplate, in the last act of conscious remembrance before the whole show folds up. But apart from these considerations, the thing works: it convinces. In fact Porter’s poetry convinces me without my much liking it. Faced with work of this order, I recognize the necessity to expand my aesthetic vocabulary beyond the like/dislike dichotomy and find measures to deal with a poetry which doesn’t seem to care about being liked, or even care about neatening itself up and sweetening its tone the better to face posterity. Most of the things I look for in recent poetry are emphatically absent from Porter’s work. But a few of the things I never look for — because I know I won’t find them — happen to be present.

And it’s because these qualities can now, after four books, be more clearly seen to be present, that his more mechanical writing — usually involving slap-dash technique and agglutinative assemblages of journalistic frasi preparate — can now be more easily explained. Statements like ‘Love goes as the M.G. goes’ (from ‘John Marston Advises Anger’, one of the best poems in Once Bitten, Twice Bitten) once looked to me to be decisive grounds for divorce: you didn’t want to know about a poet who was sowing squibs like that under the impression they were powerful mines. After ten years he is still capable of effects equally cheap. But it is now more apparent that this carelessness of phrasing, this copy-writer’s notion of verbal encapsulation, is contributory to his main qualities: his is a technical as well as a spiritual participation in cultural collapse, and whether he is conscious of this or not doesn’t really matter much, since the larger justifying context has been thoroughly established. The vulgarity of language is part of the show: the fine classical instrument of speech reveals its own injuries as part of its task of conveying the general injury. It would be too neat to contend that technique is therefore unified with content, content with intellectual preoccupation, and so forth: things are never that simple, and anyway the discovery of ‘unity’ is the point where critical response stops and the American tragedy of modern scholasticism begins. But I would like to contend that it is a serious mistake to get the criticism of an effort like Porter’s buttoned up on an elementary level before you have looked into what it has to offer on a more ambitious level. Criticism needs negative capability, too.

If the emphasis I have tried to make thus far is held in mind, the short poem ‘The Civil War’, which is placed early in the new volume, can usefully be regarded as something more penetrating than its recognizably neophobic content might at first suggest.

Calm lie the plains of golden races,
Dark the forest where Europe died:
The Counter Reformation takes a bride
The Container Revolution is a war —
No man’s hand may be held against his neighbour,
Same against same is what the same is for
The hire of death is worthy of the labour.

Regarded as a straightforward exercise in neophobia and mandarin nostalgia, such a piece would be open to objection line by line. I, for one, am all for the Counter Reformation taking a bride, if that means what I think it means — that priests want to get married. Similarly I am all for Container Revolutions in preference to Thirty Years Wars, even at the price of a cheapening of language. Likewise I am all for bags of sameness, if by that is meant egalitarian rights and opportunities and a smashing-up of all the dreary old swindles. As for the last line, it seems to me to be characteristically tricksy. But over and above all this, the poem has its limpidity: regarded as a whole it has a sweep of vision which supervenes its component prejudices — the message reads that history is losing shape, like it or not. Porter’s central boldness is to make the statements that his sensitivity to language ought theoretically to inhibit him from making, since they have been made too often, by too many predictable voices. But in breaking through to say the unsayable, he builds up a convincing context for his own dislocation — a context for the poetic voice which steadily reveals itself as geographically, historically, occupationally and temperamentally homeless.

The picture comes over only fragmentarily in individual poems: it is a picture that builds up in the aggregate of work, which is why it has taken so long to emerge. Made overt, stated prosaically, it tends to come out distorted, as in this couplet from ‘A Meredithian Treatment’ —

The past is dead, the future dead, the now
Is here, an apotheosis of girls begins

— which could easily be taken as a Movement reflex, along the lines of history being bunk and sensory satisfaction being the only kind of experience safe from the rationalizing mechanisms of the middle-class mind. But a wide reading in Porter’s work puts such a glancing stroke in a more interesting perspective. For Porter, the loss of historical continuity is not to be seen as a means of disowning the past and sharpening one’s focus on the present: it destroys the present. The apotheosis of girls is a grim joke. On a larger and eventually a more disturbing scale than in the Dai Evans poems of Kingsley Amis, the Sex Man in Porter is the Lost Man. Seen in this context, the sex poems in his earlier books gain in weight: it is clear now that the ‘flesh-packed jeans’ would have led to nothing even if access had been gained, and that the desperate randiness of the excellent ‘Conventions of Death’ (in Once Bitten, Twice Bitten) is susceptible of an explanation beyond the implied deficiencies in personal charm, absence of luck, lack of courage — all the self-lacerating admissions that represented emotional courage for the Movement, their wet strength. Against the seemingly ordinary whinge and whine of the poem’s minor argument —

What I want is a particular body,
The further particulars being obscene
By definition. The obscenity is really me,
Mad, wanting possession: what else can mad mean?

— can be set the extraordinary, bleakly disinherited percipience of its ending:

So give up thinking, work hard, buy a car,
Get married, keep a garden, bring up kids —
Answers to all the problems that there are,
Except the love that kills, the death that lives.

As an early expression of Porter’s conviction that the disjointed times have injected a death principle into love itself, ‘Conventions of Death’ should properly be grouped with two other ambitious poems in Once Bitten, Twice Bitten: ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘Beast and the Beauty’, which last poem would have been class-shy even at its inception (no matter how frankly expressed) if written by an Englishman, but coming from Porter turned out to be simply an early, and ideal, expression of his total disinheritance. Throughout Porter’s ‘love’ poetry, it is essential not to let the Condé-Nast slickness of the beloved’s glamour throw you: the meretriciousness is the message. Representing values which are no longer desirable, the poet is no longer desired; attempting to embody the values which are desirable, he corrupts himself in the market-place; the distorted longing finding no response in its distorted object, the poet is finally driven back into his own drama, and ends up satirizing himself. Porter’s main difference from his Latin satirical models is that his poetic effort is almost completely interiorized. The privilege which the poet has traditionally enjoyed — that of confidently occupying a place in a cumulative continuity even when the whole world is ranged against him — is no longer operative. He fights himself, perhaps to a standstill.

In the closing section of the poem ‘The Worker’, the apotheosis of girls finds a remarkable expression, even for Porter. The girl Valerie, through being located in Continental Europe and bombarded with the imagery of centuries, is not only defined historically, she defines herself historically; but only on the understanding that the tumult of recent ages took place to lead up to her — that is, to nothing.

    she has a vision
that all the rest are in the mines
where the D Major is dug,
the perruked miners,
workers at the star-hot centre
filling the hoppers with life
and she and her lover at the end
of the beautiful cables, fed and balanced
and warmed, thinning down, rarefied
and soon to have wings —
the libraries and the switches and the slurry are programmed
for this, her delicacy and radiant quickness,
her crystalline migraine which they like ants
are the distant and decent makers of

So the poem drops out of sight without even a full stop, like an idea too big to be grasped. I find Porter in this vein extremely disturbing, unquestionably important, and increasingly hard to follow. From a too literal practical interpretation of his own poetic stance, he seems to feel justified in not explaining himself — nobody is listening properly anyway. This would not matter so much if it were not for the magnitude of the culture he is deploying. The tendency to botch together a multitude of arty fragments can result in chastening examples of the Higher Nonsense — a tendency already well established in his first volume, where poems like ‘Euphoria Dies’ boiled the wax in the gullible reader’s ears. But when the thing works (and in ‘The Workers’ it undoubtedly does) the opacity is somehow functional — it helps with the distancing, sets things appropriately adrift. It should be mentioned, however, that Porter’s acknowledged master, Auden, the most abundantly cultivated of all the twentieth-century English poets, employs an unrivalled range of cultural reference without ever driving the reader to distraction: it is mainly a matter of tact in setting the effects up, of making sure they are structurally intelligible even in those instances where the reader lacks the necessary preparation. Incidentally, Auden’s direct influence is not so obvious in this volume as it was in the three previous ones, and especially in A Porter Folio — the Fit City and the Adversary have this time been frozen out, for which relief much thanks.

In Porter’s minor, least cluttered and immediately most effective manner, poems like ‘Christenings’, ‘Consumer Report’ and ‘Applause For Death’ keep up the good work. They represent the kind of exteriorized satirical attack for which Porter is most often praised, and which I have tried to suggest is not his whole secret. In these poems, as in the more ambitious ones, the social reportage has the up-to-the-minute selective accuracy found flattering by sage and trend-hound alike: as I argued earlier, this is a neutral attribute, and can’t be regarded as a virtue except when the poet treats his own interest in such stuff as a component in the total intellectual drama of his major work. After all, the ability to notice a Led Zeppelin poster on a wall (and then disguise it in the poem so that only those who know what a Led Zeppelin poster looks like will know what you’re on about) ‘fixes’ nothing except your ability to notice such things. A mere mention is not in itself transfigurative and loosely mounted ephemera can make a functional show only in poetry that is determined to die, which Porter’s is obviously not — except in his imaginative universe, where, of course, everything is due to die at about noon next Wednesday. One’s objection here is to flashy opportunism: items dragged in for the sake of it, disfiguring work which is at its best much more rigorously considered.

In this volume the fruitful occupation with the Latin satirists continues. The up-dated Martial versions are vividly successful, the temporal transpositions working to perfection.

    receive these seven modest
books, with the author’s latest
emendations (these alone
will enable your heirs to sell them
to a North African University) —

Spot on, especially since Porter’s own activities in the MS-flogging field are by now well known. ‘Nine Points of the Law’ and the five-part ‘How To Get A Girl Friend’, both bright moments in Poems Ancient & Modern, are matched in this volume by the diverting ‘Stroking The Chin’: Porter really shines in these multiple miniatures:

If I centre my thumb
in the almost non-existent
dimple of my chin and touch
my four reachable moles
with my four fingers
that brunette
will leave her publisher
and cross the tiled floor
of the restaurant to invite
me back to Montagu Square
for the afternoon.

It’s noteworthy that even in a miniature, randy sport like this one, his urge to specify is well in evidence. Why does Montagu Square matter? Does it matter that Porter lets it matter? Probably it does: even in his slightest verses, Porter is trying to connect with society, to find a fixed point. And because there is no stability in a flux, his points of reference must be continually relocated, or else updated and refurbished. The coffee bars of his early Kings Road all have new names. The Jensens have moved on. The beach-buggies have moved in. Led Zeppelin has arrived. Not being able to help caring about this kind of crap is part of the fix he is in. And the fix is part of the subject.

The Australian background is not so much in evidence in this volume, although it might well return, since he has proved already that it can provide a usefully unexpected mental setting for the European situation. ‘Requiem For Mrs. Hanimelswang’ (in Poems Ancient & Modem) was the first full-blown European elegy of his grand manner, even though set in Australia; and ‘Homage to Gaetano Donizetti’, in the same volume, had nifty Audenesque couplets like this —

Teutons still come south to add a little
Cantilena to their klangschönheit

— flying around some Australian al fresco caravanserai called the Everest Milk Bar. In the present volume such tactics are mainly confined to ‘On This Day I Complete My Fortieth Year’, with its revealing air of regret for having been so late to board the European apocalyptic bus.

to have a weatherboard house and a white
paling fence and poinsettias and palm nuts
instead of Newstead Abbey and owls and graves
    and not even a club foot;
above all to miss the European gloom
in the endless eleven o’clock heat among
the lightweight suits and warped verandahs,
    an apprenticeship, not a pilgrimage —

Those are a couple of goodish moments in a poem that doesn’t add up to much. His vocational dilemmas, situational uncertainties, emotional imbalances — these are things that it is the business of his whole poetry to transmit by complex implication, and a straightforward account of them rings hollow. His truly personal note is in the uncanny, doomed triumph of the volume’s central work, ‘Europe, An Ode’, which ends like this:

There for the fallen Gothic Museums glow,
    Enthusiastic doubt like sun motes
        Turns to dandruff on old shoulders:
        At the start of the world, the beholders

Find the permanent kingdom and this
    Peninsula, its rational Europe
        Where the blood has dried to Classic
        Or Gothic, cinema names in aspic.

But the giant iron is ours, too:
    It flies, it sings, it is carried to god —
        We come from it, the Father, maker and healer,
        And from Oviraptor, the egg-stealer,

Launched in the wake of our stormy mother
    To end up on a tideless shore
        Which this is the dream of, a place
        Of skulls, looking history in the face.

It has been said that the beautiful form Leopardi gave his nihilism negated the validity of nihilism. I would say that even though cultural dissolution is Porter’s main subject, the quality of his treatment of it demonstrates that the moment of cultural dissolution is not yet.

The Review, 1970

Postscript, 1994

Though I was to return several times to writing about Peter Porter’s work, for some reason I have never been able to get my full appreciation of it across. Perhaps it is because we are friends; and, being that, and both being Australian, are seen as cronies; and so there is a danger of praise looking like favouritism. But Porter has never had any trouble in generously registering his appreciation of my work, so there must be a personal reason why I, when I come to praise him, always half-bury the appreciation with qualifications. The only explanation I can think of is that no matter how hard we try to be logical about aesthetics, finally preference comes down to temperament, and my own temperament is all against the inexplicable. Rimbaud’s Bateau ivre is one of my touchstone works of art but if I had known him personally, and known him capable of reasoned argument, I would still have wanted him to rewrite the poem so that I could follow it as clearly as I could follow, say, Heine’s poem about the slave ship. Similarly with Peter Porter, his rhetorical drive can be so convincing that I always like it best when it carries an intelligible proposition to convince me of. This might sound like a Philistine argument but there was nothing wrong about the questions the Philistines asked about art: they were just too impatient about the answers.