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The Boy from Brisbane

There is a touching moment somewhere among the later work of F. R. Leavis when the good doctor suggests that it is possible to love music too much. The most likely sub-text is that an enemy, or more probably a colleague, had shown signs of ascribing transcendental genius to Beethoven rather than to D. H. Lawrence, or had adduced, as a paradigm of Felt Life, a piano concerto by Mozart rather than a chapter of Revaluation. But you don’t have to delve deep to get at the essential mania. It is right there on the surface, in the suggestion that music is something you can be too passionate about, at literature’s expense.

Peter Porter loves music. He loves all the other arts too, including literature, this latter being a rare proclivity for a man who makes his living at it. His unembarrassed admiration for the historic over-achievers in all artistic fields is one of the driving forces of his poetry as well as one of the delights of his conversation. But music comes first and includes everything else under its divine protection. From even the most superficial reading of his books of poems, it would be a dull student who did not see how, in their author’s mind, it is through music that Heaven makes its only clean contact with Earth. I once heard him say that as far as he was concerned, without music there would not be enough felicity in life.

But part of his stance is to undervalue himself. The evidence of his wide and undiluted appreciativeness suggests that if there were no Donizetti then he would feel the same way about Delacroix. Luckily the question is a phantom: without music there would be no life at all, or at any rate no Europe — a word which in Porter’s verse always seems to have an oversized capital letter, an intruder from a larger font. Porter’s Europe is a place transformed by time into an idea. In ‘The Widow’s Story’ from The Last of England it is like a bottle committed to the deep, fetching up in Los Angeles as a ‘club of those that got out’. Europe goes to Australia, gets reborn as Peter Porter, and sails back to where it came from. Europe is everything from a Salzkammergut salt-mine at the time of Martial to a King’s Road coffee-bar from the age when winkle-pickers were still sharp. The typical Porter poem is the metamorphosis of one piece of Europe into another piece. Above all else, though, Europe is music. The fastest way for the poet to become humble is to remember that it took Bach to compose the oboe ritornello of the soprano aria from Cantata 187.

This is the true humility of Peter Porter, all other humilities being open to question. In his poetry he complains of a condition called ‘plainness in the mind’ but in real life he is an attractive man, dapper in the T. S. Eliot–Wallace Stevens–Roy Fuller executive tradition, rather than flakily bardic. In real life he complains of bad health but seems to be in better shape than most poets a generation younger. Sorting out how much of his artistic personality is real, and how much of his real personality is künstlich (German, his artistic personality claims, is the only language he likes to quote from) is probably a task beyond even him. Dr Johnson was only half right when he said that any man who impugns his own virtue is just telling you he has a lot of it to spare. Some people simply judge themselves by an unreal standard, as if Christ had died in vain. I have several times heard Porter convict himself of the sin of envy, yet of all the poets I know, he is the one who least suffers from that particular occupational disease. That he should accuse himself of it is probably the mark of his relative immunity.

In most respects, however, it is typical of him not just to be very aware of the questions raised by the relationship of art to biography, but to make a subject of them. His opinions on the topic received their prose summary in a contribution to the Sydney Morning Herald for 9 August, 1975 — an article which his prospective academic students, urged on by the anathema he has pronounced against them in advance, have no doubt already got on file. The gist of the piece is that a true lover of a work of art does not want to be told too much about the biography behind it. But here as elsewhere, Porter takes the naïve view only after fully informing himself. The example he chooses is Auden’s ‘Lay your sleeping head’. Porter says that he does not really want to know which man it was written for, or even that it was written for a man at all. He knows that Auden took roughly the same view as he does about the irrelevance of biographical fact. But he also knows that Auden could not refrain from gossipy curiosity, and knows, on top of that, that these facts about Auden are biographical ones.

When the same vexed topic gets aired in the poetry it is always treated as a problem without any solution except art. In ‘Homage to Gaetano Donizetti’ (from Poems, Ancient and Modern) the poet knows all there is to know about Donizetti’s life. The poet is unable to stop the historical process of intellectualising about art but at least he can make that a subject too, like ploughing cut weeds back into the earth — making it a part, that is, of ‘all we use’, as he says in his beautiful poem for Philip Larkin’s sixtieth birthday, ‘To make art of a life we didn’t choose’. Awareness is reconstituted as experience. The most striking instance is the poetry he has written about the death of his wife. Nothing can save the artist from the effrontery of reducing a loved one’s suffering to material, but the effrontery is offset, or at least enriched, by being seen for what it is and made a subject in its turn. There is a traditional sanction for the threnody so sumptuous that the subject’s death is put into an even deeper shade. Even Ben Jonson’s little son, let alone Milton’s Lycidas, can’t help but seem a pretext, and Verdi’s Requiem was written for two different occasions. But Porter is aware of all this and gets it into the poetry, so that the plangency, instead of settling into its own automatic rhythm, worries about itself, always a lament and never a lullaby. Catullus set the tone when he addressed the ashes of his brother nequiquam — uselessly. To the poet but not to us.

The question of honesty in poetry is not much more interesting than the question of honesty in architecture, if honesty is interpreted as fidelity to facts. But if honesty is interpreted as fidelity to feelings then the question will always be important. The way Peter Porter has faced the likelihood that a professional artist’s feelings will be tainted with professionalism even at — especially at — the moment of their greatest intensity is supremely honest. It is a measure of his critical intellect and historic view that he should realise such a thing might happen, although it might be hard to persuade him that it probably happens less to him than to anybody else. Here again, only the humble accuse themselves of that kind of conceit. The conceited are too busy looking sincere.

But suppose there were facts to prove that the egocentricity the poet accuses himself of were truly so; there would still be, as proof of his capacity for the opposite, his constant recognition and celebration of music. Merely as a poetic strategy, music would be good shorthand for Europe. Clearly, however, the matter goes beyond strategy, into the passion which the worthy doctor thought you could have too much of, as if there could be such a thing as an excess of saving grace. The secret of how Porter’s poetry can be concerned with self without becoming cloyed lies in its admiration for what exists beyond the self. The relief you feel when reading Porter’s poetry is from the absence of solipsism. All that self-examination is taking place within a soul which genuinely feels its own insignificance and has a measure for it.

The contribution of Porter’s work to the contemporary artistic output of Europe is undoubted but inherently problematic, not because of the work but because of Europe, which probably thrives, or at any rate survives, as much on discontinuity as continuity. The writer of my own ideal imaginings would have read one book, like Rembrandt, although since he would have had to have read it the way Rembrandt read it, perhaps it would be better to make the point differently, and contend that all the reading in the world doesn’t absolve us from the obligation to write simply. Some of Porter’s poems are so freighted with learned references that I can’t even tell if I don’t know what they mean. For someone with his authentic and well-justified fear of being academically estimated, he positively invites academic estimation. Dürrenmatt, I think, was closer to the mark when he said that the aim should be to produce works of art which will weigh nothing in the scales of respectability. That would be my own aim if I had the courage.

Porter’s role in Australian literature is clear. He is one of the necessary exiles. It is a matter for regret that he has said so little in praise of A. D. Hope, since Australian poetry, if we want such a thing to exist as a special category of poetry in the English language, has benefited as much from Hope staying as from Porter going. The staying and the going have produced their different visions of Europe, a word which is, after all, only shorthand for the past history of the world entire. Hope has produced one kind of quality, Porter another; and that is all art is, although it is no less — a festival of the qualities. But here again, Porter’s generous instinct has a sure grip on reality, setting out to cry over the last things, and sounding like a carnival.

Poetry Review, 1983