Poetry: The Book of my Enemy — To Peter Porter: a letter to Sydney | clivejames.com
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To Peter Porter: a letter to Sydney

[Original version: italics, caps and punctuation as in ‘Fan-Mail’]

To reach you in the You-Beaut Country, Peter,
Perforce I choose that scheme of rhyme and metre
Most favoured by your master spirit, Pope
Whose pumiced forms make mine look like soft soap,
Despite the fact that this last fiscal year
Two thousand of my couplets, pretty near,
Have been read out in public — a clear token
The Classical Tradition’s not yet broken,
Just mangled and left twitching in a ditch
By Aussies apt to scratch the fatal itch
That Juvenal and Dr Johnson dubbed
Cacoethes scribendi and well drubbed.
Your friends in London miss you something fierce:
You are the crux of talk like Mildred Pierce.
At Mille Pini or in Bertorelli’s
We scriveners still meet to stoke our bellies
And with red wine we toast you in absentia
From soup to nuts and so on to dementia.
The grape juice flowing in across our dentures,
Tall tales flow out concerning your adventures.
As fleet of foot and fearless as Phidippides
You are our pioneer in the Antipodes,
A latter-day but no less dauntless Jason
Or Flying Dutchman as played by James Mason.
Vespucci, Tasman, Drake, Cook, Scott, John Glenn
To those you left behind you’re all these men:
The Town’s not heard such daydreams of bravado
Since Raleigh sailed in search of El Dorado.
One rumour says that cheap drinks on the plane
Had detrimental impact on your brain:
It’s said you smiled a smile like Nat King Cole’s
While trying to take over the controls.
Another rumour graphically describes
The shameless way they’re plying you with bribes
(A Philistine approach we’re sure you’ll spurn)
To make your trip a permanent return.
They’ve offered you £10,000 a year,
We’re told, to dwell Out There instead of here —
Plus car, two yachts, a house at Double Bay
And Mrs Whitlam in a negligée.
Temptation! You’d not only soon get rich,
Your kids would scarcely need to wear a stitch —
They’d be as brown as berries in two shakes.
Perhaps you ought to up stakes for their sakes ...
To let them share the unexampled wealth
Australia’s young are given free — Good Health.
Good Health (i.e. preventive pediatrics)
Provides the punch behind Jeff Thomson’s hat-tricks.
Good Health ensures the Ashes stay Down Under.
It lends John Newcombe’s smashes extra thunder.
Good Health is what puts beefcake on Rod Taylor
It makes Rolf Harris sound like a loudhailer.
Good Health helps Eddie Charlton score like Bradman
And Sidney Nolan sling paint like a madman.
But vitamins and body-building cereals
Are only some among the raw materials
That go to stuff the bulging cornucopia
Which all wise men now know to be Utopia
Though once none but the hopeless ever went there
And death was preferable to being sent there.
The tables are well turned. The biter’s bitten.
The pit of desperation now is Britain
Where soon must fall a Dark Night of the Soul
With (HEALEY WARNS) Three Million On The Dole
Unless some pin is found to pierce inflation
And thereby save the Pound and thus the Nation.
For their own chances loth to give you tuppence,
The British seem concussed by their come-uppance:
Like fearful Pooh and Piglet they keep humming,
But few believe a cure will be forthcoming
That won’t make their poor country even poorer —
A bald man getting drunk on hair restorer.
To say ‘So much the better’ would be base
As well as out of key and not my place.
And yet, though some might deem the pause a pity,
The Slump seems to have saved our favourite City
From being hacked to pieces like King Priam’s —
Here by Joe Levy, there by Harry Hyams.
May wasting assets pauperize them both:
They made a graveyard and they called it Growth.
But now it’s clear (thank Heaven for small mercies)
The Land Boom was a siren-song like Circe’s
That sapped the system’s last remaining vigour
By crooning, ‘You must go on getting bigger’.
To which thought there can only be one answer —
A flagrant Harvey Smith, for so must Cancer.
Forgive me if that reference to pathology
Offends your deep concern with Eschatology —
The Last Things are for you no laughing matter
And there I go reducing them to patter.
You think of Death, you’ve told me, all the time,
And not as a quietus but a crime.
You think of Death, you’ve told me, as a curse
That caps a life of pain with something worse.
You think of Death, you’ve told me, as obscene,
And all your poems show me what you mean,
For your horrific vision would make Goya
Plead mental cruelty and phone his lawyer —
And even Dürer’s ‘Ritter, Tod and Teufel
Beside what you evoke looks almost joyful.
A paradox, in view of this, that you,
Of all the London Literary crew,
Are much the most authentically elated
By everything Great Artists have created.
I miss your talk not just because of savouring
Its bracing lack of artificial flavouring,
But also for the way that Grub Street scandal
Is spiced by you with thoughts on Bach and Handel,
And whether the true high point of Humanity
Was Mozart’s Innocence or Haydn’s Sanity.
For though your calling’s Poetry, your passion
Is MUSIC — and I’m cast in the same fashion,
Believing that Man’s Fate, if hardly cherishable,
Through MUSIC may partake of the imperishable.
(A sacrament, I fear, which smacks of heresy
To some of our close friends among the clerisy,
Who can’t conceive of anybody needing it —
And stick to writing Verse, while rarely reading it.)
Enough. Since this must reach you through the ‘Staggers
Claire Tomalin will look askance and daggers
At claims for space beyond a second column,
So I shall close. Perhaps with something solemn?
Alas, I’m ill-equipped for sounding cryptic.
Besides, I just don’t feel Apocalyptic!
For all her empty coffers ring like cisterns,
For all her strength now lies with Sonny Liston’s,
For all her looming Future looks appalling,
GREAT BRITAIN must for always be enthralling
To anyone who speaks her native tongue.
Turn back, and leave Australia to the Young!
Turn back, and push a pencil as you ought!
Turn back! The times are right for rhymed report!
We need you here to help us face the Crunch
(Or, failing that, to face the bill for lunch),
Lest in these islands Folly govern men
Until the day King Arthur comes again —
And finds, no doubt, his advent greeted warmly
By Jack Jones, Arthur Scargill and Joe Gormley.

— 1975