John Tranter reviews Peter Porter, 1995

  John Tranter:
  Review of «Millennial Fables» by Peter Porter

for Australian Book Review, March 1995: Peter Porter, Millennial Fables, Oxford University Press, 94 pages, ISBN 0-19-282391-4

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There’s an unusual consistency to Peter Porter’s poetry. His first book appeared in 1961, after he’d been living in his adopted country, Great Britain, for a decade. The themes and modes that have preoccupied him since then are all present in this new book, thirty-four years down the track, like a classroom of boys who have refused to grow old: social satire aimed at the cheapness of the new Britain and the rottenness of the old, an anxious brooding on physical decay and death, and the consolations of the bourgeoisie — the changeless worlds of Elizabethan literature, German classical music and Italian Renaissance art. It’s worth noting that these worlds are changeless because they’ve stopped living.

Poet Peter Porter when young
Poet Peter Porter when young


Porter has also been drawn to the intoxication to be found in imbibing the work of other poets and thinkers. In this volume we meet old friends and a few new ones: Marvell, Auden, Isherwood, Yeats, George Herbert, Shakespeare, Leopardi, Browning, Wallace Stevens, Primo Levi, Thomas Weelkes, Richard Strauss, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Bernard Berenson. What do they have in common? Why, they’re all old dead white men: surprise!


His favoured verse forms have stayed much the same for decades, too: for ceremonial occasions a suit of rhyme and metre, and for relaxing around the house, a loose and flowing free verse.


I confess to a liking for formal richness in poetry, but sometimes Porter’s diction makes me reach for the indigestion powder. From the poem ‘Serenade’: ‘In manner of a mystery we hear / in one man’s choice of notes played then by trained / musicians complex valencies of ear. / / So in unfairness fairness is explained; / that beauty should be felt the felt is hailed / and all are gainers by desire detained.’ Behind these tongue-tied, stilted measures, what stern schoolmaster growls and grumbles unappeased? Perhaps the one from his poem ‘Helping the Police With Their Enquiries’: ‘Fear is the cousin / you remember best, your hard headmaster / with the change of clothes.’


Peter Porter failed to take a university degree, but boy, has he made up for it! Among the recondite words and phrases he dazes us with in this book: gravamen, glozes, catafalques, heresiarchs, cancrizans, quis custodiet, blent, withers, philippics, athwart, coigns, exocentric, decensus Averno, groynes, psychopomp, dimbo [ a dim bimbo? ] cena, enskied.


Sometimes Porter’s comments are so loaded with learning that the reader is not quite sure how to respond. ‘And the poet stressed the flies,’ one poem begins, but the next dozen lines give us no clue as to which poet we’re talking about. Go to the Notes at the back of the book and you will learn that, despite the poem’s welter of Larkinesque images (‘The SAS [ commandos ] at practice by the largest broiler-farm / Before the Marshes, then an industry of piano-legs…’) the ‘poet’ mentioned is not Larkin, or Auden, but old George Herbert, long dead.

Peter Porter at a poetry book launch at the Courthouse Hotel, Newtown, Sydney. Photo by John Tranter.
Peter Porter at a poetry book launch at the Courthouse Hotel, Newtown, Sydney. Photo by John Tranter.


My own taste leads me to like the looser pieces best, poems like ‘Connect Only’, a travelogue-reminiscence set in Italy in which drinking cheap wine from a mug reminds the poet of an earlier trip with his now-deceased wife. The short lines of the poem have an honesty about them, a casual awkwardness that is quite disarming, despite the grim pickings his memories turn up: ‘who … has the style to face / the picture of himself / when wine must have a stop?’


I also like ‘Littoral Truth’, a watercolour sketch of the Australian coast: ‘ … it is a long and silver littoral / Within the sound of surf, a country rhymed by waves / And scanned by the shifting outlines of the bay… ’ His eye for Australian cultural detail has that almost stereoscopic sharpness that expatriation brings. Which prompts me to wonder why his poems on Australian themes seem lighter and more fluid than, say, his pieces on European topics.


Porter’s project seems to perambulate in a garden fenced by four walls: his personal experiences, chiefly the sad death of his wife more than twenty years ago and his travels in Europe; disintegrating England old and new; the varied glories of the Renaissance; and some bemused glances at contemporary Australia.


I’m sure there are themes grand enough in all that to keep a writer busy for life, but to my mind there’s something lacking. Porter has muddled on quietly, seeming to ignore — like most English poets of his generation — the revolutions that refreshed the practice of poetry in Europe. Also absent is the United States — almost all of it, from the barbaric Whitman to the present. For all its faults, US poetry is immensely rich and varied, and (one would have thought) impossible to ignore.


Like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, there is a meaning and a pattern behind these absences. The backdrop to Porter’s art is the poetry of the ‘Movement’, the murmuring of young fogeys which was the new thing in London when Porter arrived from the colonies in 1951. It gave him his territory and his limits then, and he’s been quarrelling usefully with them ever since.


His obstinate talent has brought us some marvellous poems over the years, and some strong pieces in this volume. I liked his richly-detailed chiaroscuro portrait of art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, the grimly Audenesque ‘Above the Villa Line’, the hilarious ‘World Poetry Conference Welcome Poem,’ and many more.


But symptomatic of the problems I felt lay underneath this volume is a lightly ironic poem about a photograph of the poet when young, alliteratively titled ‘The Picture of Little P.P. in a Prospect of Photographers’ Props’. It reminded me of John Ashbery’s more vivacious and more memorable poem with a similar title, on exactly the same topic — an early photograph of the poet — written some forty years ago. ‘Yet I cannot escape the picture,’ Ashbery said in the 1950s, ‘Of my small self in that bank of flowers: / My head among the blazing phlox / Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus.’ The note to Porter’s poem refers the reader to the seventeenth century poem by Andrew Marvell about a friend’s child, titled ‘The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers’, which is fair enough — both modern poems take Marvell’s poem as their starting point. But where’s the acknowledgment of Ashbery’s similar, earlier and by now famous piece? The fact that Porter’s note pointedly ignores it implies that, like many a British poet with his back firmly turned on the glittering lights of New York, he simply doesn’t wish to know about such things.


And therein lies the problem with sailing to London to escape the curse of colonial provincialism. Australia in 1950 was indeed an awful place, like a backwoods settlement on a wet Sunday — dull, its fashions out of date, and choked to death by petty rules and regulations. Any writer or artist who had to live here then was afflicted with the sad longing to be somewhere else, in Paris or New York, say, where the really exciting things were happening. But in London a writer can end up with a bad case of British provincialism, with its dogged insistence on ignoring those other places — Paris or New York, say — where the really exciting things are happening.


Perhaps he left too soon for Home (as many colonials thought of England in the 1950s.) He couldn’t know that the Australia Council and its pump-priming subsidies would rise at Whitlam’s whim over the Antipodean horizon, encouraging the floods of new poetry from young poets and older poets that irrigated the local scene in the 1970s. Perhaps if he’d returned from Britain —as fellow Brisbane expatriate David Malouf did — his work might have picked up some of the vitality of the times. On the other hand, he might have turned into a poet rather like his stay-at-home contemporaries R.A. Simpson or Evan Jones, whose verse sometimes seems peripheral to the local scene, like a pair of pre-war Bentleys rusting quietly in a car yard full of hot Holdens.

Poet Peter Porter, London, 1989. Photo by John Tranter. The faint blue light at the poet's solar plexus is not his 'soul', it is an artefact of the Polaroid photographic process.
Poet Peter Porter, London, 1989. Photo by John Tranter. The faint blue light at the poet’s solar plexus is not his ‘soul’, it is an artefact of the Polaroid photographic process.


But then again, Australia doesn’t have much to boast about these days. It’s hard to work out why Australian poetry lost its head of steam and most of its audience after the 1980s, but it’s evident that we lack a vigorous generation of younger poets, and we have no strong poetry magazines any more. Wading through the fifty or so slim volumes published here each year in the hope of finding writing as fresh as the best of overseas talents like Bishop or Ashbery or Elaine Equi or August Kleinzahler or Michele Leggott or Mark Ford is a suffocating and dispiriting task.


In that perspective, Porter’s concern with the Great Dead takes on a different light. His genuflections in the direction of Browning or Auden or Larkin at least set up standards like hurdles that his talent honestly strives to jump over. If one is tempted to chide him for taking too much notice of the past, it could be answered that it is one of poetry’s duties to cultivate the past because it gives us an understanding of the present. And it is the everyday world that Porter comes back to in poem after poem, discovering for himself (and for us) what it feels like to be alive and aware as the second millennium draws to a close.