Peter Porter was a dear friend of mine for some thirty-six years. He had grown into being a wonderful two-hemisphere poet, great talker, rolling wit, and yet all the time he might have quoted that poem which opens, ‘It is the little stone of unhappiness/ which I keep with me. I had it as a child/ and put it in a drawer.’ But his inherent legerdemain with language continually transformed melancholy into an intellectual carnival of high spirits.
As Porter’s principal master, W. H. Auden, observed in the course of a famous elegy, ‘Time… worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives.’ And the Australian poet lived in the well-watered savannahs of language, even in the gardens of grammar. To be bluntly literal, he lived mostly in Cleveland Square, W2, and in many libraries or concert halls. But I shall come back to the poet’s garden transactions.
In this sturdy voume we have a posthumous retrospect on Porter, surely our most brilliant expatriate poet and epigrammatist, who died early this year at the age of eighty-one. Someone mysterious – perhaps our old friend, Anon – has made a selection from all of Porter’s books, plus one poem ‘After Schiller’ for this welcome publication. It has been entitled The Rest on the Flight, a gracious implied tribute to the attractive non-Christian poet reflecting from the book jacket. But then, Joseph wasn’t a Christian, either.
Porter’s lush works are edited down hard here and published in chronological order of their parent books. As a result of such mysterious rigour, the poems of his first book are absolutely striking, given that he had distilled the Carnaby Street years in London and the world of advertising Old Boys into cruel poetry that largely hides the pain of a young exile who:
sits alone in libraries, hideous and hairy of soul,
A beast again, waiting for a lustful kiss to bring
Back his human smell, the taste of woman on his tongue.
The early poems shuttled to and fro, yearning intermittently for the poet’s dead mother and lost, sepia Queensland, but also flaunting the brash voice that can assert, ‘Everyone tries to get as much sex as he can.’ This brittle jazz is frequently well done in the early books, even spilling over into characteristic titles like ‘Homage to Gaetano Donizetti’ and, a favourite of mine, ‘The Great Poet Comes Here in Winter’.
Every true poet knows that the title of a poem, its proper name, is also an extra flick of its potency, a bonus. But these also were the years of his finding London’s tone, amid the supportive pub-going cluster of ‘The Group’ — but ever with our ‘sunlit plains extended’ haunting him in the background, in as much as he ever paid much attention to landscape. What is more, he loved intermittently to wallow in such bursts of Ocker hyperbole as:
Like a Taree smallholder splitting logs
and philosophising on his dangling billies,
the poet mixes hard agrarian instances
with sour sucks to his brother. (‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod’)
Many a reader will wonder whether that hypothetical smallholder was a cartoon version of another well-known poet. Porter’s imagination dealt in cartoon figures a great deal, whether of Grecian heroes, modern thinkers, Ralph the even-tempered Saxon, or even the whole animated cast jinking through ‘Copyright Universal Pictures’. His poems keep on courting fun, even when deep inside mortality:
Lacking the Virgin Mary, modern writers make do with sex as a subject. In general, Peter Porter’s world was erotic, as well as deeply musical. The selection here includes his well-known ‘Sex and the Over-Forties’ as well as the much later ‘Sex and the Over-Seventies’. In a pastoral piece in quatrains, he has written:
In the middle of The Children’s Crusade
you may put two adolescents under a tree
poking bits of bark down the other’s front,
music by Puccini, the sun declining
Having set the scene, you are in the Land
of afternoon. Sex, if it comes, will be late,
up some stairs following a nervous lunch,
her eyes like a Florentine postcard
The poems imply an artist who has always lived in the Land of Afternoon; although he started out pretty young in chronological fact, our poet seems never quite to have had a youth. It may be that he always intuited the truth of Beckett’s remark on Proust, that ‘the only paradise that is not the dream of a madman, the paradise that has been lost.’ He resembles his antetype, Les Murray, in having been wounded and driven by the early loss of his mother; but in his own case there are also Puccini and art postcards from Florence, for consolation; and gardens of course, where ‘we enact the opening of the world’, nicely balanced between civil culture and rampant nature.