The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems

There was never anything of the madman about Porter. He was profoundly sane, yet haunted by that parental loss, which seemingly reinscribed itself in his first wife’s suicide. Yet he wrote on, recovered more and more territory, all the way into Better than God, which politely courted blasphemy: a final Porteresque joke.

The poet Peter Steele, long an admirer of Porter’s metamorphoses, has reminded us (if we ever needed this) of his fascination with Browning as ‘the talker non pareil’. Fair enough, and Browning had also invented modern poetry’s capacity to be many different voices; in such voices Porter long danced away from his sadnesses. As his friend Anthony Thwaite puts it, he was ‘prolific, knotty, satirical, full of apothegms and cunning’.

‘In the new world happiness is allowed’, he wrote. But through the portals of Italian art and the gate of Austro-German music he could find contentment, even in the planet’s  old purlieus. Such recompense is spelt out in a prosy middle-period poem, ‘Roman Incident’ where a painter had ‘borrowed Titian’s later dyes/ for pure frivolity’. This capacity entailed ‘startling compressions of historical and personal moments indicate their interpenetration…which continually juxtaposes domestic ordinariness with long vistas of history and space’, in the words of his biographer, Bruce Bennett.

But that poem comes from Porter’s most powerful single volume, in which we find his great, original elegies for his first wife, ‘Non Piangere, Liu’ and ‘The Easiest Room in Hell’ as well as his piercingly plain variation on Bishop King’s seventeenth-century exequy:

I owe a death to you – one day

The time will come for me to pay

When your slim shape from photographs

Stands at my door and gently asks

If I have any work to do

Or will I come to bed with you.

This was the poet’s Plain Style, hardly hinting at his exotic range of forms, idioms and references. Indeed, I sometimes think it no wonder that he favoured painters of the baroque and mannerist periods: he relished stylistic impurity, or as Steele has dubbed it, thickening. What a smorgasbord this collection is, accordingly: there’s something for everyone who is willing to read and think, even to use Google when necessary, as so many of us drift into doing, late in the electronic twilight.

A collection of poems like this can be taken as representing Porter’s Wunderkammer, his impersonally personal cabinet of curiosities. His oddities are quaintly modern, even postmodern, dusty with his sadnesses and briskly backward-looking. The beginning of one late poem goes so far as to  yearn for the Bible: that large tome about the unjust God our poet could never believe in:

Where are the Science Students? Gone to Media Studies,

so why not take the Bible down and get a high

from old Isaiah? Half of what we mean by poetry

is still the rhetoric Hebrew makes in English.

Phasing in a little modern jargon – The Internet,

Pacific Rim, bi-polar writing – and off we go

back to the full portfolio of lamentation

These lines will further remind us that, despite the clown-suit and spangles, we are dealing with a wisdom writer, with one who cared deeply. When you can feel  deeply enough and do it in rhythmical diction, then you are truly a poet.

As The Rest on the Flight keeps on showing us, the poetry makes use of a vitamin-enriched vocabulary. Just flicking the pages, I hit on these:  pea-trellis, enskied, sloop, chromatic, cashiered, avatars, hubristic, salmon, and plebiscite. Except for the salmon, which could well have been smoked, the words have little to do with external nature. How deeply the poet would have concurred in the Reverend Sidney Smith’s opinion that the third age of man ‘should be lived in great cities’. London, Rome, Sydney and Melbourne, these were the fields of his comfort, precisely because ‘everything stays forever foreign/which settles down in Rome’.

And how he would have sneered at stuffy Microsoft Word’s hostility to the the word, ‘which’! After all most things are getting worse, so his nerve-ends kept telling him.

Critics have frequently mentioned Porter’s display of learning; it may well be the broadest of any Australian poet other than Hope, who differed in being intrigued by science, but was far less focussed on the arts. However,  Hope was stodgy in respect to form: lamenting when he came back from Auden’s Oxford that he could in no way match Wystan’s formal inventiveness and dexterity. And we all know by now how deeply Porter was illuminated by Uncle Wiz, whose line, ‘But Mozart never had to clean his shoes’ could proleptically have been his own.

Urbane wit is the greatest anti-depressant, more effective even than red wine.

In a chatty afterword, which focusses a good deal on the poet’s musical knowledge, Clive James claims that Porter ‘lived long enough to see’ this book, presumably meaning the final contents’ list, but does nothing to help us out with the selective process which took place here. One could argue with many of the exclusions, but isn’t that always the case with a selected volume from a large oeuvre?

Speaking of music, Porter’s ear for it was probably finer than for his poetic line and turn, when the chips were down. There is no necessary correlation, of course, as Gwen Harwood’s poetry sometimes reminds us; or, conversely, the case of Yeats, who was said to be tone-deaf and yet had the most wonderfully compelling poetic ear: possibly the best of any modern poet. Mind you, Porter might have been deploying strategic irony when he used a flat, prosy idiom for ‘Sonata Form: The Australian Magpie’. After all, it is followed by an elegy of great lyrical beauty. His layers of irony were many.

But his local melodies made up a music of ideas, a harmony of acceptance in which he might have said, with the Wallace Stevens he so much admired, that

These things at least comprise

An occupation, an exercise, a work,

A thing final in itself, and, therefore, good

Such was the plural satisfaction, the patchwork modernist fiction in which they were both compelled to live. And they accepted it, even though ‘we never move too far from Presbyterian/ small print’; and if we don’t, at least Porter’s was the soft, kindly protestant order we enjoy in Australia. John Calvin never quite took root over here, thank goodness.

In comparing the poet with the composer, Porter had written that ‘Poetry is a selection of words from the whole store available, as music is of natural noises.’ He always envied music for the way it could avoid getting political mud on its shoes. The ordinary world we describe is full of inscriptions, which are explicit, and tell us horrible things about our fellow humans.

The poetry left here at rest after Peter Porter’s final flight transcends such inscriptions, leaving his early ‘Annotations of Auschwitz’ far behind. This may not be the only way of poetry, but it was his way of being. Like his social hospitality, a generosity of  soul pervaded his witty, troubled art.

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