by Harry Ricketts
Peter Porter, Better Than God (Picador, 2009), ISBN 978-0-330-46067-5, 81pp, £8.99 (pb)
Thirty years ago I attended a poetry workshop run by Gavin Ewart. To the disgruntlement of several participants, he made us write haiku, limericks, clerihews, one-line poems. It was, he suggested, harder now to produce a competent poem in a given form than a piece of competent free verse. He also mentioned that in the 1960s, before they both went freelance, he and his friend Peter Porter had written advertising slogans for a living (including, I think, the one for the famous Strongbow cider ad with the thudding arrows).
Ewart’s point was that the discipline of writing within restrictions offers a valuable apprenticeship and, the form acting as a starter-motor, can produce surprising and rewarding results. The discipline certainly worked for Ewart himself and, as Better Than God constantly reaffirms, it continues to work for Porter in his own rather more strenuous vein.
Reviewers understandably like to cast Porter as one of the “Sons of Wystan”. And here again in Better Than God the poetic DNA provides a good match. There’s the Audenesque virtuosity with form and prosody: terza rima, couplets, tercets, In Memoriam quatrains, sonnets, and intricate pararhyme (“clouding/colluding/colliding” at the end of ‘The Dead Have Plans’). There’s the survivor-persona: the saddened spectator of human stupidity (“We bitumen the fields and flood the coasts / Because we must because we can”); the grumpy vivisectionist of contemporary literary mores (“It moves with ease from prototype / To fearful dream—its mode is hype”); the wry connoisseur of the Antiques Roadshow of modern life (“Wouldn’t you rather, like the Late Roman Poets, / coruscate in the margins of a worn-out Empire?”) But Auden is by no means the only ghostly presence. These poems are echo chambers for a wide range of other poets—Horace, Marvell, Gray, Crabbe, Blake, Browning, Yeats, Larkin, among many others. There is more than a swipe of Empson, too, who pops up in a suitably Empsonian line: “The lizards, Empson might have said, ‘perpend’ ”. In fact, the collection throngs with literary figures and names: Voltaire, Dante, Oblomov, Henry James, Glumdalclitch, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Ashbery all feature in titles.
Quite enough to keep busy “the scholar-dogs”, as Porter dubs academics in ‘Detoxing Dante’. And yet it’s probably the very same “scholar-dogs” and other poets who are most likely to appreciate Porter’s finesse. How, for instance, in the Marvellian octosyllabic couplets of ‘Young Mothers in the Square’, he so neatly mixes echoes of Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’ and Gray’s ‘On a Distant Prospect of Eton College’:
A shadow falls across the lawn;
Is it the poet’s unearned scorn?
How can they play, as Gray observed,
Unconscious of their fate?
And then—a characteristic Porter manoeuvre—with a kind of mordant buoyancy, he “swings round” both stanza and poem into a final spring burst of the contemporary:
Blades of their death swing round
Like frisbees looping to the ground
Where everything is burgeoning,
A rose, a laptop, someone’s bling.
Elsewhere there are iPods, Star Trek, blogs, Miss Emin, Yoda, broadband, Asbos, the world wide web: these are not poems stuck in a time-warp.
Larkin complained that the later Auden had “become a reader rather than a writer” and lamented (with some justification) a “loss of vividness, a tendency to rehearse themes already existing as literature, a certain abstract windiness.” Some readers may feel the same about Better Than God. That would be a pity. It seems more useful to say that you often have to work away at these poems, like brazil nuts. They don’t slip past you in an impressive display of esoteric privacy or butt-covering irony.
Besides, there’s plenty of feeling here. ‘Buried Abroad’, ‘Christmas Day, 1917’ and ‘Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy’ movingly salute uncles lost on the Western Front. Porter’s country of birth, Australia, is sardonically evoked as “The Burning Fiery Furnace”, as “that new-minted site”, as “shadows loosed on the verandah”. Europe and Australia briefly collide in ‘How the Eureka Stockade Led to Boggo Road Gaol’, an unflattering portrait of architect great grandfather Robert Porter; they more achingly meet in ‘Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy’. Yeats thought sex and death the great subjects: there’s much more death than sex here, though “the one / Ever-interesting topic” is never far away.
The cover—an unattributed borrowing from Bosch’s Ascent of the Blessed—promises angels (if not salvation), and they do regularly appear along with other images of possible transcendence. “Easy to imagine angels / as flamingoes wading in a lake, and quite like God, / being neighbourly and pink each day at dawn”, as he puts it in ‘By Whose Permission Do These Angels Serve?’; while in ‘What’s Playing in Eternity?’ three nuns on a record sleeve momentarily become “empowered as angels to command / a truth more generous than love’s.” Mostly though, for all the verbal and imaginative pyrotechnics, Porter keeps us firmly in this world or some not entirely cheering version of it:
a crowded planet’s just an insight
into Heaven or its still invisible
other side, as Hell, and souls will be
inseparate as Blake’s hushed grains of sand.
The brief introductory title poem claims, or seems to, that music (the music of creation, of the spheres?) is “better than God”. The collection as a whole, however, implicitly asserts that what is really “better” (however problematically and disconcertingly) is language and particularly the act of writing. Words may at one point be “odd parasites”, but elsewhere they allow the poet to reflect, to evaluate, to imagine a “circumstantial truth” or “outperform[ing] on death’s trapeze / Your competence of enemies”. (‘Competence of enemies’, what a phrase!) In the final poem, ‘River Quatrains’, rivers—ancient and modern, eastern and western, Guadalquivir, Thames, Rubicon, Ganges—provide glimpses of human belief and action. Fittingly, the eighty-year-old Porter concludes with the one river awaiting us all, and it is his own poems which are allowed the last word:
I’m on a river bank. I think I see
The farther side: a choice of nothingness
Or Paradise. My poems wait for me,
They look away, they threaten and they bless.