Peter Porter Porter, Peter (Vol. 5) - Essay

Porter, Peter (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Porter, Peter 1929–

Porter is an Australian poet now living in London. He has been praised for his ability to present traditional concerns in highly original forms and textures.

[Porter's] work is striking, not simply for its honesty, but for its balance: he is honest in tone as well as in content…. This honesty alone would have been a considerable achievement: but onto the integrity he has grafted a quality of daring, so that his range of achievement has grown successively with each book. Realism has become an adventure of thought, a trading with surprise as well as a harrying of truth. (p. 50)

As Edward Lucie-Smith points out, if we consider Porter a satirist, we must place him alongside the Elizabethan "biting satirists", in the tradition of Juvenal: accurate as it is in particulars and scathing as contemporary comment, his satire is essentially timeless, its subjects the omnipresence of death …, the limitations of human possibility. (p. 51)

Porter's originality as a satirist, and his particular relevance to this century, is that he concentrates, not on the kaleidoscope of folly, but on the monotony of human aspirations, the mean perspectives that, increasingly, we have in common. Every satirist has stressed that we all come to the same fate in the end: Porter's point is that we never get away from it in the first place. (p. 52)

From the beginning, Porter's imagery has been concrete in a particularly acute sense, the material defining the spiritual, not just representing it; but at the same time these concrete images have had a slightly surreal edge to them…. As the style has moved out of description into allusion, from orderly sequences into sudden epigrams, this edge has sharpened, but the imagery has shifted towards the allegorical…. It hasn't shifted far, though: Porter uses allegory as a bestiary rather than a shadowland of symbols … and it relates strongly back to … corporeal definition which is still Porter's basic habitat…. Two contrasting tendencies have both become stronger as his work has progressed: the first is towards an earthy, debunking common sense …; the second is towards a classic finality of statement…. It is a blend of these two, a sardonic classicism, which has become the distinctive voice of Porter's recent work. (pp. 54-5)

Porter's two latest books [A Porter Folio and The Last of England] are serious and uncompromising to the point of obsession—"death" and "pain" are probably the two most frequent words in his opus, "love" appears most often in the context of defeat—but the writing is filled with this sense of adventure, and the final tone is not heavy, but elusive, startling. (p. 55)

Porter's recent style is an act of courage. The keystone of his early work was honesty, though the expression had all the bite of rage. But the widening range of his material challenged his style. The combination of an increasing perspective, both forwards and backwards into history, with a more nervous apprehension of a fragmented moral world, made it necessary to break out of the confines of a four-square treatment. The present style is chancy—one would call it "transitional" if there wasn't a suspicion that part of the transition is to exclude the aim of coming to rest again. Porter has always had an instinct for good lines, and there have been plenty of them lately: but they tend to come singly, driven like plugs into layers of uneven material…. Peter Porter has been consistently careful not to let his gifts become predictable, and his development has been both adventurous and logical. Too often in the 'sixties, experiment was another name for whimsy, and integrity meant a conservative writing by rote: it is refreshing to find a poet whose courage is a function of his honesty. (pp. 56-7)

Roger Garfitt, "Peter Porter" (copyright © by Roger Garfitt), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 49-57.

Mr. Porter's books receive good reviews … but no one, to my knowledge, or to my satisfaction, stresses his importance. He is a major poet. In a sense, of course, it doesn't matter whether anyone knows it but me, not even Mr. Porter. (p. 83)

What is a major poet—is such a classification valuable description or literary purring—and is Mr. Porter one anyway? T. S. Eliot, for instance, is a major poet—that is, whatever you think of his politics, his religion, his aesthetic, his poems, he has made an indelible mark on our culture. All major artists make such marks, eventually. We measure by them—though they are not always self-evidently important to their immediate contemporaries. Mr. Eliot wasn't, Mr. Porter isn't. The latter needs a Dr. Leavis—not me.

But why? Not because Mr. Porter is writing poetry the only way it can be written—prescriptions are always surprisingly fashionable, always persuasive and, in the end, always stultifying. No, Mr. Porter's significance is that his conception, which is both traditional and original, of the world, is expressed in most eclectic terms. He draws metaphors and subjects from the spread of European culture—spread in time and distance. His conception is traditional in essence—the universals of love, insubstantiality, death—and original in appearance—violent, absurd, grotesque, anachronistic particulars. He presupposes the value of knowledge, of wanting to know, the virtue and unlikelihood of reason, the inevitability of death—he expresses the immortality of art (as in the act of writing) and thus of the self. Art presupposes the importance of self, yet survives the self which created it. Mr. Porter elegizes wittily the contradiction…. The converted to whom he is preaching are both the dead and the reader—the latter in the act of contemplating the greatness of art and his own frailty. The reader, by this definition, accepts the author's notions implicitly—notions whose relevance, almost everywhere, is increasingly denied or ignored.

There is a richness of texture in all of Mr. Porter's work, a richness of metrical forms, content, metaphor…. The poems abound in touchstones—from 'Story Which Should Have Happened', 'there should have been fictions to be real in' and from 'Fossil Gathering', '… every feeling thing ascends from slime/To selfhood and in dying finds a face'. The [latter] epitomises much of Mr. Porter's conception of the world—the accidental triumph of the self (a sea creature converted fortuitously into sculpture), the marbled dead conveying permanence.

A number of critics have pointed to the parallels between Martial's life and Mr. Porter's—poets, ex-colonials, writing in the capitals of dying, dead empires. Such parallels are intended, I think, as compliments to Peter Porter. They are patronising. Certainly, Martial's interest (except for sycophancy) coincide with Mr. Porter's—but the latter's are much more extensive. His senses of history and pathos are key instances of his superiority. He is much more important to us than Martial was to his contemporaries. Perhaps I ought to have written 'should be more important'. I know that After Martial will be more widely read than Preaching to the Converted, but, generally good though the former is, it does poorly, in comparison, as a measure of us. (pp. 83-5)

David Selzer, "Porter Major," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), July, 1973, pp. 83-5.

As a satirist Mr Porter is almost too brilliant for his own good. The sharp fragments and gobbets of fire fly from his anvil in every direction. His tone [in Jonah] never loses definition but the intensity is almost too great and the jokes, excellent ones, are almost too many, calling for a close reading that loses speed…. At times the poetry comes close to surrealism…. Some of the prose passages are surreal, but they go on too long, they are less substantial. The verse is best….

"De Profundis," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), November 2, 1973, p. 1348.

Peter Porter's subject in Preaching to the Converted is … death and the dying, whether it be people, towns, or civilizations…. Porter sees death as conferring significance on life itself: 'Man is ridiculous; if/ it weren't for his death,/ he'd have no value whatever' ('Timor Mortis'); and as unquestionably the greatest patron of the arts. The 'converted' are the dead themselves, accessible only through time … and the great dead are the artists who make this communication possible. Writers remain 'On the Isle of Ink, postmarked Totenreich' where 'The final purity is to have nothing to say', while composers' 'sounding notes/ go past like cart-loads of the glittering dead'. The dead attend the poet at his own work…. Under this overshadowing of death (like Wordsworth's crag) other themes are developed. Not least among these is the process of poetic creation itself, which Porter studies in the fine but difficult poem 'In the Giving Vein'. What should be more generally digestible are two of Porter's most recognizable ideas, an intense and complicated nostalgia for a vanished way of life on the one hand, and on the other a simultaneous mockery and weary acceptance of what modern life has to offer in exchange. These often overlap, and they combine in what seems to me to be the best poem in the book. This is 'Seaside Resort', a marvellous recreation of a decaying south coast town where 'the small black rained-on queen/ stares with disciplined eyes at the sea', where there is 'Nothing but the calm/ of history dying, the beautiful/ vulgarization of decay'. 'The polemic here is death' also; and the poet can introduce himself at the end in a mood of sober self-pity which is neither avoided nor indulged but fully expressed as a dramatic element in the poem's whole context. (pp. 83-4)

But what will prevent many readers from getting on terms with this book is the inordinate and unnecessary difficulty of many of the poems. I really don't see why Peter Porter's very public themes—death, love and sex, art—require him to take refuge behind the obsessive embedded allusion, clotted syntax, and other defensive gestures that make his poems appear so inhospitable to the reader. In 'The School for Love', a poem which is positively constipated with literary references (and which is presumably intended as an ironic comment on his own technique) he actually exclaims 'I have not heard of any natural style'. What is particularly frustrating about this is that Porter does have a natural style, if only he would trust to it; a natural lyrical impulse which is always trying to evade his intellectual guard. And this impulse frequently succeeds in carrying off the poem at the end…. I would say it is the poems that get off the ground in this way that are in the end the most successful. But despite the difficulties, intrinsic or overlaid, Porter is a poet worth persevering with; the fertility of his ideas, the power of his images, and the generally high level of craftsmanship in this volume are ample compensation for the frustrations it also contains. (pp. 85-6)

Damian Grant, in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1974.