I.M. Peter Porter 1929 – 2010
Poetry is the art of constructing a trap of words – when tripped by its prey, a curious human, it triggers a rush of thought and feeling.
Peter Porter was a master trapmaker. It was as a witless youth in the ’80s that I stumbled upon one of his; it looked small and approachable (– but we know now that it was one of his greatest). It was modestly scaled, but its hole was very deep. I tripped, it trapped, I fell …
It was Non piangere, Liù :
A card comes to tell you
you should report
to have your eyes tested.
But your eyes melted in the fire
and the only tears, which soon dried,
fell in the chapel.
Other things still come –
invoices, subscription renewals,
shiny plastic cards promising credit –
not much for a life spent
in the service of reality.
You need answer none of them.
Nor my asking you for one drop
of succour in my own hell.
Do not cry, I tell myself,
the whole thing is a comedy
and comedies end happily.
The fire shall come out of the sun
and I shall look in the heart of it.
I did not know who Peter Porter was, or the meaning of ‘Non piagere, Liù*’, but I knew this: he’d caught me.
I was too young to know the secrets of this particular trap, only that it was cruel and desperate, grief- and guilt-wracked, twisted inside and full of a pressure that would explode should the sun eventually rise.
(To be continued…)
*Non piangere, Liù is a title borrowed from a Puccini opera – an aria, “Don’t cry, Liù,” sung by the prince, Calàf, to the slave girl Liù, secretly in love with him, who begs him not to risk his life to marry the Princess Turandot: “Do not cry, Liù. If on a long-ago day / I smiled at you…” Turandot‘s comedy ends happily, as romantic comedies must, but along the way a sacrifice is required – Liù, who the prince has asked not to cry, kills herself.
Porter, ex-Brisbane boy, became a great music lover. This operatic trap comes from his collection The Cost of Seriousness, published in 1978, four years after the death of his wife Jannice (by her own hand**). He decided to bring up his two young daughters by himself in London.
**Obituaries: By his close friend Anthony Thwaites in the Independent. At the Guardian, at the Telegraph (with its comic-pathetic single reader comment). Or you can read the obituary by the poet Jamie Grant in the Australian. Grant’s is the only one where you will read any details of Porter’s first wife’s death – it has a frankness of opinion; the English press is very discrete. You can decide who got it right.
The drawing above: I was in London in the winter of 1990 and saw a notice that two Australian poets were to read in Southbank. It was black and cold; there must have been oh at least a dozen or 14 people – 1 : 7, a good ratio for poets. They were Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Peter Porter, who I was there to see. But it was Wallace-Crabbe who was the star turn, with his lively readings of his clever, funny traps: firerworks in the sky. Porter was quiet in comparison, a suave river of lights in the big city. But when he signed my book – his book – he smiled out of his broad kind face. I heard later that he had a unique reputation in the literary world: no one hated him.