I.M. Peter Porter 1929 – 2010
I was flicking through Porter’s Afterburner (2004), his penultimate collection of poetry, and on the back page I came across this sketch above – he had read from the book at the State Library. (He had aged since I last drew him in 1990, blockier somehow, and edging towards an Audenesque cragginess – a living homage, a secular poet’s imitation of Christ…)
Porter said that poetry is “a tub into which you can pour anything.”
Into the tub he poured his grief, mourning his wife: “The hand is stopped upon the clock, / No one can say why hearts will break / And marriages are all opaque.”
He poured his anger at the world: “Donald Rumsfeld’s face on the box. / Business appointing Murder to the Board.”
His lovely wit: “Come back, perennial rain, / stand your soft sculptures in our gardens / for the barefoot frogs to leap.”
His wicked wit: “I have begun to live in a new land, / not the old land of fear / but the new one of disappointment.”
He had a way with words, and words had their way with him. In a recent New Yorker, Dan Chiasson reviewed Don Paterson’s Rain. Chiasson made a terrifically interesting point about artists’ obsessions. It explains something that’s always nagged at me, an egregious solipsisism, this thing that poets always return to: poems about poetry. Chiasson writes:
“No other art makes such a virtue of its grumpiness: painters hate other painters, or other styles of painting, but poets hate poetry itself, hate themselves for getting mixed up in it at all, hate, often, the very poem that they find themselves writing – in language brilliant and moving enough to convey how uselss and phony the language of poetry is. You could call this navel-gazing, but the thing about poetry (an art of beheld excruciation) is its capacity to conscript us into emotional state we wouldn’t volunteer to experience. I never much worry about pleasing God, and yet I love George Herbert. I don’t like cats; I love Christopher Smart’s mad paen to his cat, “On My Cat Jeoffry.” So you needn’t be a poet to care about poems about poetry. In fact, if poets (often lacking God, less often lacking cats) anguish most deeply about poetry, then we might take the argument a step further: non-poets should seek out poems about poetry, where the real intensity can be found.”
Which is a mighty, and fine introduction to this Porter poem from Afterburner, a micro-manifesto and confession of bondage, a meditation and exhortation, a love poem to poetry:
Sleeping with the Alphabet
You glorious twenty-six, not equal
In purport, short straws of words,
Come with me in the night-time squall,
My hurricane of verbs.
My chiefest pegs to hang fear on —
Don’t think it’s only sights
Which dreams call up — Wordsong
Lingers in the tucks and sweats.
Sounds of pre-performance, cries
Subsumed in nothingness,
Hoping to syllabicize
Themselves as messages?
The A of Anger, E of Death,
An I who might not be myself
And O the deadly wind that bloweth
Unto U, my vowel of Truth
Porter poems quoted above: Exequy, My Father was a Businessman, Waiting for Rain in Devon, The Story of My Conversion.