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Guest Review: Ironmonger On Porter

Tom Ironmonger reviews
If you consider Peter Porter's contribution to poetry you might well be forgiven for assuming that the title of his latest work Better Than God is self-congratulatory. This would be understandable considering that, during half a century of residence in this country, his writings have been of such a prolificacy and quality to warrant this lofty comparison. However there is nothing bumptious about the poet or poems in this collection, Porter's subjects might be grandiose but his treatment is not. His stable themes (art and religion) are viewed with a wry Porterean reverence which is at odds to distinguish the fallible from the sublime. Those expecting a commemoration will find footage of candid behind-the-scenes action, a perspective which often seeks to portray the existence of his fellow worshipers: 'We are/ philosophers and drainmakers,/ prospectus-holders, vainly gripping/ the under-edge of a minor star.'

In a recent review of John Ashbery, Porter described his poems as being 'made of verbal structures derived from everyday life on earth but magically manoeuvred to a newly created life on the moon'. The same might be said for the poems in Better Than God except they orbit much closer to the sun and the manoeuvring is more a case of craft over magic; his sublimation of form throughout is a testament to this. Linguistically, however, there is a great deal to say for the pragmatism of the poetry, which is at times heroic in its lack of pretence:

A species which feels sorry for
not just itself, but worms and bats,
would like to make life fair and take
the wrinkles out of sex and war.

('Whereof We Cannot Speak')

Stanzas such as this provide important lessons for students of poetry with a tendency to overwork the artifice; they exemplify the effect of poetry that speaks truthfully. But Better Than God is brimming with lessons. Many of these through their opposition to the milieu of contemporary poetry and specifically its preference for indifference over opinion. For this collection is a reminder that, when masterfully executed, poetry is an eloquent voice for sophisticated or complicated ideas; that poetry can be soulful and political. No more is this justified than in the poignant satire of 'The Little Fish Have Gone':

And the big fish are looking guilty,
the morning census bides a tear
and the people of the house
are momentarily gods.

This is just one of many registers in Better Than God, for Porter's ability to manipulate voice is apparent throughout. Like the absurd and obscure lines of 'Henry James and Constipation' or the irresistible banter of 'For John Ashbery' ('In the end, aren't you a bit pissed/ at living in the world's most powerful country?'). Yet the most idiomatic of these voices is typical of Porter's later poetry, the language of lived erudition. It is true that Porter's vault of knowledge seeps into each and every line, complete poems such as 'Chocolates and Gratitude' or 'Shakespeare's Defeat' are saturated with his scholarly worldliness. For these poems are those in which Ancient Greeks, Social Theorists and Contemporary Artists, freely converse in the queue. Such juxtapositions can, admittedly, provide obstacles for those trying to overhear, especially for those with unaccustomed ears. Nonetheless, it is not altogether important whether or not these references are realised because when this polygamy of culture works it creates original and invigorating verse.

It would be wrong to think of Better Than God as communicating purely in high-talk, for would ignore some of the elementary humour that it contains. A few of the aforementioned titles provide clues to this, but many of the poems contain moments of comic reprieve. Porter seems to revel in catching his subjects on the lavatory or, in the case of a certain Russian author, having a sardonic dig at their malaise: 'Refurbish Dostoyevsky's gloomy flat!/ Apocalypse as heating under floor,/ Madness steaming in a samovar'.

Better Than God deserves its title, not by any theological dictum, but because of its qualities as a work of poetry. For this is a work that answers to Eliot's essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'. It is the work of a lifetime of immersion and dedication to art, a collection of writings that speaks out of respect for decorum. However what is most impressive about these poems is their vigour and their unashamed refusal to be anything other than themselves. They are an example of the type of panoramic view achievable when a poet has the ability and industry to climb high. Most importantly they carry the pertinent thoughts of a man who is concerned about the future. Here are the final four lines:

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.

('River Quatrains')

Tom Ironmonger is a poet and writer currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths.
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