On Peter Porter

The name Peter Porter is not spoken with the reverent frequency it should be in his home country.  Even his Wikipedia entry is sternly brusque and rather more concerned with the bibliography than the man.

But my goodness he can write poetry.  If you’ve never read ‘An Angel in Blythburgh Church’ it’s possible that you don’t know what I’m talking about.  You should.  By which I mean you should read it, and then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Easy.

In the interim, check out this little peach: ‘Sex and the Over Forties’

It’s too good for them,
they look so unattractive undressed –
let them read paperbacks!

A few things to keep in readiness –
a flensing knife, a ceiling mirror,
a cassette of The Broken Heart.

More luncheons than lust,
more meetings on Northern Line stations,
more discussions of children’s careers.

A postcard from years back –
I’m twenty-one, in Italy and in love!
Wagner wrote Tristan at forty-four.

Trying it with noises and in strange positions,
trying it with the young themselves,
trying to keep it up with the Jonses!

All words and no play,
all animals fleeing a forest fire,
all Apollo’s grafters running.

Back to the dream in the garden,
back to the pictures in the drawer,
back to back, tonight and every night.

The poet who writes to inspire giggles rather than gravitas has a rather hard time of it.  There seems to be a general opinion that the rarefied air at the summit of Mt Parnassus ought not to be rent by laughter.  I’ve never had much time for this sort of nonsense, and Porter’s work is one of the chief reasons why.

Porter often likes to sneak up on you.  The first two lines of this particular poem are pure, pure cliché – but the third, that simple but highly specific exhortation makes you realise you’re dealing with a genuine talent.  And you can hear the perfect little ‘click’ as the three syllables of ‘paperbacks’ slot into place.  They hit you with the force of a rhyme.

This isn’t just lightweight flummery – what do you make of ‘flensing knife’, for instance?  That image can’t be anything but menacing.  And what’s to be done with ‘Wagner wrote Tristan at forty-four’?  This line seems to me to be deliciously ambiguous.  Does it sternly indicate that the work of the old must be transcendental or not be undertaken at all?  Or is it a sly hint that passion becomes more grandiose, more complex and more creative with age?

And just when you think you’ve adjusted to a new mood, we get ‘trying to keep it up with the Jonses!’

That’s Porter in a flash: constantly shifting just when you think you’ve got a bead on him.

What Porter loses through eschewing rhyme here he gains in repetition – and it’s clear that he pays extra attention to rhythm.  Read the final stanza to yourself.  Again, isn’t it funny how the last three syllables land with an almost audible click?

Now off you go, children, and read ‘An Angel in Blythburgh Church’. Misha says you must.

It’s too good for them,

they look so unattractive undressed –

let them read paperbacks!

A few things to keep in readiness –

a flensing knife, a ceiling mirror,

a cassette of The Broken Heart.

More luncheons than lust,

more meetings on Northern Line stations,

more discussions of children’s careers.

A postcard from years back –

I’m twenty-one, in Italy and in love!

Wagner wrote Tristan at forty-four.

Trying it with noises and in strange positions,

trying it with the young themselves,

trying to keep it up with the Jonses!

All words and no play,

all animals fleeing a forest fire,

all Apollo’s grafters running.

Back to the dream in the garden,

back to the pictures in the drawer,

back to back, tonight and every night.

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