Books: A satirical wizard from Oz

Lachlan Mackinnon wishes a fine poet a happy 70th birthday - and curses his publisher
Click to follow
Collected Poems by Peter Porter

Oxford University Press, 2 volumes, pounds 25, 404 & 384pp

POETRY, PETER Porter has written, "is paid to distract us, / to tell the man disappointed by his mother/ that he too can be a huge cry- baby". Porter's own mother died when he was nine, and her ghost stalks much of his earlier work. However, these lines appeared in The Cost of Seriousness (1978), in which Porter confronted the suicide of his first wife. Even the hostile Craig Raine admitted it had moments of "great poetry", and I am not the first reviewer to draw attention to the lines:

I owe a death to you - one day

The time will come for me to pay

When your slim shape from photographs

Stands at my door and gently asks

If I have any work to do

Or will I come to bed with you.

Repetition does not tire this memory; Porter's ability to reach for it through grief and anger was an achievement needing only the simplest words to be made memorable.

Simplicity, however, has rarely been Porter's strong point. Since he arrived from Australia on 19 February 1951, three days after his 22nd birthday, Porter has made himself an uncomfortable part of the English cultural furniture. As a poetry reviewer with a rather narrow taste, a critic of opera and music and book-reviewer, he has dissented from much fashionable rubbish, but as a poet he has never quite been assimilated. His early work was predominantly satirical, vexed by the insouciance of the inheriting classes. I remember reading his derisive line about the young returning from London to their ancestral homes, "the bongos fading on the road to Haslemere", in a public- school study near Godalming, the air thick with rock, and feeling Porter didn't understand his adopted country; 25 years later, I fear he was righter than I.

Porter's accuracy came out of a remarkable autodidacticism. Having no university education, he set out to master European art with the hunger of an earlier passionate tourist, TS Eliot. Unlike Eliot, he was as engaged by the minor as by the major, which makes the frame of reference of his poems unusually wide. One often wonders whether the most apparently passionate utterance should be attributed not to the author but to a character: say, a minor 18th-century composer. Anyone who calls this elitist misses the point: Porter has trudged the galleries, heard the records and done the reading. If we don't, so much the worse for us.

That Porter and his characters are hard to tell apart is a consequence of his lack of dramatic imagination. To compensate for this, he uses allegory, and often we find abstractions taking on unusual vitality. In "The Golden Age of Criticism", Porter finds that "among the factories of Arcadia some are working/ at packing time into its crates of knowledge". Porter's distaste for the academic is voiced with equable humour, as in his vision of critics singing

hymns to old humanity, the gods

that rise in rivers, shepherds calling to/ their flocks across a sculpted quadrangle.

I only find one poem in these nearly 800 pages in which Porter lets his evident lyrical bent loose, "Waiting for Rain in Devon". In Spirit in Exile: Peter Porter and his poetry (1991), Bruce Bennett tells us that this refers to the drought of 1976, which the poem does not say. This brief piece ends:

Something has emerged from dreams

to show us where we are going.

a journey to a desolate star.

Come back, perennial rain,

stand your soft sculptures in our gardens

for the barefoot frogs to leap.

The omnipresence of death is a frequent topic; "soft sculptures" must make us think of Claes Oldenburg. The allusion is easy, though, and rapidly gathered into the sensory immediacy of "barefoot". If one were to attack Porter's work, it would be by saying that all too often his moral and cultural responsibility has exacted "The Cost of Seriousness" and that here, for once, it does not.

I do not make such an attack. Rather, I want to praise the intelligence, variety, humanity and sheer interest by which most of these poems live. Their occasional limitations reflect the pressures of the age as much as the author's imperfections. Equally, the misprints which litter the second volume are, I suspect, his publisher's fault as much as his.

This ample boxed set will be the last significant publication of poetry by OUP, which has decided to abandon contemporary verse. Buy it now, as the Press is unlikely to reprint it. If you would rather read about Porter than read him, you can wait, as Oxford is keeping Bennett's critical biography in print. Oxford is, it seems, happy to make money out of this major writer's work so long as it doesn't actually publish it. Academic parasitism rarely walked so naked. Porter's attack on English culture is vindicated by the contempt "his publisher of nearly 40 years" (as OUP puts it) has shown for the art he has served so well - and, indeed, for him.

Lachlan Mackinnon