Better Than God, By Peter Porter

Like Auden, but without the silliness
Click to follow

This is the sure-footed poetry of a long-distance runner. Peter Porter came to England from Brisbane at the beginning of the 1950s. He has been publishing collections of poetry at fairly regular intervals ever since. He is a poet who has been profoundly embedded in European life, and who has also enjoyed taking pot shots at it. Call him the well-rooted exile.

Porter’s poetry is not arcane. With a Porter poem, you never find yourself asking, as you do of much contemporary poetry: what is this all about? It is not embroiled in subjectivity. His poems always have a subject, and always seem to be questing for an answer.

At heart, Porter is a moralist. He is always out in the breezy world of now, with its new and ever-expanding vocabularies. In Better Than God I spotted, for example, the words bling, detox, download and broadband. He looks at this world, turning it back and forth, forever scrutinising man’s odd vanities.

Is this an 18th-century vision? It feels so, at least in part. The matter is often quite cerebral, but the tone always sounds reasonable, the manner conversational, expository, unhectic – and never beyond us, unless we are completely stupid, don’t read newspapers, and don’t notice what is going on in the world. The conversation between the poet and his readers always feels sane and direct – never wayward, wilfully obscurantist or intemperately visionary.

Porter never makes us feel inadequate, as if we don’t yet know enough to spend time with him. He has much in common with Auden – other critics have said this – but, unlike the older Auden, he has not descended into silliness. He doesn’t coin preposterous words for their own sakes, or write light verse as funny as an anonymous passing fart. He lacks vanity and has kept his sense of judgement.

Better Than God is a very companionable book, beautifully wrought, in which, as in all good poetry, language is held to account. It must be a pleasure to enjoy observing the sheer baleful comedy of the young up to their mad antics.