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This report is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.

Peter Porter and Music William Poulos
Like a kookaburra’s laugh, Peter Porter’s poetry is musical but not entirely euphonic. Even in his ‘mature’ poetry we find lines such as, ‘Then, beside the church where a clapped-out pigeon fell / to be picked up by a not-very-poor-looking Italian – was…’ and ‘open the dictionary of discontinuity’. One can barely say these lines, but they were written by a poet who collaborated with many composers and said that the poet should prioritise sound over meaning, ‘follow[ing] the tread of language rather than the thread of thought’. Porter’s moderated mellifluousness was evident early. I only had to read the last stanza from ‘Who Gets the Pope’s Nose?’ once before it was permanently in my head:

And high above Rome in a room with a wireless
    The Pope also waits to die.
    God is the heat in July
And the iron band of pus tightening in the chest.
Of all God’s miracles, death is the greatest.

One of the best things about this stanza is the full stop after ‘die’ which is as affecting as a rest in a melody. Recognising, however, that music’s power comes from a combination of consonance and dissonance, Porter, even at his most lyrical, was often raucous. This makes him a more musical poet than, say, Tennyson. His models were composers; he often spoke admiringly of Bach and Schubert, who wrote so much yet strained so little, and his volume of output and speed of composition were attempts to imitate them. He thought that music was the transcendental ...


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