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This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.


Peter Porter’s eighteenth collection of poetry, published to coincide with his eightieth birthday, finds him at his wriest and most intelligent. Age has become the wasteland in which he must live and write and faced with the unreliable forecasts and plummeting temperatures of a place beyond geography - ‘the Great Nowhere’, as he has characterised it, clinging to the underside of a minor star - Porter carries with him all the civilising impedimenta of artistic civilisation: rhyme largely pure but also slant, rhyming of the tonic vowel, rhyming of the vowel and following consonant, rhyming of vowel and preceding syllable - all species of rhyme - plus the subtlest architecture of his syllabics.

This is quite the best strategy for Porter to adopt because no one I can think of can hear homophony in the way he does. Few books can have put on display such a wealth of phonic unity: what Porter does, quite simply, is to create a new language which has rhyme as one of its natural characteristics. In this way, he resuscitates rhyme - makes it not merely a way of structuring a poem’s aesthetic space, within which each word softly finds its mate without disfiguring the diction, but a means of expanding the rhyme lexicon itself. The structural and ornamental devices of verbal configuration in these poems are brought into play in the least obtrusive way possible, nowhere more delicately submerged than in ‘A Minatory Submission’:

Desire to overcome the vanity
Of soul is what drives humans on to sex -
Just so the mariners of an Inland Sea
Declare when shown the ocean’s vast complex […]

In fact, the challenges such devices pose him become a kind of new experimentalism. For a poet on his eighteenth book, what this signals - and it is a truth that renews itself with every turn of the page - is unappeasable ambition. His ars materia is ‘all the fuel of living’ and what sets Porter apart from his contemporaries and the younger generations that tread warily behind him is the monumental nature of his phenomenological passion.

In pursuit of his belief that all poems must be beautiful, no matter what subject they explore, Porter is the master of coruscating surface. He goes further than Eliot, however, who argued that when a great poem is truly experienced the words are not for a moment seen by the eye. Mastered form for Porter, as he makes clear in ‘No Infelicitous Phrases Need Apply’, becomes a sort of Eden in which ‘the whole close patterning is seen at once. / Everything is perfect, and of no concern.’ What he strives for in formal excellence is not merely the effects of its sound but what he calls in the same poem the ‘Lyric density of weightlessness’.

This new collection, moreover, establishes beyond all doubt that Peter Porter is the most consistently civic poet currently writing in English. He has, unlike most poets, always taken this responsibility upon himself, but perhaps now, as elder statesman, more than ever. This means he has to be up to speed with the music of what happens: in Better than God iPods and Anger Management are there in the sauna with Horace, Henry James, George Crabbe and Dostoyevsky. He is the only poet who can take on the obligations of concentrating such wide concerns under one roof. I don’t know quite how he is able to use the interlocutory ‘we’ as if it is in his genetics without once striking a portentous note but that’s exactly what he does. The satirical tongue can still wag beautifully, as in ‘Anger’s Anger Management’, laced with an undisguisable Porterian tone:

Described Depression as the New Self-Pity,
Agreed our lions still are donkey-led,
Wished Asbos on the Turner Prize Committee,
Screened female columnists with precise disaste,
Winced at clubbers jetting to the Med:
Was seen at Paddington, rabid and red-faced […]

Porter can also be very moving, and some of these new poems are the most moving he has written since his celebrated book The Cost of Seriousness. Too many of his poems have often kept me awake with their haunting emotional exactitudes and tender reveries of honesty but in Better than God, his best and most wide-ranging collection to date, the undertow of emotion draws through the whole book. This is never more the case than in the elegy to his father ‘Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy’ - with its hypnotic use of slant rhyme, understatement and stripped diction the poem is suffused to bursting point, like many others, with a kind of muted longing:

Later, his Nursing Home was steeped in garden gloom,
a shaven lawn devoid of flowers - for ten years
he surveyed it from one room.


This review is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

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