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PALACES AND PRAYER-WHEELS
April 25, 2010 - 8:01pm

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Peter Porter, a poet born in Australia but resident mainly in England, has died, at 81.

Here's one of his poems -- a poem about poetry, but also I think about art generally.

this page insists that i explain myself

This page insists that I explain myself

my poems are over-structured, I am told
but I’m only making good use of my brain

the letters I send you never say
what I want to say, but does it matter
since I write to you concerning me

I let these poems fill-in the proper forms
space is tight, rectangles
for iambs, occasionally trochees
keeping rhythm steady on its feet

but somebody says to be serious
is the way to control your poems – Frost,
Edward Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Graves –
always out there on the track
audiences cheering them on forever

the loneliness of the long-dictioned rhymer
dining out with novelists and critics –
consider what happens when our words
become professional – literature
forgets it’s feudal, its narrow kingdom
of palaces and prayer-wheels

*********************************

This could be any artist, really -- a painter, a composer --waving off someone who wants you to explain your work, express what you have to express, in propositional statements.

What this person really wants you to do, if you're a poet, is provide long lines of declarative utterances so that the poem loses its terse ambiguity, its withheld, suggestive feel.

In another poem, Wittgenstein's Dream, Porter writes, "We live stupidly / But are redeemed by what cannot be said." Poetry's redemptive power derives from its strange ability to evoke in words what cannot really be worded. It approaches truth in the only way we can approach it if we want to honor its depth -- obliquely.

No surprise, then, that the Telegraph's obituary writer remarks:

Porter always claimed to dislike confessional poetry and was suspicious of the artist as "sacred beast or tortured drunk", the sort of creature, he observed witheringly, "they admire in America."

**************************************

The whole poem is a refusal to confess, a refusal to "say / What I want to say."

It's even a rebellion. Note that in response to being told that his "poems are overstructured," he writes a belligerently overstructured poem, each stanza having one more line than the stanza before it. It's as if he's saying I won't be one of those long-distance line-runners, but I'll tease you with a certain opening up, an expansion of line...

He's playing, that is. He's not "serious" in the sense that his poems are urging some attitude toward war or morality or God: "I'm only making good use of my brain." He lets the poem write the poem, lets the challenging constraint of form lead the way:

I let these poems fill-in the proper forms
space is tight, rectangles
for iambs, occasionally trochees
keeping rhythm steady on its feet

Space is tight, and he likes it that way; it forces implication upon him, and in this way seems to produce language that feels closer to the way things really are.

Other poets might, like novelists and critics, express things with thorough description and analysis. They are long-distance runners, pounding the ground of their ideas again and again:

always out there on the track
audiences cheering them on forever
the loneliness of the long-dictioned rhymer
dining out with novelists and critics –

But this makes our words professional, public. It makes our poems professions as well as confessions. Professions of ethical preferences, political beliefs... Professors profess knowledge. But poets are something of a throwback in this regard. They live in a feudal (note the whisper of few) world of magic and mystery:

literature
forgets it’s feudal, its narrow kingdom
of palaces and prayer-wheels

 

 

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