This collection from the Australian poet Peter Porter (who lived in Paddington, London, from 1968 until his death in 2010) first appeared in 1978.

The Cost of Seriousness was written in the aftermath of tragedy, Porter’s wife having committed suicide in 1974. In the preface, the poet states that the book’s ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife.’ This is most overtly seen in two laments, An Exequy and The Delegate.

From An Exequy:

‘In wet May, in months of change,

In a country you wouldn’t visit, strange

Dreams pursue me in my sleep,

Black creatures of the upper deep –

Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography…’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private…

…The channels of our lives are blocked,

The hand is stopped upon the clock,

No-one can say why hearts will break

And marriages are all opaque:

A map of loss, some posted cards,

The living house reduced to shards,

The abstract hell of memory,

The pointlessness of poetry – ….’

Despite this last line, Porter viewed poetry as “a tub into which you can pour anything”.

For poets (Christopher Reid’s A Scattering comes to mind), writing about traumatic life experiences appears to be less an issue of choice than a compulsion. For Porter:

“I never intended to make those events my subject…but there was a compulsion, something my better self couldn’t suppress. It’s not a question of telling the truth or a lie; it’s not even a question of special pleading. It’s a question of the mind being forced to find a way of dealing with something, not in extenuation and not in therapy, but as a means of presenting the material to itself. I was writing for myself. Poetry was its own answer, its own end.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/feb/07/peter-porter-interview-poetry)

The poet Christopher Reid, whose collection A Scattering concerns his wife Lucinda’s illness, dying and the aftermath of her death, said something not so dissimilar:

“[Poems] must be truthful and they must have a specific formal beauty to them. It is when you bring these two things together – deep emotion and technique – that you get something genuine.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/oct/28/christopher-reid-life-in-writing)

And that is largely why I love poetry and why it is so important in my life: its capacity to combine the aesthetic with the authentic to create something real and immediate, and its potential to communicate that which might otherwise elude language and a shareable experience.

CQ

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