Archives for posts with tag: Peter Porter

While walking to work on Monday, I heard an interview with the rapper Professor Green on the morning news. The singer’s father committed suicide six years ago, an event that he is still trying to come to terms with. Professor Green hosts a BBC Radio 1 documentary programme on suicide survivors, which commenced this week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03q0xdx).

In the BBC news interview, Professor Green spoke of the impact his father’s suicide has had on him, and the range of emotions he has experienced in its aftermath. Initially angry with his father, he now realises the complexity of the issues surrounding suicide and suicide attempts, and concludes that:

‘I don’t want to get too wrapped up in trying to understand why Dad did what he did. To hold on to that would be detrimental to me.’

Suicide is indeed complex – and individual – on every level, and its aftermath can be devastating for those affected. I have known people who have committed suicide, work colleagues who I was friendly with although not close to, and I found each event deeply distressing. I have no moral contentions with suicide. As with most decisions humans have the right to make, suicide is for me is an exclusively personal decision, and one that is the prerogative of the sufferer. Although the aftermath of the event will inevitably ripple and devastate far, this consequence is rarely something that those contemplating suicide can actually register within their own overwhelming distress.

A few months ago I was in the front carriage of a tube that came to a sudden stop just outside a station. Someone had jumped in front of the train. Shortly afterwards, we were ushered off the train through the driver’s carriage, acutely aware that a body lay just beneath us. I have no idea who that person was or why he/she decided to commit suicide. Nonetheless, I walked away from that train station distressed and profoundly sad, and also burdened by the disturbing realisation that we must have known about the death of someone unknown to us before relatives had been informed.

I have been reading Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note and this week came across Virginia Woolf’s letter to her husband Leonard written on the day she committed suicide.

Woolf’s final act appears to have been a very deliberate and thought-through one. She had already attempted suicide just a few days before she succeeded. The letter that she left for her husband feels considered, almost rational in its conclusion that death was the only conceivable option:

‘I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel certain that we can’t go through another of those terrible times.’

‘So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.’

The letter also attempts to unburden Leonard of any consequent guilt:

‘What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.’

‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

Not surprisingly, guilt is something that is often expressed by those close to suicide victims. The poet Peter Porter refers to it in his collection The Cost of Seriousness, whose ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife, Jannice’, who killed herself in 1974:

‘Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private’ (from An Exequy)

Words from those who are about to commit suicide, and those who suffer in its aftermath, speak to the complexity of the trauma and distress that surrounds the issue. Its very ‘unknowingness’ as well our inevitable resorting to ‘what if’ questions point to our need to understand, and of course to prevent, where possible, the act.

Perhaps Professor Green’s documentary on the subject will shed some light…

CQ

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