Thursday, 19 February 2009
Yesterday we went down to London to celebrate Peter Porter's eightieth birthday at the October Gallery. It was also the launch of his new book Better than God. The October Gallery is very near Faber's, just off Queen's Square.
Guest list? Fleur Adcock, Penelope Shuttle, Kit Wright, Ruth Fainlight, Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, David Harsent, Elaine Feinstein, Hugo Williams, Wendy Cope, Tim Liardet, Martin Bax, Alan Brownjohn, Fiona Sampson, Anthony Thwaite, Ann Thwaite, Helen Simpson... I don't know. Lots of people. Think of a name and drop it. It's a party so we drift around talking that peculiar party talk which is nothing much except a form of acknowledgment. Nobody is doing deals or is after anything, except one elderly artist-translator who clearly fancies C and attempts to exercise elderly wolf charm. I look on and think, he's quite good at this, and it is sort of charming, but he is not going to get anywhere, nor does he think he is going to get anywhere. It's a show of resistance to the flesh the grave cave ate or is going to eat, so go to it. And I think of my father as he was even a few years ago in the supermarket at the cold shelf. You are looking very lovely today, he addresses the woman behind the counter. Ah, what it is to be young. Surely you are not going to charge me £3.75 for that ham. He knows she has to charge what she charges, so does she, but the cavalier doffs his dusty old hat and that's not as it should not be.
Porter is eighty. I remember his seventieth and his sixtieth too. I remember my own sixtieth far more clearly, of course, but when one lines the decades up like that there doesn't seem much difference. Back in 1973 when I was just twenty-four and he was forty-four he would meet me in a nearby pub and talk about the poems I had sent him. He was very generous and helpful. I learned a great deal from him. Sometimes we talked about art, particularly Italian Renaissance art which he loved and I taught, but his knowledge of music and history too was extraordinary - and still is.
Very soon after we met his first wife, Janice, died. I met her just once at their flat - which is where he still lives - a place full of music. The book that eventually followed her death, The Cost of Seriousness, is one of the major books of the post-war period, certainly one of the most moving.
Peter doesn't normally do 'moving'. Chiefly he does 'thinking', with a mind that carries vast freight very quickly. I think chiefly of Browning, but also, to some degree of Auden, and then again of Dryden. The Cost of Seriousness was all the more powerful for that breaking of barriers, the thought surging in on tides of feeling.
There is a special issue of Poetry Review to celebrate his eightieth to which I have contributed a set of poems on one of his favourite painters, Pontormo. I won't put them here until they appear there first. In the meantime, Very Happy birthday, Peter.
There are some poems of his here.