The Survival of Poetry

October 2002, no. 245

The Survival of Poetry

October 2002, no. 245

Some years ago I wrote a poem called ‘A Table of Coincidences’, which contained the lines: ‘the day Christopher Columbus discovered America / Was the day Piero della Francesca died.’ This is a verifiable fact, unless changes in the Western calendar have altered things. Clearly, I was being sententious and reactionary: the ancient good of the world and its new doubtfulness seemed to start on the one day. A hostile reviewer pointed out that every date in the world is the anniversary of some other date, and poured scorn on my notion by suggesting that a momentous event like the Armistice in 1918 might share a date with the invention of Coca-Cola. But we still honour anniversaries, and I am only too conscious of the 365 days that have passed since 11 September 2001.

Let me remind you, however, of a different anniversary. Fifty years earlier, on 11 September 1951, Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress was given its première at Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The Twin Towers was a calamity: The Rake’s Progress, a celebration. The world is always ending and beginning. All writers, but especially poets, only comment on the world: they are seldom good at causing things to happen. This essay continues the sententiousness of the self-quotation I began with: from the Iliad to King Lear to Fredy Neptune and Mercian Hymns, poetry goes on being the world’s most unquenchable commentator. We may be tempted to say, rather sniffily, that it tends to be ‘the Questioner who sits so sly’, or we may puritanically rebuke it in the person of Thersites in Troilus and Cressida – ‘nothing but wars and lechery’ – but it does us the signal service of miniaturising our pain while intensifying our feelings. It has survived thousands of years of being ignored by the history-makers, who might discover, if they came back, that its ‘out-of-the-corner-of-the-mouth’ commentary is all they have to be remembered by.

Hence my title, ‘The Survival of Poetry’. Since devising it, however, I have been visited by a second phrase, which I offer now as an illustrative subtitle, ‘Postponing Apocalypse’. Firstly, a brief cleansing of the verbal stable: I will not employ the word ‘terrorism’ after this one reference. I will take the world’s criminal hostilities for granted, but I shall try to outline how what has already been written and what we shall go on writing, however desperate the political reality, will help us cope with life in its normal, as well as its extreme, states. My fundamental conviction about literature, an art that finds its apotheosis in poetry, is that it makes the world manageable. All art depends on exaggeration in the sense that you must cram into a short space a history and a sensibility that belong to, and act over, a greatly extended one, perhaps even a lifetime. Writing about Australian spiders, I inadvertently offered a definition: ‘A metaphor is when you have one space / To fill and all of life to file away.’ Continuing from this, it follows that the exaggeration of the moment is a slowing-down of the future. Pace our professional futurologists, I continue to believe that art is anachronistic; it lives in a permanent present, and thus is always relevant.

For instance, history does not teach us to avoid the mistakes of the past, but instead tells them to us as if they are happening now. Our bias is to force acceptance on pious reluctance: we must relate these stories like one of those breathless messengers who are always bursting onto the stage in Greek drama and unfolding the horrors which convention does not permit to be shown. I promise that I shall be quoting from many poets in this essay, and apologise that the following examples come from my own work. I have chosen two short poems showing how a modern writer may look to calamitous events and add to their urgency. I doubt that they greatly quicken human understanding, but they certainly try to encapsulate it and, in the process, add a tangent to their circuit.

The first poem, entitled ‘May, 1945’, pictures the final defeat of Nazism in Germany. It is a roughcast sonnet:

As the Allied tanks trod Germany to shard
and no man had seen a fresh-pressed uniform
for six months, as the fire storm
bit out the core of Dresden yard

by yard, as farmers hid turnips for the After-War,
as cadets going to die passed Waffen SS
tearing identifications from their battledress,
the Russians only three days from the Brandenburger Tor

in the very hell of sticks and blood and brick dust
as Germany the Phoenix burned, the wraith
of History pursed its lips and spoke, thus:

To go with teeth and toes and human soap,
the radio will broadcast Bruckner’s Eighth
so that good and evil may die in equal hope.

Then a later poem, ‘And No Help Came’. The title is the second part of a line in W.H. Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’, an unforgiving vision of human brutality from the time of Homer to the extermination camps of World War II. Speaking of history’s victims, Auden writes: ‘They ... could not hope for help and no help came.’ My poem extends this helplessness to art itself. I have said that art (poetry in my case) slows down the future, but it must be admitted that it also emphasises tragedy. It cannot truly say consoler toujours. But it fills in the corners of the picture magically. Whether the beautiful, or even the cathartic, justifies the detachment of the artist is the subject of my poem:

Where would you look for blessing who are caught
In published acres of millennia
By ravishments of salt and raucous saints
Or janissaries drilling a Big Bang?
The parish of the poor you’d seek, far from
The high grandstands of words and notes and paints:

And when you drove your flagged and honking jeep
Among the huts of starving, brutalized
Dependants, you might chance to hear them playing
Sentimental songs of flowers and moons
Chiefly to keep them safe from art, whose gods
Build palaces adorned with scenes of flaying.

Hard cases make bad law, and poetry tends to deal with hard cases. But I don’t think this poem contradicts my contention that poetry also keeps us sane in the face of Apocalypse. That often it cannot help directly becomes a different kind of help; it could be likened to that ‘Internal Exile’ spoken of by citizens of tyrannical régimes. For both philosophers and theologians, death and the rest of the panoply of eschatology are compulsory topics, and ones hardly available of solution. You can transcend death only by imagining what lies behind it. Which is something you cannot know definitely.

It is required, therefore, that the intending transcender should be a wild man, such as St John the Divine in the Book of Revelation. More equable texts within the Christian liturgy can also summon up a promised transmogrification. One beautiful promise goes ‘In Paradisum deducant angeli’ and ends with the assurance that the deceased will enjoy ‘sempiternam requiem’, with God’s creatures ‘et cum Lazaro, quondam paupere’. Quiet prayer, however, was not St John’s style. Amidst the beasts and trumpets, and the seals to be broken, in The Apocalypse, that whole enormous paraphernalia of exaggeration, John slows down and offers us something more truly poetic: ‘Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth; for the first Heaven and the first Earth had passed away … and I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem … Behold the dwelling of God is with men … and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death.’ (I have quoted selectively from the whole of this remarkable passage.) But poetry offers a different sort of quietness, what you might call the joy of ‘not expecting to be surprised’.

William Empson wrote that death is the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun, but the late John Forbes brings a small ecstasy to unbelief well, perhaps not quite unbelief, but an ex-believer’s sense of comfort that the conquest of death is most unlikely. It is always reassuring when we encounter poetry not serving a partisan idea, if only because it is admirable that eloquence should exist without any special guarantee. Forbes’s poem is entitled ‘Death, an Ode’. In passing, it may be worth commenting on the fact that such an accomplished master of the postmodern as Forbes was surprisingly fond of writing odes:

Death, you’re more successful than America,
even if we don’t choose to join you, we do.
I’ve just become aware of this conscription
where no-one’s marble doesn’t come up;
no use carving your name on a tree, exchanging vows
or not treading on the cracks for luck
where there’s no statistical anomalies at all
& you know not the day nor the hour, or even if you do
timor mortis conturbat me. No doubt we’d
think this in a plunging jet & the black box recorder
would note each individual, unavailing scream
but what gets me is how compulsory it is
‘he never was a joiner’ they wrote on his tomb.
At least bingeing becomes heroic & I can see
why the Victorians
so loved drawn-out death-bed scenes:
huddled before our beautiful century, they knew
what first night nerves were all about.

Thus, what we cannot prevent we can laugh about, though we can’t expect the last laugh. In King Lear, the faithful Kent says: ‘I have a journey sir shortly to go / My Master calls me, I must not say No.’ But Lear is never going to be able to make it up to Cordelia, and the prig Prospero will never be forgiven by Caliban. Looking at an Arundel Tomb, Philip Larkin uncharacteristically wrote: ‘What will survive of us is love.’ I propose an emendation: ‘Blake drew the River of Life, with souls shimmying above. / What will survive of us is energy, not love.’ It is all very unfair that the idea of transcendence and the idea of eternity should be native to a species that is usually allotted only seventy-five years to experience the ground plan underlying its fond hopes.

Where then should major expectations lie? Surely not only in revealed religion. I believe that they may just as well exist in art, despite art’s esteeming beauty over justice. It is art’s (particularly poetry’s) job to fight against the ever-fixed mark, the certainty of doom. One way it does this is to appropriate to itself the licence to reorder Apocalypse. Some exaggerations are so pictorial St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins, the murder of Archimedes by an impatient Roman soldier, Baron Munchausen’s horse left hanging from a church steeple by the overnight melting of the snow that we let them past our gates of seriousness. We are sure that nothing could abate the seriousness of the events in New York City one year ago. But, in the aftermath of that catastrophe, we have witnessed the ridiculous assertion that the world has passed a new watershed of fear, together with a freezing of the veins of American compassion. The truth is that absolute horror is commonly succeeded by mindlessness. Poetry should be on duty to offer a whole range of comment on ghastliness. It is true, unfortunately, that it has done its own share of making our flesh creep with minatory prophesies. But it can amend itself and say, with a shrug, as Cavafy does, that, if the barbarians had come, they would at least have been some sort of a solution.

I must remind myself at this juncture that my essay is concerned with poetry surviving in the modern world. I am straying instead into that dangerous territory, the survival of life itself. Attrition, lack of attention and loss of its audience threaten poetry more than world disasters do. One corollary of this saddens me particularly. Whenever I meet committed persons Greens, crusading environmentalists, campaigners for refugees, and advocates of world disarmament I feel ashamed, not because I do so little to help, but, much more daunting, because I don’t believe that the art I practise is of much practical help to their causes.

Some of this anxiety is temperamental. Writers develop a habit of seeing both sides of a case; not out of fairness but to enrich their utterance. Recently, I heard Les Murray describe one aspect of his poetry that coincided exactly with my own. (I admire Les as an artist, but do not usually think of myself as being like him.) He said that, after finishing a poem, he felt an equal compulsion to write another poem which would be the first one’s opposite. I find this habit almost unavoidable, and this makes propaganda writing impossible. Art is always too complex for slogans. Where it can assist is in its enlarging of the subject; it looks around and pronounces this is what happens, short terms become long droughts, and restless ambition kills the world it seeks to dominate. Poetry is thought’s great thickener: it complicates simplicities, mocks pieties and exposes observances. It is always saying, ‘on the other hand’. At times of retreat into certainties, poetry stirs from its lair. For instance, the Renaissance got on its high horse, and the poets had to get it down again. Hamlet mocks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Claudius’s agents provocateurs, who always strike me as a cross between popular psychologists and television anchormen. He orates, sententiously: ‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god’ and so on. Courtiers of Shakespeare’s time will have expounded such shibboleths for years they are the commonplaces of orthodoxy’s PR. Hamlet reiterates them to show to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he knows what they are up to: they are spies with a consummate knowledge of what right-thinking people parrot at the drop of a hat. The irony of his speech is that his words also encapsulate the noblest expression of Renaissance thinking: they might be called the essence of humanism, on the visiting card of sages from Marsilio Ficino to Castiglione. Hamlet, however, knows that, when used at the court of King Claudius, they are just fobbings-off. They are his words and not Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s, but they are right implements to expose the hypocrisy of the two courtiers.

It’s not surprising that poets who live among powerful and dangerous rulers become masters of what you might call ‘the bent truth’. Looking into our world, with Iraq and other storms ahead, we should examine whether words which identify us as the good guys and our enemies as the bad guys might not be right emotions expressing bad intentions.

ABR Editor Peter Rose and Peter Porter in 2002ABR Editor Peter Rose and Peter Porter in 2002

In practice, almost any generation of any era lives in a state of emergency. Wordsworth worked the September Massacres of Robespierre’s France into The Prelude. He became a notorious apologist for legitimacy later on, earning Byron’s and Peacock’s contempt, but what he saw in Paris in 1793 burned in his imagination strongly enough to colour the whole of what was otherwise an essay in childhood recollection. Later in the century, Browning, the epitome of social responsibility in writing, saw the controversy between belief and scientific doubt as the right place for the poet to declare his humanity. Poem after poem of Browning’s presents heroic sceptics to us, men and women worthy of the Age of Charles Darwin. The Ring and the Book, that nineteenth-century Rashomon, devotes some 22,000 lines of dramatic monologue to illustrating the deviousness of self-interested confession. Mr Sludge the Medium, Andrea del Sarto, Caliban and Bishop Blougram accost us like so many Ancient Mariners, and, if we feel exhausted after departing from their company, we have learned at least that truth and morals are unsettled matters. Sometimes, as in Bishop Blougram’s vacillating apology, events more dire than church preferment, the Puginising of liturgy and vestments, or even imperialism versus liberal reform, are hinted at. Browning is a deceptive writer: amid the hurly-burly of muscular Christianity and the long recession of Victorian confidence, a long-maturing darkness gestures. The Bishop cannot hide all his worries beneath his loquacity:

… friend, I meet you with an answer here
That even your prime men who appraise their kind
Are men still, catch a wheel within a wheel,
See more in a truth than the truth’s simple self,
Confuse themselves. You see lads walk the street
Sixty the minute; what’s to note in that?
You see one lad o’erstride a chimney-stack;
Him you must watch he’s sure to fall, yet stands!
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
What’s the vague good o’ the world, for which you dare
With comfort to yourself blow millions up?

If this is a tremor of the Age of the Gunboat, how much more alarming must be the modern poet’s concern post-Hiroshima. Perhaps Browning used so many words because he knew that men of action distrust them and that his poetry might entrap their consciences by smothering them. Poets since Shakespeare have not generally flattered men of power, but they have also seldom arrogated power to themselves or wanted to do so. Wilfred Owen wrote about the pity of war, and said that the poetry was in the pity. I have never understood this. But I follow his next statement readily enough. All a poet can do today is to warn.

But who will take action after being warned? Owen Glendower tells his fellow conspirators in King Henry the Fourth Part One that he ‘can raise spirits from the vasty deep’. Hotspur, the epitome of North Country scepticism, responds: ‘Why so can I and so can any man but will they come?’ The critic A. Alvarez spoke of art and poetry as two sorts of Early Warning System. At least this was better than the doctrine that all art was impossible or at least impertinent after the Holocaust, but what did it really perpend? Several times already I have noticed that I am in danger of contradicting myself: I’ve alleged that art is to intensify our feeling, to warn us, to make innate knowledge renew itself before our eyes, and yet I can find no reassurance in any Early Warning System. In that splendid German Folk Poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn of St Antony of Padua preaching to the fish, we learn that the saint’s matchless eloquence entrances the fish, but that they ignore his words and continue to be as wicked as ever. Hamlet’s mother breaks down under her son’s inquisition and resolves to change her ways, but, at the play’s end, there is no suggestion that as Queen Gertrude she is not party to the King’s conspiracy.

Yet we are reformable in some ways. The slowing down of events that poetry can encompass, and the intensifying of our understanding of them as we watch their re-enactment, are more than a solace they are a rehearsal of what we will have to go through ourselves sooner or later. I am temperamentally hostile to much of W.B. Yeats’s verse, and I have no tendency to Theosophy or New Age transcendence, yet I am moved by Yeats’s poem ‘The Cold Heaven’. We will all die, and Yeats’s vision of what happens after death is impalpable. Why then, I wonder, do I find his words a stiffening of the soul’s resources against the fear of dying? Probably because there is no transmogrification; the afflatus remains of this world: there is a continuity of the amoral order of existence. More contradiction, of course: this poem is diametrically opposed to the passage I quoted earlier from the Book of Revelation. Here is the poem:

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the sky for punishment?

‘As the books say’ that simple clause could be inscribed on the coat-of-arms of literature. Both Hugo von Hofmannsthal and W.H. Auden have written that art is the bridge by which the dead return to converse with us. What they say might not be directly comforting; the comfort is in their presence, that they appear to live a little longer in us, and, vice versa, we in them.

It is this continuity the endless passage of humanity across the bridge of time that is what I mean by the Survival of Poetry. I suppose it is less than the survival of the species, though it is a form of that. I like to think of the great inheritance of literature (and of painting and music) as the nicest version of the Survival of the Fittest. The comic spirit, always teasing seriousness in artists’ minds, suggests other and more deviant principles: The Survival of the Fruitfulest, The Survival of the Fastest, even The Survival of the Fattest this last in the sense of those who bring the richest hoard of feeling to their task. Perhaps our university English departments and the compilers of curricula for education should look at poetry as Variations on a Theme that theme being the fact that we are trapped on this earth, each and every one of us delivered here without our consent. The theme may seem impossibly wide and my metaphor may be stretching things too far, but there is a simple ground base underlying all that happens above. Bach’s Goldberg Variations provides an excellent template. His simple aria is developed into wonderfully diverse structures, but this richness is underpinned by an equally simple harmonic support, which is also expanded in intricate ways. Bach creates his world out of basic necessities. In a sense, the whole of literature is a huge thematic anthology, one in which you can find explanations of saints and heroes at one place, and (say) Donald Rumsfeld at another.


I acknowledge that I am generalising too much, and that modern taste prefers literary talks to concern themselves with more up-to-the-minute matters, such as Style Wars, Celebrity Tables and Power Games. I haven’t mentioned the New Formalism, Language Poetry, Rap, the Nationalist Grid, Lap-Dancing with Theory, Post-Colonialism etc. It’s a curious fact that apparently highbrow writers are happy enough with popular forms, and not just as relaxation. The latest dogmatists in the universities, however, are guilty of a specially modern kind of ‘treason of the clerks’ in abandoning the canon of seriousness in favour of detective stories and science fiction. I suspect that this is due less to a natural affection for popular genres than to a resentment of the hard work they had to do in order to get their jobs in the first place – this and the desire to be noticed as audacious thinkers.

In fact, if you look across the wide territory of contemporary poetry, you find that themes and styles coalesce as often as they diverge. I shall give two examples from one national poetry American in this case. The poets are Richard Wilbur and John Ashbery, a pretty antithetical pairing in most people’s eyes. But what pervades their work is Americanness, itself a recognisable, almost certificated variation of humanness. When rivalries are permitted to burn themselves out, what remains, in the two pieces I shall quote, is poetry. It is the product of observation coupling with syntax, and here it is authentically American as Huck Finn, and as human as the Old Adam. First, ‘A Summer Morning’, by Richard Wilbur:

Her young employers, having got in late
From seeing friends in town
And scraped the right front fender on the gate,
Will not, the cook expects, be coming down.

She makes a quiet breakfast for herself.
The coffee-pot is bright,
The jelly where it should be on the shelf.
She breaks an egg into the morning light.

Then, with the bread-knife lifted, stands and hears,
The sweet efficient sounds
Of thrush and catbird, and the snip of shears
Where, on the terraced backward of the grounds,

A gardener works before the heat of day.
He straightens for a view
Of the big house ascending stony-gray
Out of his beds mosaic with the dew.

His young employers having got in late,
He and the cook alone
Receive the morning on their old estate,
Possessing what the owners can but own.

A little too John Updike, perhaps, even a bit Saturday Evening Post, but also a consummate emblem of that continuous democratic spirit which has never fully vanished from America. And, I would add, worth a thousand pages of social analysis.

Ashbery is, at first acquaintance, very different. He is modern, indifferent to non sequitur, and a man for cadences rather than rhymes and formal metres. Yet hovering above him floats New England idealism, more Emerson than Thoreau. I once described Ashbery as the ‘Browning de nos jours’. It sometimes seems an accident that Browning wasn’t born in America. Ashbery’s poetry is full of the messiness of the modern world, of supermarkets and all-night diners, to go with an erudite knowledge of French painting and aesthetics. Ashbery shares with Wilbur the ability to assemble America as it really is from materials which are not necessarily American. Both are writing variations on the world’s abiding topics — class, money, love, art, extinction. The Ashbery poem I have chosen is called ‘Fear of Death’.

What is it now with me
And is it as I have become?
Is there no state free from the boundary lines
Of before and after? The window is open today

And the air pours in with piano notes
In its skirts, as though to say, ‘Look, John,
I’ve brought these and these’ – that is,
A few Beethovens, some Brahmses,

A few choice Poulenc notes …
Yes, It is being free again, the air, it has to keep coming
back Because that’s all it’s good for.
I want to stay with it out of fear

That keeps me from walking up certain steps,
Knocking at certain doors, fear of growing old
Alone, and of finding no one at the evening end
Of the path except another myself

Nodding a curt greeting: ‘Well, you’ve been awhile
But now we’re back together, which is what counts.’
Air in my path, you could shorten this,
But the breeze has dropped, and silence is the last word.


It seems the right time, near the end of this piece, to tidy up my secondary title, ‘Postponing Apocalypse’. ‘Our news is seldom good,’ as Auden wrote, and ours is getting worse by the day. Where does poetry lie in all this? Perhaps its chief virtue is its irrelevance in the eyes of policymakers. You might almost say that it has its own priorities, even in disaster. It faces the terrible times, but sees different aspects of them. The world’s tragedies fit human life less well than its comedies do, or so it seems to me. Tragedy gives catharsis, but comedy represents the way we live now and have always lived. And comedy is sadder. Comedy is both energy and love.

I have chosen two poems to emphasise what love can speculate on in the face of Apocalypse. The first is probably the last poetry Shakespeare ever wrote. Scholars still dispute his contribution to the play The Two Noble Kinsmen, first acted in 1613, after his retirement from the London stage. Certainly, most of the play is from the hand of John Fletcher, who had taken over from Shakespeare as the Globe Theatre’s regular scriptwriter. But certain passages could not be by anyone but Shakespeare. The plot is derived from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and concerns the rivalry of two friends, Palamon and Arcite, for the love of Emilia. In the last act, each paladin prays to his goddess for victory in a joust to determine to whom the lady should give her hand. Arcite prays to Mars, Palamon to Venus. Palamon’s petitionary speech is Shakespeare’s most powerful description of love; not a comfortable portrayal, but not a tragic one. Instead, it describes the net in which humanity is trapped – it transcends Apocalypse and brings us out the other side of transfiguration. It simply points to mankind and states that this is what Adam and Eve have brought us to:

Hail, sovereign queen of secrets, who hast power
To call the fiercest tyrant from his rage
And weep unto a girl; that hast the might
Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars’s drum
And turn the ‘alarm’ to whispers; that canst make
A cripple flourish with his crutch, and cure him
Before Apollo; that mayst force the king
To be his subject’s vassal, and induce
Stale gravity to dance; the polled bachelor –
Whose youth like wanton boys through bonfires,
Have skipped thy flame – at seventy thou canst catch,
And make him, to the scorn of his hoarse throat,
Abuse young lays of love: what godlike power
Hast thou not power upon? To Phoebus thou
Add’st flames hotter than his; the heavenly fires
Did scorch his mortal son, thine him; the huntress,
All moist and cold, some say, began to throw
Her bow away and sigh. Take to thy grace
Me, thy vowed soldier, who do bear thy yoke
As ’twere a wreath of roses, yet is heavier
Than lead itself, stings more than nettles.
I have never been foul-mouthed against thy law;
Nev’r revealed secret, for I knew none; would not,
Had I kenned all that were. I never practised
Upon man’s wife, nor would the libels read
Of liberal wits. I never at great feasts
Sought to betray a beauty, but have blushed
At simp’ring sirs that did. I have been harsh
To large confessors, and have hotly asked them
If they had mothers – I had one, a woman,
And women ’twere they wronged. I knew a man
Of eighty winters – this I told them – who
A lass of fourteen brided; ’Twas thy power
To put life into dust. The agèd cramp
Had screwed his square foot round;
The gout had knit his fingers into knots;
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture. This anatomy
Had by his young fair fere a boy, and I
Believed it was his, for she swore it was,
And who would not believe her? Brief, I am
To those that prate and have done, no companion;
To those that boast and have not, a defier;
To those that would and cannot, a rejoicer.
Yea, him I do not love that tells close offices
The foulest way, nor names concealments in
The boldest language; Such a one I am,
And vow that lover never yet made sigh
Truer than I. O then, most soft sweet goddess,
Give me the victory of this question, which
Is true love’s merit, and bless me with a sign
Of thy great pleasure.

O thou that from eleven to ninety reign’st
In mortal bosoms, whose chase is this world
And we in herds thy game, I give thee thanks
For this fair token, which being laid unto
Mine innocent true heart, arms in assurance
My body to this business. Let us rise
And bow before thy goddess. Time comes on.

Next, in an outrageous juxtaposition, I am returning to verse of my own. The poem is, for me, unusually personal. Shakespeare limns both the power of love and its brutalities. My short piece looks at the misery that follows the death of love. It points away from global Apocalypse to the individual fate that awaits everyone. The title comes from an aria in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. The slave-girl Liù, who loves Prince Calaf helplessly, tries to warn him not to risk attempting the riddling test that will gain him marriage to Princess Turandot. Calaf sees her crying, and says Non piangere, Liù. Don’t cry. This is the poem:

A card comes to tell you
you should report
to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire
and the only tears, which soon dried,
fell in the chapel.

Other things still come –
invoices, subscription renewals,
shiny plastic cards promising credit –
not much for a life spent
in the service of reality.

You need answer none of them
Nor my asking you for one drop
of succour in my own hell.

Do not cry, I tell myself,
the whole thing is a comedy
and comedies end happily.

The fire will come out of the sun
and I shall look in the heart of it.

On this anniversary, I think of both worldly disaster and human resilience. At the Fenice Theatre on the first night of The Rake’s Progress, the genius of two creators, Auden and Stravinsky, reminded the world of the inexorability of fate and the resistance to it of art. In the brothel scene, one of the wittiest and most moving moments in modern music, the Devil, in the shape of Tom Rakewell’s servant Nick Shadow, conducts him through a cynical catechism of love. The followers of Venus serenade him to the bed of the Madam of the brothel, Mother Goose. ‘What will she do when they sit at table?’ the chorus asks, and answers itself: ‘Eat as much as she is able.’ ‘What will he do when they lie in bed? / Draw his sword and cut off her head.’ And as they retire, The Devil sings a lullaby: ‘Sweet dreams, my Master. Dreams may lie. But dream, for when you wake you die.’

Poetry and music combine to tell us the worst, and console us at the same time with the best.

Peter Porter delivered ‘The Survival of Poetry’ as the inaugural La Trobe University/Australian Book Review Annual Lecture in Melbourne on 11 September 2002.

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