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Think poetry is in decline? Try reading Peter Porter

Collected Poems, by Peter Porter. New York: Oxford University Press. 335 pp. $7.95 (paperback). Fast Forward, by Peter Porter. New York: Oxford University Press. 62 pp. $7.95 (paper).

Peter Porter writes the kind of poems that make you want to call up your friend long-distance and say, ``Just listen to this,'' especially when your friend is the kind of person who says things like ``Poetry is dead, man.''

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Porter has at least 10 books to his name, and his gift of phrase is evident in every one. The art of his phrase involves mixing levels of diction, among other things. The demotic and the vulgar jostle with sonorous Latinisms (hope with esperance ); the obscene with the Olympian. A poem that begins, ``Nobody feels well after his fortieth birthday,'' ends ``He has learned/ How to live another day and wakes, ringed/ By the golden wallpaper of the sun.'' If you don't feel that last bit, you don't like poetry.

Before I mention the cats that populate Mr. Porter's poems, a word about tradition. Porter is an Australian. What is the poetic tradition of Australia? That's like asking, ``What is the poetic tradition of Bakersfield?'' Mr. Porter has published a book of translations, and he quotes German and Italian phrases; there is no lack of tradition. Fans of Auden should love Porter. The translations are pointedly from the Latin of Martial, whose epigrams, now that I have been reading Mr. Porter, look a lot like poems by Mr. Porter. Martial is perhaps the last great Roman poet; because he was a wit and not infrequently obscene, there are those who doubt his greatness. There are, however, enough chaste poems to fill out a section of the Latin textbooks, and the bright kids know where to get the others.

Martial's genius was to be funny -- that is, witty and sad at the same time. Porter is likewise a sad poet, a rueful commentator on himself and everybody else. In the middle of a poem called ``The Unlucky Christ,'' he says, ``What I am thinking/ may be blasphemy, that I/ am like him'' because he ``cannot/ let go of unhappiness.'' The poem ends on a savagely happy note.

His new book, ``Fast Forward,'' is blurbed, naturally, with the promise of ``a change of direction in his poetry.'' I assure you, this is ridiculous and false. Mr. Porter is simply getting funnier and sadder with time. Take those cats. A poem called ``Doll's House'' opens with ``the haunting of our cats''; in a breathtaking and rather breathless new poem, ``the cats of Campagnatico'' become, after six and a half lines of loving, irreverent description, ``the dialectic/ Of survival.'' The final poem in ``Fast Forward'' rephrases an earlier salute -- ``our dainty-footed man's companion'' -- to ``feral cats (a silly name/ For constant friends).''

Whatever the blurber meant about a change in direction, the cats are a constant.

So are the gods. Like the cats that haunt his poems, the gods are more than antique furniture. In ``La D'eploration sur la mort d'Igor Stravinsky,'' we read, I bless the imps of time who set his brain to ring before self-murder got into aesthetics and the God of Lyre-Strikers was known as Environment.

``Imps of time'' is one name for the many-named host. Mr. Porter's divinities are real, objective; and they have good ears for verse. In the middle of the ``Collected Poems'' one finds this (Section 11 of ``The Porter Song Book''): It is titled just ``Poetry.''

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An old art spreading rumors about Paradise, it begs outside the gates Of the gods: the active gods come out.

No, my friend, poetry isn't dead; and everything Mr. Porter says in ``Poetry'' is true.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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