Thursday, 6 September 2012

Frogs outside Barbischio (Peter Porter)

Some notes on Peter Porter’s poem ‘Frogs outside Barbischio’

Barbischio is part of Chianti in the heart of Tuscany, as is evident from the descriptions in the poem too, so we are in the Porter ‘paradise’ of Italy. As well as being about frogs, the poem has certain humans who are frogs, frogs who are engaged in the activity of art, and in particular writing. In my view, the grandfather frog is PP wistfully looking at his younger self, the frog who writes his anatomy of melancholy. Once more, 17th century England meets 20th century Italy: ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ (1621) is a famous work by Robert Burton.

I am in absolutely no doubt that Basho’s famous haiku is behind this poem, even down to the inference at the end that the grandfather frog has also gone kerplop into the water, only his stick still floating on the surface. I would say it is a reading of the Basho, and to appreciate the Porter it helps to know what Basho’s haiku is doing. Haiku is a form that evolved from Zen koan, which are poetic sayings meant to express “the all that there is” and the “purposeless minute” noted by PP in his own poem. The frog dropping into the pond depicts the Buddhist idea of everything existing in the Void. The poem also is fairly certainly erotic, a sign of procreation, of fertility. PP is interested in its creative meaning too: just as the frog makes sounds and creates rings through its actions, so the writer “traces” his anatomy of melancholy, coming up with “incision and sign”, which are the things he leaves behind when he dies. Just as Basho leaves behind his wise haiku, so PP leaves behind ‘Frogs outside Barbischio’, which I think is what is meant by the final three lines.

All of these meanings, and more, are there in the Basho, if you want to see them. You can make of the haiku whatever you like, people have been for centuries. Here is a link to no less than thirty-one translations of the 17 syllables:
In this context, I find the parodist Gibon Sengai’s (1750-1837) poem in the essay that follows apposite in this case:
The old pond!
Basho jumps in,
the sound of water.
One could as well interpret PP’s poem in the following internal rhyming way:
The old pond!
Porter jumps in,
the sound of water.

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