When Peter Porter died in 2010, I found that many friends outside Australia—who regularly read poetry—were not at all familiar with his work. I shared with them a small number of his poems to whet their appetites: among those I chose was “A Consumer’s Report,” which proved a hit among friends and students alike. This poem initiates the reader into its modus operandi from the outset, with the opening tercet putting the joke on the table. The reason the poem works derives from the fact that Porter sustains this joke for the duration of the poem, and then, when the reader believes the joke has been stretched to its ultimate end, the poet adds yet another surprise.
One of the main pleasures of poetry is that it returns the reader to consider the precision of language itself. In day-to-day life we’re used to hearing words mangled or emptied of their meaning through overuse. (Don Watson’s book Weasel Words tracks such emptiness in the language of management at length.) At times, when corporate or political-speak gets excessive airplay, I can’t help but feel we really are living in the world of Orwell’s “Newspeak.” In “A Consumer’s Report” Porter reminds us that even language that seems to have been repurposed by the corporate world can in fact be reclaimed and renewed. Often this reclamation can happen simply through the application of a set of familiar terms to a surprising new context: this is exactly what Porter does in his poem here, taking the language of marketing, and billing life itself as a commodity to be test-driven as you would a new car or skincare product. In so doing Porter wittily leads the reader both to examine the nature of the titular consumer’s report, but also prods his reader to a serious consideration of life itself.
Clearly our consumer has had a particular experience of life—life has, after all, been “gentle on the hands” of the writer; however the particularity of this example is countered by more general truths that all of us must face: none of us are aware, after all, just how long it will be until the built-in redundancy kicks in. Porter pulls apart familiar phrases—what does it mean to be “on the side of” life?—and places the terms “market researcher” and “philosopher” on two sides of the same coin. This balancing act between terms we would never normally equate anticipates the poem’s end, in which Porter informs the reader that, when all is said and done, there is still another weighing act to be completed: the unnamed “competitive product” (ie. death) must be experienced for a true comparison to take place. This final move drops us into a more serious realm, and we realise that the comic tone we have enjoyed until now has always had a sting to it. In fact, the ending prompts the reader to begin again: and that’s what the best poems do. Invite you to experience them over and over.
“A Consumer’s Report” appears in Peter Porter’s The Rest of the Flight: Selected Poems.
A Consumer’s Report
The name of the product I tested is Life,
I have completed the form you sent me
and understand that my answers are confidential.
I had it as a gift,
I didn’t feel much while using it,
in fact I think I’d have liked to be more excited.
It seemed gentle on the hands
but left an embarrassing deposit behind.
It was not economical
and I have used much more than I thought
(I suppose I have about half left
but it’s difficult to tell)—
although the instructions are fairly large
there are so many of them
I don’t know which to follow, especially
as they seem to contradict each other.
I’m not sure such a thing
should be put in the way of children—
It’s difficult to think of a purpose
for it. One of my friends says
it’s just to keep its maker in a job.
Also the price is much too high.
Things are piling up so fast,
after all, the world got by
for thousand million years
without this, do we need it now?
(Incidentally, please ask your man
to stop calling me ‘the respondent’,
I don’t like the sound of it.)
There seems to be a lot of different labels,
sizes and colours should be uniform,
the shape is awkward, it’s waterproof
but not heat resistant, it doesn’t keep
yet it’s very difficult to get rid of:
whenever they make it cheaper they tend
to put less in—if you say you don’t
want it, then it’s delivered anyway.
I’d agree it’s a popular product,
it’s got into the language; people
even say they’re on the side of it.
Personally I think it’s overdone,
a small thing people are ready
to behave badly about. I think
we should take it for granted. If its
experts are called philosophers or market
researchers or historians, we shouldn’t
care. We are the consumers and the last
law makers. So finally, I’d buy it.
But the question of a ‘best buy’
I’d like to leave until I get
the competitive product you said you’d send.