'We don't believe in progress / yet how can taste run backwards?' It's not that the speaker in Peter Porter's poem 'So Unimaginably Different and So Long Ago' doesn't believe in progress, more that he is afraid of it. It's much easier to admire a Medici bust, whose story is so well known, than to embrace something new like a messy bed, with all the change that that might signify.
Interestingly, the poem's title comes from Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal, which he described as 'Not strictly a journal but giving the tenor of [his] emotional experiences during [Autumn 1938].' In it, MacNeice struggles to imagine himself into events of the past, in spite of his difficulties in the present.
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So Unimaginably Different and So Long Ago
We who would probably want to remake
or at least tidy up Tracey Emin’s bed
and mostly expect to find our pill-dispensers
in some pharmaceutical cupboard other
than Damien Hirst’s, or prefer a child’s
kaleidoscope showing a rose-windowed
sunburst to a Gilbert and George blood-test –
we, the uncomfortable in our century,
are equally discomfited by this
display of five-hundred-years-dead craftsmens’
masterpieces blooming in six rooms.
We stare amazedly at a Saint Sebastian
by Pete the Poulterer, are bewitched by
a bust of a Medici by Handy Andy
aka ‘Hawkeye goes to Florence’,
judge if The Filipino Kid or Street-Cred Larry
carries off the prize among Madonnas
doused in blue and dazzle. What is it here
which harries us? We don’t believe in progress
yet how can taste run backwards? We walk home knowing,
whichever of its great ones measures it,
the world must fall a God’s length short of God.
'So Unimaginably Different and So Long Ago' is published in Max is Missing by Peter Porter.
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