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April 26, 2010

“A broken/ Will in one and in the other a broken heart”: Peter Porter, 1929–2010

The loss of a fine poet.

From The Times today:Peter Porter

Peter Porter held an individual place in both the British and Australian poetry of the past half-century. Like Germaine Greer and Clive James who came to England a decade after him, he was among those Australians who established a reputation in London before being taken seriously in their own country.

From the autodidact outsider and social satirist of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Porter transformed himself into an almost Establishment figure — critic and broadcaster as well as poet — before stepping to one side of British metropolitan literary fashion in the less public pursuits of his mature work. His later career was marked by increasingly frequent visits to Australia, where his reputation continued to grow.

Porter developed the meditative tone that characterised his poems from W. H. Auden’s intellectual allusiveness and Wallace Stevens’s fictive expansiveness, but as he said: “A poet is a fish who has to create his own water.”

His response to the cultural dislocation of the mid-century was not despair but a deeper belief in the continuity of the humanistic tradition. He used collisions between popular and learned culture partly for satirical effect. A sceptical punning humour spotlighted fashionable absurdities. As a critic he famously courted the odium of experimentalists by the contention that poetry is a modest art.

Peter Neville Frederick Porter was born an only child in Brisbane, Queensland, in 1929. His childhood was marked by the death of his mother, Marion, in 1938, when he was 9, and by an unhappy period as a boarder at Toowoomba Grammar School. He immersed himself in music and literature, developing a voracious appetite for European culture.

He worked as a journalist on a Brisbane paper before sailing for England in 1951. On the boat he met the future novelist Jill Neville, and they developed a close relationship while Porter worked at a series of menial jobs. When the relationship ended Porter returned briefly to Australia, coming back to London in 1954.

While working at Bumpus bookshop, he fell in with the work of the poets (Martin Bell, Edward Lucie Smith, Peter Redgrove and others) who, under the chairmanship of Philip Hobsbaum, became known as The Group. Porter soon began publishing and broadcasting poems. He achieved brief notoriety in 1960 when a BBC Third Programme broadcast of his nuclear protest poem Your Attention Please was mistaken for a real nuclear warning. His first three collections were published by John Rolph’s small Scorpion Press, and a selection of his poems was included in the second Penguin Modern Poets series.

His poems were also included in Alfred Alvarez’s influential anthology The New Poetry (1962), which claimed to break with the “gentility principle” in English verse. Porter’s early poems, such as Death in the Pergola Tea Rooms and Annotations of Auschwitz are strikingly of their time: their style a badge of period irreverence, packed with brand names and sharp observations of a contradictory social scene. It is the social tone and the emphasis on observed detail that dominate, but a persistent awareness of death and a sense of self-disgust coexist with, and undercut, the poise of the mocking outsider.

It is not difficult to see an affinity between Porter’s concerns in these poems of the early Sixties and those of his slightly younger contemporary Sylvia Plath. Both were outsiders in a Britain still shadowed by austerity yet on the verge of a social and sexual revolution. Each bore the scars of a childhood riven by the death of a parent.

Porter next gained a job as a copywriter for the advertising agency Notleys, where he worked with the novelist William Trevor and with Gavin Ewart, whose career as a poet Porter was partly responsible for reviving. At Bumpus he had met Jannice Henry, whom he married in 1961, the year he published his first collection of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, and they had two daughters. When he received what he once described as “the asbestos handshake” from his advertising agency in 1968 he became a freelance writer and broadcaster.

The early 1970s were a high-water mark of Porter’s London literary career. From his 1970 volume, The Last of England, his poetry was published by the Oxford University Press. He wrote columns for the New Statesman and The Times Literary Supplement — where he succeeded Ian Hamilton as poetry and fiction editor in 1973. In the same year he became the regular poetry reviewer of The Observer in succession to both Hamilton and Alvarez, where, he said, “he often felt ashamed that I didn’t have Ian’s conviction that a mediocre poem was an offence in the nostrils of God”. He also broadcast frequently.

Porter was by this time renowned for his fierce erudition. Alan Brownjohn commented on how “he seemed to know everything, not just about literature, but also about music and painting ... talking to Peter was a quick way of finding out how ignorant we really were.”

From the Seventies onwards his work reflected this learning with an allusiveness and a syntactic daring that became part of a continuing debate within his poems about the reliability of language itself. The surface of the poems was continually busy, yet they veered away from easy resolution or coherence.

The poems that Porter wrote after the suicide of his wife in 1974 include some of his most celebrated work. Formal and lucid poems such as An Exequy and An Angel at Blythburgh Church became natural anthology pieces, but Porter explored his memories of their life together in a range of forms and moods, both in The Cost of Seriousness (1978) and the volumes that followed it. The bereavement and the sense of self-blame he inherited from the early loss of his mother and then his wife (“a broken/ Will in one and in the other a broken heart”) provided a poignantly recurring point of reference in his work.

Porter collaborated with the Australian painter Arthur Boyd on four books of poems and illustrations between 1973 and 1988. He had edited a selection of Alexander Pope for Faber in 1971, and he revised The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1982) and edited The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse (1996).

Honours began to come his way. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Melbourne (1985) and Loughborough (1987). He won the Duff Cooper Prize for his 1983 Collected Poems, the Whitbread Poetry Award for his 1988 volume The Automatic Oracle, the Gold Medal for Australian Literature in 1990 and the Queen’s Gold Medal in 2002.

His 70th birthday in 1999 was marked by an emeritus award from the Australian Government and the publication of a two-volume Collected Poems, 1961-99. A volume of Paeans for Peter Porter also appeared, edited by Anthony Thwaite, and with contributions by Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Wendy Cope, William Trevor and others. Yet not everyone admired his work, Kingsley Amis in particular being sharply dismissive.

Saving from the Wreck, Essays on Poetry, appeared in 2001, and Max is Missing (poems) in the same year. It won the Forward Prize for 2002. It was succeeded by further volumes of verse, Afterburner (2004) and Better than God (2009). He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2004 and appointed a Companion of Literature in 2006.

Porter’s ebullient conversation, natural kindness, curiosity about others and self-mocking humour meant that he was appreciated as a teacher on visiting fellowships at universities in Britain and Australia.

He married Christine Berg, a child psychologist, in 1991. Later poems such as To my Granddaughters Sweeping Spelsbury Church celebrate a hardwon happiness, a self-critical spirit surprised at the unexpectedness of returned love.

Peter Porter, OAM, poet and critic, was born on February 16, 1929. He died on April 23, 2010, aged 81


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