[ilds] Peter Porter (1929 - 2010)

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Fri Apr 23 15:31:03 PDT 2010

Thanks to Michael Haag for calling my attention to the passing of Peter 



Peter Porter obituary
Australian-born poet whose moving, elegiac work was seen as among 
Britain's finest
* Robert Potts
* guardian.co.uk, Friday 23 April 2010

> Peter Porter, who has died of cancer, aged 81, was, though Australian 
> by birth, one of Britain's best-loved and most prolific poets. His 
> life and work exhibited a voracious and passionate care for European 
> and humanist culture, especially music, which he valued – though not 
> without a certain regret – even above poetry.
> Porter was born in Brisbane, Queensland, and was educated initially at 
> the Church of England grammar school there. In 1938, after the early 
> death of his mother, he was sent to board at Toowoomba grammar school, 
> which he later described as resembling a prison camp. "In fact, I'm 
> sure some people did not survive it. They are probably buried in the 
> grounds." He left school at 18 and did not attend university, since 
> his father was unable to afford it. Instead he worked as a journalist 
> in Brisbane, listened to music, wrote plays and was eventually sacked 
> for his "unworldliness".
> He first travelled to Britain in 1951. On the boat, he met the 
> novelist-to-be Jill Neville, whose 1966 novel Fall-girl portrayed 
> Porter as the character Seth. After taking various undemanding jobs, 
> he returned to Australia, sick of London, but 10 months later had 
> another shot at it. This time he found work at an advertising agency, 
> alongside a surprising number of poets and writers: William Trevor, 
> Gavin Ewart, Edwin Brock and Peter Redgrove.
> He also discovered a literary community. The Group was an informal 
> association of poets living in London, established in 1955 by Philip 
> Hobsbaum. The writers included Redgrove, George MacBeth, Martin Bell 
> and Edward Lucie-Smith, later joined by Fleur Adcock, Adrian Mitchell 
> and others. The Group offered an alternative to the prevailing 
> orthodoxies but did not form a coherent movement. Margaret Owen, 
> another member, recalled later that "no one else had Porter's note of 
> pain and indignation. But he also had a kind of gracelessness which 
> was potent and surely Australian."
> His first published poem appeared in a university magazine when he was 
> 28, but it was not until four years later that his first volume, Once 
> Bitten, Twice Bitten (1961), was published, by Scorpion Press. 
> Porter's 1960s work offered a satirical portrait of the period, with a 
> cast of artists and media types in swinging London. Oxford University 
> Press took up his fourth book, The Last of England (1970). They were 
> to publish him from then on, until the press's poetry division closed, 
> controversially, in 1999, just after they issued his Collected Poems. 
> Thereafter he was published by Picador.
> In 1961 Porter married Jannice Henry, with whom he had two daughters. 
> From 1968, having left advertising, Porter never worked for a salary 
> again, apart from odd teaching stints. He freelanced for the New 
> Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement, did readings for the 
> Third Programme (now Radio 3), and reviewed books. From 1973 to 1990 
> he was the "sporadically active" chief reviewer of poetry for the 
> Observer, and before that for the Guardian.
> In December 1974, Jannice killed herself. She was found dead in her 
> parents' house, in the nursery that had once been her own. Porter's 
> poems about this period, especially in The Cost of Seriousness (1978), 
> are among his most moving and arresting: "The time will come for me to 
> pay / When your slim shape from photographs / Stands at my door and 
> gently asks / If I have any work to do / Or will I come to bed with you."
> In the opinion of the poet and editor Mick Imlah: "It may be for these 
> Hardyesque poems about his wife that Porter will eventually be 
> remembered." In 1991, Porter married Christine Berg.
> In addition to these elegiac poems, and some candid and moving lyrics, 
> Porter's work from the 1970s became more meditative, packed with 
> allusions to myth, philosophy, art and music. With urbane wit, and 
> often in a colloquial or aphoristic tone, he investigated the 
> relationships between art, reality, death, suffering and language.
> Over the years, his sense of nationality gradually changed. "I haven't 
> an atom / in my body which I brought to Europe / in 1951," he once 
> wrote, and, in The Last of England, in 1970, he made a definite 
> statement: "I have made a conscious decision to change myself from an 
> Australian into a modern Englishman ... I am saying farewell to my 
> past and the country my family went to in the middle of last century." 
> Much later, he would remark that "I sometimes think that I belong to 
> the most notorious nationalist country; the country of 'me', so 
> patriotism and allegiances are small matters in comparison with my 
> egotism."
> In 1996 Porter edited The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, an 
> anthology embracing several of the conflicting tendencies in 
> post-second world war poetry. "I think that by the time I was 
> finishing the anthology, I was a good deal more open-minded than when 
> I began it," he commented later.
> The publication of his Collected Poems demonstrated both the breadth 
> of his achievements and their variety. George Szirtes called attention 
> to that range: "All the apparatus of high culture ... cats, popes, 
> domestic sorrow, Auden, money, conspiracies, torture chambers, 
> concentration camps, consumer goods, sex, domesticity, agents of 
> political oppression, seediness, dreams of welfare state Britain, 
> corrupt institutions, great tracts of Shakespeare, the Bible and big 
> encyclopedias, the chatter of history and the chatter of the 
> chattering classes."
> Clive James described Porter's work as "so freighted with learned 
> references that I can't even tell if I don't know what they mean". 
> Other critics had similar notes of qualification: "A poet of superior 
> chit-chat"; "The second half of Collected Poems can read like the 
> Porter pocket guide to western culture, with guilt, religion, sex and 
> the decline of the west, all written up in a tone of the uttermost, 
> maddening reasonableness." Gerald Mangan noted that the later Porter 
> was "increasingly haunted by the later Auden, the gourmet-sage in 
> carpet slippers, whose eschatology is consoled by small sensual 
> pleasures".
> Porter, in the Collected Poems, wittily acknowledged the receipt of a 
> grant, for which, at the age of 70, "I am especially grateful ... at 
> such a crucial stage in my career as a writer". He had received awards 
> and prizes throughout, among them the 1983 Duff Cooper memorial prize; 
> the 1988 Whitbread poetry award (for The Automatic Oracle); the 2002 
> Forward prize, for Max Is Missing; and a Queen's gold medal for poetry 
> in 2002.He was honoured in Australia too. In 1998 he received an 
> emeritus award of A$30,000 from the country of his birth. Porter 
> published two further volumes: Afterburner (2004), whose post-meteoric 
> title wryly acknowledged his advanced years; and Better Than God (2009).
> Although frequently self-deprecating, with "a deep impulse towards 
> anonymity", he was a proud as well as modest man, whose lectures 
> rarely missed a chance to quote his own work, and whose conversation 
> at parties could sometimes resemble a lecture in itself.
> "What I have written, I have written, and I do the best I can," he 
> wrote in his late 60s. "But I don't think of poetry as an exalted 
> calling, as some poets do. I love music so much that, in poetry, I'm 
> always looking for an authority in language that is not wholly 
> dependent on meaning. I want meaning to be elsewhere. But that 
> authority, of course, cannot be found ... I am a baffled realist, 
> frustrated formalist and superstitious humanist. If there is a message 
> in my poetry, it is that human dilemmas are constant, evil exists 
> alongside some manifestations of good, and that one must write out of 
> all aspects of life as one encounters it."
> He also described himself as "an unmodified socialist" who believed 
> that "everybody should be paid the same wage or rewarded to the same 
> degree, irrespective of talent, application to work or contribution to 
> society". But he was sceptical about the place of politics in poetry: 
> "In general, however, it is in mapping out the world in as much detail 
> and complexity as the forms of verse allow that poets do most for 
> political enlightenment."
> He is survived by Christine, his two daughters and two stepdaughters.
> • Peter Neville Frederick Porter, poet, born 16 February 1929; died 23 
> April 2010

> Poet Peter Porter dies aged 81
> Peter Porter, pictured in 1973
> Peter Porter's career was studded with accolades
> http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/8641050.stm

> Peter Porter, a winner of both the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry and 
> the Forward Prize, has died at the age of 81 after being treated for 
> cancer.
> The Australian-born poet, who moved to England in 1951, worked as a 
> bookseller while he developed his literary career.
> His first collection, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, was published in 1961.
> He won the Forward Prize, the UK's biggest annual award, for Max Is 
> Missing in 2002, the same year he was honoured with the Queen's Medal.
> In 1968, he became a full-time poet, journalist, reviewer and broadcaster.
> His 1978 anthology The Cost of Seriousness, written after the death of 
> his first wife in 1974, was regarded by critics as his best.
> His 2004 collection Afterburner was shortlisted for the TS Eliot 
> prize, while last year's Better Than God was shortlisted for the 2009 
> Forward Prize.
> Following his Forward Prize win, judge and National Poetry Day founder 
> William Sieghart described Porter as "one of the most distinguished 
> poets at work in Britain today".
> Mr Sieghart described Max Is Missing as "contemporary, witty, urbane 
> and vibrant". 

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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