[ilds] Peter Porter (1929 - 2010)

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Sat Apr 24 09:26:33 PDT 2010

I met Peter Porter at the Durrell Celebration in Alexandria, 2007.  He gave the talk on Durrell's poetry, read from the poems, and did both very well.  He was a delightful speaker and had the poet's gift to make words come alive in an unforgettable way.  I can still hear his voice.  We talked afterwards and disagreed on matters of interpretation, but he was open to new ideas and made no claims on authority.  We also spent a day traveling to the western fringe of the Delta.  That was a memorable day, and Peter and his wife Christine helped to make it so.  The obituary below doesn't mentioned that Peter edited Lawrence Durrell:  Selected Poems (London, Faber, 2006), which is a good introduction to Durrell himself and to Peter's tastes, although I wish he'd included "Bitter Lemons" (1955).  Peter will be missed.


On Apr 23, 2010, at 3:31 PM, Charles Sligh wrote:

> Thanks to Michael Haag for calling my attention to the passing of Peter 
> Porter.
> ***
> Peter Porter obituary
> Australian-born poet whose moving, elegiac work was seen as among 
> Britain's finest
> http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/peter-porter-obituary/print
> * 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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