On February the 16th, the poet Peter Porter will celebrate his 70th birthday. To mark this milestone, (the late!) OUP have published a two-volume Collected Poems.
Included at the end of the second volume of Peter Porter’s magnum opus is an excellent new collection, Both Ends Against the Middle, in which Porter’s long-term concerns are revitalised and in some senses surveyed. Both Ends Against the Middle is characteristically marked by Porter’s sharp and ironic social observations and formal control, but also by a deftness and delicacy of tone, and a humanity that led Blake Morrison once to say “he loves the things he kills”. And always his critical bite is held in check by his humour – this is from the poem “Recreational Drugs”:
My scary drug was Reason; I got by
On several priggish antidotes to doom.
Today I watch the gilded young get high
On skunkweed in a downstairs billiard-room.
Volume One contains the nine books written between 1961 and 1981 – beginning with ‘Once Bitten, Twice Bitten’ and finishing with ‘English Subtitles’. It also includes poems published in Penguin Modern Poets, No.2 (1962) and in A Group Anthology (1963). The second volume contains seven books beginning with ‘Fast Forward’ and ending with the new collection I just mentioned.
Peter Porter needs little introduction in England, his adopted country, as, I am glad to say, is also the case in Australia, his place of birth. But the recognition of Porter as a significant “Australian” writer has come much later than the British recognition that he is one of the major poets writing in English in the second part of the twentieth century. Through his involvement with The Group from 1955 until about 1966, Peter Porter engaged with a significant gathering of British thinkers and poets, whose discursive brilliance and variety of styles would have a lasting influence on British poetry. Along with Philip Hobsbaum, Peter Redgrove, Martin Bell, and others, Porter participated in their critical assessments and discussions of each other’s work in a deeply intellectual but non-institutional way.
As someone who has always made a living from a variety of non-academic jobs – bookseller, critic, radio commentator, and poet – Porter is able to cross between the worlds of academic argument, historic debate, and the “living artistic culture”. And it is Porter’s ability to reconcile the erudite with the “real” that has made him such a popular and respected poet. His concerns range from social critique through to questions of self and mortality, aesthetics and culture, history and memory, the exploration of the tensions between religion and atheism, the primacy of ideas, and the truth, therapeutic nature, and terrors of dreams. Porter’s understanding of European art and music are legendary; he has delved deep into the fabric of Western civilisation and identity.
With a wry humanism that is never hoodwinked by the glittering surface, the production of glamour, Porter finds correlations between the confessional self and art that are constantly refreshing and intellectually invigorating. With his many voices, his range of dramatic monologues, his moves from the self-questioning, even self-mocking “me” through to something like the brilliant and sensitive reconstruction of a dead wife addressing her still-living husband in the poem “The Delegate”, he takes the reader or listener on a journey in and out of the Self, love, and mortality.
I am doing it in death
as I did in life – but it’s so hard.
I cannot forget unless you remember,
pin down each day and weighted eye
with exact remorse. After fifteeen years’
convergence, now we may draw apart
and face our different exits.
For Porter, poetry has never been a Romantic endgame – it has a relationship with the real world. Though it can make reality and meaning out of lies and wrestle with the ambivalence of “truths”, it always comes back to the human concern. But “real” doesn’t have to mean the commercial and exploitative, the fetishised mass cultural production. It can mean a place in which people try to better their existences, to consider their deaths, in the light of the intellect and those great translators of the “spiritual” – art, music, and literature. Above all else, Porter is a spiritual atheist, and this is the key to his greatness. A secular poet whose investigations of the psyche and spirit elevate him to the rank of the great religious poets, but ground him in a Popean and Drydenesque world of social irony and societal investigation. Manners are always driving away in the background, as in “A Short Ballad of Unbelief”:
Unbelief has just enough cunning
To be grateful when nailing the lie
Of transcendence that still every steeple
Points nowhere but into the sky.
Language is something alive and important in itself for Porter, but not an end in itself. Poetry is significant, but there are other things more significant. Yet it is one of the most rewarding and necessary ways of examining truth, and the deceptions that surround truth. Porter never loses sight of this.
Primarily seen as an urban poet, Porter has also written significantly of European and Australian landscapes. Always in the context of cultural concerns, and epitomised by his consistent use of the garden (before and after the Fall), as a place of artistic and natural interaction – an enclosed Arcadia, the natural world is more present than many critics have allowed.
The range of influences on Porter’s verse is wide. In an unpublished interview I conducted with Porter last year as a precursor to the appearance of the double-volume Collected, Porter said:
I don’t know whether the poets you admire are the people whose work you will see in your own poetry. I’m a tremendous admirer of Browning, a great admirer of Auden, a great admirer of Rochester, and who does not admire Shakespeare. I like poems of ingenuity, poems of skill, poems of cleverness, poems which use words in ways other than the Wordsworthian ‘voice of true feeling’. In other words, I like poems to have a kind of plot of their own over and above the kind of worthwhile feelings of the poets.
Born in Brisbane in 1929, Porter worked as a cadet journalist on the Courier Mail from 1947–1948, but left for England in 1951, and other than returning briefly to Australia in 1954 stayed there until 1974, when he returned for a visit to Australia at the invitation of the Adelaide Festival. In the last two decades Porter has been a regular visitor to Australia.
1974 was a significant year in Porter’s life, with the death of his first wife Jannice, and other personal matters that would find their expression in what many consider to be his masterpiece, The Cost of Seriousness, eventually published in 1978. It is a book which has significant meaning not only in terms of British poetry and Porter’s oeuvre in general, but in his increasing influence on Australian literature. It is a book of tensions and reconciliations, with the past and self, love and death. Apart from its elegiac content, there is also an attempt to re-approach Australia, to discover worth in its landscape and evolving arts. Two poems, “The Exequy” and “The Delegate” are among the finest achievements of English language poetry of the 1970s.
Porter’s struggle with an Australian identity that in many ways resulted in his spiritual exile has always informed his verse, and this is being increasingly recognised. For someone whose loves were European art and music, Australia of the early ’50s could have been a place of great isolation. Porter considered it a physical culture, whose national icons were sports-related. Phar Lap, a race horse that won everything in sight, including the Melbourne Cup, and eventually died in mysterious circumstances in America on its mission to prove “we’re better than them”, was stuffed and on display in the Melbourne Museum like a piece of art. Porter’s poem “Phar Lap – the Melbourne Museum” was the first poem of his I read at school in Australia.
As a note to this poem, which I first came across in Alexander Craig’s excellent anthology, Twelve Poets, Porter wrote, “My Phar Lap poem is based on memory and may well be incorrect”. And it is with the nature of memory, as much as socio-cultural critique of Australia that this poem is concerned. Interestingly, like a number of so-called Australian movie stars and musicians, Phar Lap was actually born in New Zealand. But national myth-making always has a convenient knack of ignoring such geographical obstacles. Porter’s criticism of the nature of cultural iconicity remains – for Australians Phar Lap was as Australian as Ned Kelly or the kangaroo! A new willingness among Australians to accept self-scrutiny, even by an expatriate, has gone a long way toward confirming Porter’s ironic and intensely investigative voice in Australian letters. Instead of having been “one of us”, he’s now “one of us who lives over there!”.
Here’s Peter Porter introducing and reading “Phar Lap – the Melbourne Museum” at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968:
Porter, whose relationship with Italy has been extremely important over the decades, had in some sense lived Australia through Tuscany – though seeing a reconciliation between Nature and people, which allows for Art, in a way not possible within the problematic relationship between the settler and the Australian environment. But the light is similar, the climate familiar…
It’s a complex issue, but one that parallels Porter’s early rejection of the physicality of Australian landscape and culture. It brings very much into question this notion of exile. Porter has seen a potential harmony between the landscape of Tuscany and human occupation that hasn’t been, for him, evident in settler culture in Australia. Bruce Bennett, in his excellent study of Porter, A Spirit In Exile, questions the relationship between the landscape and culture of Tuscany and Porter’s earlier ambivalence to Australia, and writes:
… Porter’s ‘rootlessness’ on his visits to northern Italy give piquancy to his attachments to a region which he inhabits with knowledgeable love. The Italy with which Porter has been concerned in his verse has little to do with politics or economics, and everything to do with the creative arts. As an Australian, Porter feels that northern Italy holds special lessons: “Here man himself is the measure of beauty, and here, despite despotism and, of recent years, reaching for easy commercial success, people and landscape remain in agreement. In Australia, we have hope. Protestant mercantile optimism, and the despair which comes from fighting Nature and losing. In Tuscany a peculiar truce still remains.
Whether this condition exists in Australia or not is another argument, but in terms of Porter’s coming to terms with his exile and alienation, there’s an essential interaction taking place between the physical and conceptual. Porter is a rational poet, a thinker for whom ideas create a quality of existence that lifts us out of oppression. A socialist who doesn’t toe party lines or buy into the hard sell of doctrine, Porter isn’t interested in the condescensions of the intellectual snob. For him, all people have the right to think and participate in the beauty of art. In some ways it’s ironic that he has been perceived as a difficult, even an obscure poet, with his vast array of musical and artistic references, and his complex use of voice, since he believes that thinking is not an elite act, but one desirable for all. Art is available. And sometimes humour and irony are what make it accessible and real.
Porter’s intro (re Tuscany) and reading of the “The Cats of Campagnatico”
When I asked Porter about how the title of his book Living in a Calm Country came about, he answered:
Well, that, I made that up, that was just my own sort of invention, I thought it was rather a good – because I’d been to see these pictures in Tuscany. Once a thing’s painted it’s calm, and I thought, even if it shows a massacre of the innocents, the blade is still lifted, the blood isn’t on the floor. I’d been particularly struck by this ridiculous little saint in San Gemignano who lay down on a plank aged fifteen and never got off it again, the saint of the town. And I thought, one’s own body, one hopes, will be as calm as possible, and that’s the calm country we actually live in rather than the other country.
For myself, as an Australian now resident in Cambridge, I “suffer” some of the ambivalence and restlessness of the “homeless” expatriate who is neither comfortable with his place of origin, nor comfortable in being assimilated into his adopted culture. It is much easier for me nowadays, in a world of rapid travel and instant communication, to be an international citizen. Australia will never be comfortable with its artists or citizens in general leaving home to practice their art elsewhere, but living elsewhere is no longer necessarily perceived as leaving. But Peter Porter made a cultural as much as a physical move at a time when leaving was excommunication – and on the other side, a perceived cultural aridity forced artists into “exile– and it is the reconciliation with the cultural possibilities of Porter’s homeland that informs even his most tangential observations. In this sense, he is writing as much about what Australia is or isn’t as he might be about a German composer, or an English artist.
Talking of his recognition in Australia Porter said to me:
I started off in England and very few people knew I was Australian. I mean, the clues were in the poems, but they didn’t read them very carefully, and so for years and years I was considered completely part of the English poetry scene. As the English have become more and more aware of my Australianism, they’ve become less and less interested in me, which is the opposite of someone like Les Murray, because someone like Les, and not only him but a lot of Australian poets can enjoy what I call the exotic attraction…
I disagree with Porter here. I think the resistance to what he sees as exoticism has made him a unique and self-investigative voice. An international voice, even if its main concern has been the British-Australian nexus. Porter said to me in our interview:
For instance in the case of ‘The Last of England’, of course the title is already thoroughly well established by Ford Maddox-Brown in his painting. I liked the title, and I suddenly thought, that would make a good title for a book, especially for an Australian who at that time hadn’t ever been back to Australia, from the time he left, at least not from the major time he came over in 1954. And I thought it would be a useful title for a book which was a kind of discontented summing-up of my first years in England, and I wanted also to say that the idea of England is so much better than the reality of England. I wanted to take a stand against what I think was not so well established then but is thoroughly well established now, which is the substitution for a real sense of a country of a hideous distortion which you can sell to the people called ‘heritage’.So ‘The Last of England’ was the perfect title for me, especially as in the picture you see a couple of not particularly admirable chaps shaking their fists in anger at the Old Country, as the emigrant boat pulls away and heads off for New South Wales.
Peter Porter’s Collected Poems is a massive achievement. I’ve been able to give only a taste of his range and interests. Another delight is his flawless metrical control that comes in poem after poem. His use of rhyme is innovative and rarely laboured, and he is the most dedicated experimenter with verse forms in English along with Auden. As a young poet, I saw Porter as my model for versification, as an older poet I also take him as my model for exploring the unknowable and unreachable. Being in the same country as him creates an alternative home. He is a place where many cultures and nations of place meet, discuss, argue, disagree, and delight in debate and analysis. In Peter Porter’s poetry we see both sides of the picture. . .