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Peter Porter (1929 – 2010)

Peter Porter, London, 1989, Polaroid photo by John Tranter Peter Porter, London, 1989, Polaroid photo by John Tranter

Peter Neville Frederick Porter was born on 16 February 1929 in Brisbane, the only son of William Porter, a fabric and Manchester salesman, and his wife Marion (née Main). Deeply affected by the death of his mother when he was only nine years old, Porter was sent as a boarder to Church of England Grammar School in Brisbane, where he was bullied and became deeply unhappy. From 1941–42 he attended the Church of England Boys' School, Toowoomba (now Toowoomba Anglican College & Prepatory College) and then from 1943–1946, Toowoomba Grammar School. After leaving school, he took up a reporting cadetship in Brisbane with the Courier-Mail , but was fired after only a year. He began writing poetry in this period and quickly became prolific, though his poems remained unpublished. After working in several other jobs in Brisbane, including in a textile warehouse, he decided to leave Australia for England in 1951.

Porter settled in London, working occasional jobs as a clerk, bookseller, and advertising copywriter. He initially associated with other Australian expatriates, and developed a reputation as a bon vivant and witty raconteur. This persona masked deep personal instability, however, and after a nervous breakdown and suicide attempts, Porter returned to Australia in 1954. He quickly realised that this was not the home he sought, and returned to London within the year. Back in England, an important stage of Porter’s development as a poet occurred when he started attending meetings of “the Group”, an informal literary society established by Philip Hobsbaum, a disciple of the influential Cambridge academic and literary critic F. R. Leavis, where poets met to discuss and workshop their works in line with Leavisite ideas of literary value. Regularly attending “the Group” workshops from 1955 to 1965, Porter gained confidence in his own talent. He had published only a few poems in English literary journals before his first collection, One Bitten, Twice Bitten , was issued by a small London publisher, Scorpion Press, in 1961. The collection was well-received, prompting comparisons with the work of W. H. Auden.

In early 1961, Porter married Jannice Henry, a nurse; they had two children, Katherine (b. 1962) and Jane (b. 1964). His second collection, Poems Ancient and Modern , was published in 1964. This showed a development in his work away from the more impressionistic, satirically-tinged view of London life of his first collection, and towards a more wide-ranging expression of Porter’s deep interest in European history and religion. Through the 1960s, Porter began to find work as a literary journalist and reviewer for the English press, writing for leading journals and newspapers such as New Statesman , The Guardian , and Times Literary Supplement . He continued to write poetry prolifically, and published his third collection, A Porter Folio , in 1969, and his fourth, The Last of England , in 1970. The latter collection, which explored the poet’s ambivalent feelings about his adopted homeland, was his first with Oxford University Press, beginning a long association with that prestigious publishing house. In 1972, he published two collections with OUP— Preaching to the Converted , in which Porter’s philosophical explorations came to the fore, and After Martial , a volume of translations from the Latin of classical Roman poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis). At this time he also began collaborating with Australian artist Arthur Boyd, producing two illustrated poetry books: Jonah (1973) and The Lady and the Unicorn (1975); two further collaborations with Boyd appeared in the following decade, Narcissus (1984), and Mars (1988).

The year 1974 was an eventful one for Porter. On a visit to Australia for the Adelaide Festival, he commenced an affair with a married woman. The emotional fall-out from his affair was compounded in December 1974, when his wife Jannice, who had suffered from alcoholism and depression, died in an apparent suicide. Overcome with shock, anxiety and remorse, Porter channelled his feelings into his poetry, producing some of his strongest work in the subsequent collections Living in a Calm Country (1975), and the acclaimed The Cost of Seriousness (1978). Determined not to abandon his children in the way he had been after the death of his mother, Porter brought up his two daughters in their large flat in Paddington. His work as a literary critic and essayist continued, and soon included roles in BBC radio and television broadcasting. From the late 1970s, Porter increasingly came to engage with Australian topics in his work, notably pursuing an intellectual and poetic debate with Les Murray over the defining characteristics of Australian literature and culture.

In 1983, the first volume of Porter’s Collected Poems appeared. A milestone that focused further critical attention on his significance as a poet, this work was awarded the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize, a British literary prize seldom awarded for poetry. Porter showed no signs of resting on his laurels, however, and through the 1980s produced four new collections for Oxford University Press: English Subtitles (1981), Fast Forward (1984), The Automatic Oracle (1987), and Possible Worlds (1989), and also published a volume of selected poems A Porter Selected (1989). The new forms of communication and emerging technologies of the late twentieth century became an increasingly important thematic concern in his work, though his poetic explorations of these changing facets of life were generally pursued with his signature irony and humour. His new work attracted further critical acclaim: The Automatic Oracle was awarded the Whitbread Poetry Prize while Possible Worlds was joint-winner of the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. In 1987, Porter took up a position as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Australia, which led to a further exploration of Australian themes in his poetry.

In 1991, Porter married Christine Berg, who had been his partner since the early 1980s, and who, like Porter, had two daughters from a previous marriage. Through the 1990s, he continued to produce strong new work, publishing three new collections— The Chair of Babel (1992), Millennial Fables (1994), and Dragons in their Pleasant Palaces (1997)—as well as a second volume of Collected Poems (1999), which appeared after Porter’s seventieth birthday. Always a remarkably prolific poet, Porter continued to write into his seventies, and continued to garner critical acclaim for his work. His 2001 collection Max is Missing won the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize for best collection, while Better than God (2009) won the Age’s Dinny O’Hearn Poetry Prize. His literary achievements were also recognised with the award of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Queensland (2001), the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (2002), a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2004, and a Companion of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007. From 2000–2005, Porter and another prominent expatriate poet, Clive James, recorded a wide-ranging series of dialogues for ABC Radio National, reflecting on many aspects of their poetry, literary careers, and twentieth-century cultural life in general.

Peter Porter was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009 and died in London on 23 April 2010, just before the publication of his final collection, The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems . Regarded since the 1970s as one of the major poets writing in English, recognition in Australia came more slowly than in his adopted home, but his important contribution to Australian literature eventually received due acknowledgement. He remained modest and unassuming about his literary achievements, however, and was often surprised by the extent of his international reputation. An erudite poet with a vast knowledge of European cultural history, Porter’s work could range from complex philosophical explorations to deeply moving personal subjects, while his generous irony and humour is usually tinged with seriousness.

Poetry Collections
  • Once Bitten, Twice Bitten (London: Scorpion Press, 1961).
  • Poems Ancient and Modern (London: Scorpion Press, 1964).
  • Solemn Adultery at Breakfast Creek: an Australian ballad (London: Keepsake Press, 1968).
  • A Porter Folio: new poems (Lowestoft, UK: Scorpion Press, 1969).
  • The Last of England (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).
  • Preaching to the Converted (London: Oxford University Press, 1972).
  • After Martial(London: Oxford University Press, 1972).
  • Jonah (London: Secker and Warburg, 1973).
  • Living in a Calm Country (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  • The Lady and the Unicorn (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975).
  • The Cost of Seriousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).
  • English Subtitles(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).
  • Collected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).
  • Narcissus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1984).
  • Fast Forward (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
  • Machines (Hertfordshire, UK: The Mandeville Press, 1986).
  • The Automatic Oracle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  • Mars (London: Deutsch, 1988).
  • Possible Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  • A Porter Selected: Poems 1959–1989 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  • The Chair of Babel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  • Millennial Fables (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Dragons in Their Pleasant Palaces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • Collected Poems: Volume 2 1984–1999 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • Max is Missing (London: Picador, 2001).
  • [with John Kinsella and Sean O’Brien], Rivers(Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2002).
  • In Enkidu’s Nose and other poems (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2005).
  • Better than God (Sydney: Picador, 2009).
  • The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems (London: Picador, 2010).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Bruce Bennett, ‘Patriot and Expatriate: Les A. Murray and Peter Porter,’ An Australian Compass: Essays on Place and Direction in Australian Literature (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 1991), pp. 38–51.
  • Bruce Bennett, ‘Peter Porter,’ in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Writers, 1950–1975 (Detroit, USA: Gale Research, 2004), pp. 257–67.
  • Bruce Bennett, ‘Peter Porter in Profile,’ Westerly 27.1 (1982), pp. 45–57. http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/setis/westerly/pdfs/12339
  • Bruce Bennett, Spirit in Exile: Peter Porter and his Poetry (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  • Adrian Caesar, ‘The Lying Art: Peter Porter’s Modest Proposals,’ Critical Survey 18.1 (2006), pp. 123–31.
  • Martin Harrison, ‘Peter Porter Interviewed by Martin Harrison,’ Australian Literary Studies 11.4 (1984), pp. 458-67.
  • Clive James, ‘An Artist of the Conde Nast World: The Simple Excellence of Peter Porter,’ The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001–2005 (London: Picador, 2005), pp. 264–81.
  • John Kinsella, ‘Celebrating the Collected Poems of Peter Porter,’ c.1999, internet, http://www.johnkinsella.org/essays/celebporter.html
  • Anna Nicholson, ‘Peter Porter: Balance Attained,’ Five Bells 11.1 (2004), pp. 8–10.
  • Peter Porter, ‘An Expatriate’s Reaction to His Condition,’ Westerly 32.4 (1987), pp. 42–47. http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/setis/westerly/pdfs/240668
  • Peter Porter, ‘Working with Arthur Boyd,’ Westerly 32.1 (1987), pp. 69–78. http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/setis/westerly/pdfs/103098
  • Peter Steele, ‘Art into Poetry,’ Eureka Street 15.6 (2005), pp. 30–32.
  • Peter Steele, ‘The Master of the Sentences: Style and Peter Porter,’ Critical Survey 18.1 (2006), pp. 93–108.
  • Peter Steele, Peter Porter (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  • Barbara Williams, ‘Interview with Peter Porter,’ Westerly 35.2 (1990), pp. 47–73. http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/setis/westerly/pdfs/124149
  • Clive James and Peter Porter, ‘On Not Having a Classical Education,’ 6 parts, Dialogues, ABC Radio National, 2000-2001, internet, http://www.clivejames.com/audio/porter/classical
  • Clive James and Peter Porter, ‘The Literature of the 20th Century,’ 6 parts, Dialogues, ABC Radio National, 2001, internet, http://www.clivejames.com/audio/porter/literature
  • Clive James and Peter Porter, ‘Humour in English Literature,’ 6 parts, Dialogues, ABC Radio National, 2002, internet, http://www.clivejames.com/audio/porter/humour
  • Clive James and Peter Porter, ‘On Becoming a Poet,’ 6 parts, Dialogues, ABC Radio National, 2005, internet, http://www.clivejames.com/audio/porter/poet
  • Clive James and Peter Porter, ‘Sex and Love in Literature and the Arts,’ 6 parts, Dialogues, ABC Radio National, 2003, internet, http://www.clivejames.com/audio/porter/love
  • Clive James and Peter Porter, ‘The Artist and Politics,’ 6 parts, Dialogues, ABC Radio National, 2004, internet, http://www.clivejames.com/audio/porter/politics