Peter Porter at 75

By Bennett, Bruce | Critical Survey, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Peter Porter at 75


Bennett, Bruce, Critical Survey


The articles and commentaries that follow had their genesis at a symposium in honour of Peter Porter held at the University of London in January 2004. Three Australian-based scholars with interests in Porter's work were invited to contribute papers--Bruce Bennett, Peter Steele and Adrian Caesar. British-based contributors included Clive James and John Lucas. As well as the papers on Porter's work, a group of British poets and an American made their tribute to Porter and his work. The symposium in London was planned by Ann Pender and organised by Warwick Gould, director of London University's Institute of English Studies.

Other honours and awards for Porter's work as a poet had occurred. In 2002 he was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. In 2003 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and in early 2004 he received an Order of Australia. The London symposium preceded moves by a group of British academics and authors to nominate Porter as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. (An editorial comment the Times Literary Supplement remarked that 'if we had a vote we would give it to Peter Porter', TLS 5 March 2004, 216). In the event, in a vote by Oxford graduates, Professor Christopher Ricks received 214 votes to Porter's 175.

The following comments on Porter and his work were selected by Bruce Bennett from a video recording of a panel of British poets--Anthony Thwaite, Sean O'Brien, Alan Brownjohn, Blake Morrison, Alan Jenkins--and an American--Michael Donaghy--who gave their views on Porter and his influence. Minor adaptations have been made for the new format. The video recording was produced by Liu Hongbin.

Reflections on Porter and his Work

The Group

When Peter Porter joined The Group in London in 1955 there was a sense of something momentous happening. He asked new questions, got us thinking. To some of us British poets he seemed part of an Opposition Front Bench. And certain of his lines stuck. In 'Two Merits of Sunshine' (Poems Ancient and Modern, 1964), he recalls from childhood 'The two green snakes dangling by their tails/From a branch of the umbrella tree'--an Edward Lear-ish image that I've never forgotten. In 'How to Get a Girl Friend', his speaker's advice is 'Step out and say: I am your fate'. As I cross from Bucharest to Russia, as I do sometimes for work, I also think of Porter's line, 'All your names are furry caterpillars/Crawling to me across the tall Carpathians'. And how were we British poets to respond to the lines, 'It is Australian innocence to love/The naturally excessive...' ('Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum', Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, 1961)? Was this innocence or sophistication? Porter surprised us. He could use the grand manner but such lines also offer intelligent pleasure and humour. We could see a multiplicity of delights and something fascinating going on.

Alan Brownjohn

On Obliquity

Porter avoids direct statement and dislikes self-revelation. He is at the opposite pole from a confessional poet. Yet he writes poetry of strong emotions. He reveals himself through what have become his passions--art, music, literature--and through his dream life. I was born in 1955 and what struck me forcefully in Porter's writing of the 1960s was that it deals with a 'grown-up' life. It has a wide referentiality--a 'thinginess'--and behind this a sense of deep emotional disturbance--an undercurrent of emotional turmoil--which culminates in The Cost of Seriousness (1978). In some ways, he seems a man on the run from self-revelation who draws you into his sense of disturbance.

Alan Jenkins

On Making Poems

For Porter, the poem is an event--a drama in real time in our world. I was a miserable undergraduate in Cambridge in the early 1970s when I read Preaching to the Converted (1972). We had been led to think it had all been done--all that was left was a kind of literary gardening.

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