Peter Porter: Poet celebrated as among the finest of the second half of the 20th century

Peter Porter, who published Better Than God on his 80th birthday in February 2009 and whose substantial The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems is due next month, is recognised as one of the best poets of the second half of the 20th century – though not as widely as his poems deserve.

He never expected to be so recognised. His characteristic stance was one of what one might call shrugging good-natured gloom, a comical realisation that once again he had been excluded from the feast. I first met him in late 1957. By the late 1960s he was my closest friend, the person outside my immediate family with whom I could, and did, talk most closely. It is very hard for me to think of a continuing existence in which we can't talk, exchange letters, gossip, poems and opinions, travel together in England or Italy, and say goodbye with a flurry of last-minute revelations and hilarities.

He was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1929, the only child of William Porter and Marion, née Main. His mother had had five miscarriages before his birth. Her son remembered her as ebullient, masking a restless melancholy under a party-going extravagance: "she was", he said, "a mixture of rapture and grace, but she was overweight and radiated doubt". His father was less vivid ("decent, timid, with no great expectations of life" – though he lived into his 90s). His work was selling "the products of Manchester" (sheets and pillowcases) to Australia. Behind both families were the relics of something more prosperous, a not uncommon tale of fallen fortunes.

When Porter was nine his mother died, without warning, of a burst gall bladder. This is one of the two crucial losses in Porter's life. His father was a kind man, but could think only of handing his son on to grandparents, and thus into a succession of Australian boarding schools in which the boy suffered for the next several years. Porter was from an early age evidently a bright boy, but he had to suffer the bullying, indignities and miseries of this experience. He left school before there was any prospect of going to university, and for a while he took up several drudging jobs before he decided to leave Australia and go to England in 1951.

By this time he had been writing poems for some years. He had no contacts, no prospects, in England, and he had published nothing except for a few contributions to the Toowoomba Grammar School Magazine in 1945 and 1946. When he boarded the Otranto in 1951, just 22, he had little to offer prospective employers. On the long journey to Tilbury Docks, he met another Australian, Jill Neville, whose first novel, Fall-Girl, later captured some moments on the voyage, including a fictional portrait of the young Porter.

Porter's first stay in London was brief and traumatic. He made a few friends, chiefly among fellow Australians, worked as a clerk, and wrote many poems. But he was unrecognised. After 10 months he had some sort of breakdown, and in the summer of 1955 twice tried to kill himself. He briefly returned to Australia.

Then he came back to England, drifting through Kensington and Paddington lodgings, often again with Australian friends, until late in 1955 he was first absorbed into a gathering of poets who became known as "the Group". Founded by Philip Hobsbaum as a meeting-point for aspirant poets in Cambridge in 1952, by 1955 this assemblage was meeting in London, off the Edgeware Road, close to Paddington. This "Group"" became Porter's central intellectual and friendship-based centre. He became particularly the intimate of Martin Bell, Peter Redgrove, George MacBeth, Alan Brownjohn, and also Edward Lucie-Smith, who took over Hobsbaum's role as convenor.

The Group was by no means a cosy meeting of back-scratchers. Each week, a cyclostyled set of new poems by one chosen poet was circulated to the others. They met in an atmosphere of more-or-less vigilant sobriety (no alcohol was served), scrupulous attentiveness and abrasive dialectics. Porter, from an early stage, was a regular and welcome poet and questioner. It was a hard school, but Porter emerged from several years of its procedures to become a much better, and much better-regarded, poet than he had been. He was always loyal to the spirit of the Group.

From this sprang his first public successes – poems in various little magazines, in the Observer, and then his first book, Once Bitten Twice Bitten, published by the Scorpion Press (a small outfit in Lowestoft) in 1961. The following year, a selection of his poems appeared alongside Kingsley Amis and Dom Moraes in the newly-founded Penguin Modern Poets series – the second in this highly successful publishing ploy. The book went into several impressions. In Encounter the puzzled editorial eminence Stephen Spender asked (because the PMP series at that time contained no biographical notes) "Who is Peter Porter?" But Porter had arrived.

Among his early successes was a poem which first brought the two of us intimately together: "Your Attention Please". Porter had sent this to me, as one of those BBC radio producers who put out poetry programmes. Its appearance in a Third Programme New Poetry broadcast in 1961 suddenly took off into newspaper headlines and internal reprimands. The poem was a supposed (or, as we might say these days, "ludic") announcement by a radio announcer of an imminent nuclear bombardment. As producer, I hired an excellent actor, Denys Hawthorne, to read it. Hawthorne, though he had a distinct Irish accent, astutely disguised it, and rendered this grim and funny poem as if it were indeed emanating from some sort of impersonal broadcasting house.

The trouble was that this verse miscellany was transmitted at a slightly different time from that announced, because of the overrunning of some "live" music broadcast. Evidently an American visitor, switching on his bedside radio in a London hotel, picked up the item, took it very seriously, and ran down into the hotel lobby, shouting "Where are the shelters?"

Soon I was summoned into the presence of the Controller of the Third Programme, and severely warned against extravagances of this Orson Welles type. The story had been trumpeted by several newspapers, and became part of Cold War mythology.

I suppose this was the real beginning of my friendship with Peter, and certainly by the mid-1960s we were very close. I was abroad, teaching in Libya from 1965-67, but when I returned and joined the New Statesman early in 1968, I was glad to take him on as a regular and copious reviewer (of books, music, and especially of radio), just at the time when he had broken away from his fairly brief and – at his own admission – not very successful career as an advertising copywriter, in which he was the genial colleague of the novelist William Trevor, and the poets Edward Lucie-Smith, Edwin Brock, and Peter Redgrove. He became a busy freelance writer, and later was for many years the Observer's regular poetry reviewer.

Meanwhile, successive Porter books of poems were published – two more by Scorpion Press, then – and for very many years – by Oxford University Press. Prolific, knotty, satirical, full of apophthegms and cunning, his work was an essential part of the very fabric of the 1960s and 1970s. But late in 1974 he was faced with the sudden death of his wife, Jannice, whom he had married in 1961 and with whom he had two daughters.

It had been a close but increasingly difficult relationship, made the more difficult by Jannice's decline after 1965 through physical illness into depression and alcoholism. Soon after this shocking moment, he began to write poems which, when they were published, were widely recognised as his finest, including his "Exequy", cast in the simple quatrain form of Henry King's 17th-century elegy for his own wife. Comparisons were made with Hardy's elegies of 1912-13.

But Porter's restless spirit was not to be caged in any particular moment, however poignant. Courageously, he determined to keep his two daughters with him, and to bring them up. He did this, supported by loyal friends. He began, also, to make return journeys to Australia, invited back to his native country, which began to recognise him as England had done. Over the next several years, he had various visiting appointments there, and Australian critics and readers acknowledged him as one of their very best writers.

From a practical point of view, he kept himself afloat as a copious reviewer: poetry, music, art, opinion pieces all over the place, from the Observer to the TLS (at which for a brief period he had a part-time post), from the BBC to anyone who would give him a paid chance to air his well-founded opinions. He also had periods as visiting poet in universities: Reading, Hull, Edinburgh.

Porter never owned property. From beginning to end, he rented his accommodation – chiefly, from his first marriage until his death, in a large flat in Paddington, crammed with his many books, records, CDs. His great happy late moment was, his meeting with, and then in 1991 marriage to, Christine Berg.

After the long, difficult years following Jannice's death, his life was made benign and even more fruitful by Christine's arrival. Her training as a psychotherapist wasn't something which first necessarily recommended itself to him; but no one can doubt that she made a great difference to the happiness of his last many years.

His Collected Poems from OUP in 1983 put the seal on his reputation. They were followed by many others, including a huge two-volume Collected by OUP in 1999, just when that august press decided it no longer had time or money for poetry. Fortunately, Picador then took him on. He had already been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize, the Whitbread Prize for Poetry and in 1990 the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal. He was given honorary degrees by several universities: Melbourne, Sydney, Loughborough, Queensland. He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2002. In that same year his book of poems Max is Missing won the Forward Prize, and in 2006 the Royal Society of Literature (of which he was already a Fellow) chose for him the rare honour of C. Lit.

He enjoyed all this, but he was also characteristically self-deprecating and funny about it. Indeed, many people who knew him will perhaps chiefly remember how funny he was, in his quick, nodding, sometimes acerbic responses. Some of these were recalled in a contribution by my wife, an old friend, in a privately-printed tribute I edited for his 70th birthday in 1999. (Among the contributors were Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Clive James, and William Trevor.)

They included: "I'd rather spend a winter in a canning factory in Narvik than read Women in Love again"; "I don't think Auden really loved God; he was just attracted to him"; "You know, Giotto could have illustrated Dante -– that would have been a nice book to have". His passion for and erudition about music (from Bach and Mozart to Stravinsky and Britten, with a staggering range of knowledge throughout), his love of painting (especially of the Italian Renaissance), his exact but fiercely unacademic enthusiasm about a wide range of writers, always made him an exhilarating companion.

He is survived by his second wife Christine, his two daughters, two stepdaughters, and nine grandchildren.

Peter Neville Frederick Porter, writer: born Brisbane, Australia 16 February 1929; married 1961 Jannice Henry (died 1974; two daughters), 1991 Christine Berg; died London 23 April 2010.

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