While I Remember

Peter Porter (a name that its owner claimed to find regrettable for a poet) died in London on April 23, aged eighty-one. He is a major figure of what might be called “the Australian Baroque”, a style introduced into Britain by Australian writers of the 1950s and 1960s, which answered English condescension with an uninhibited learning and wit.

Porter went to the UK ten or more years before others of his generation, as the eldest of it, and because they attended university—most notable among them Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Robert Hughes and Les Murray. (This last was an exception, in that he had the resources to impress but soon left, finding nothing in Budleigh Salterton to compare, for his work’s sake, with Bunyah.)

The group was not a movement, but simply the outcome of a form of natural selection: those who had a baroque approach were the ones who survived. The implicit aggression in their refusal of English reticence would have been unconscious for Porter, who was much the pacifist, and diffident when young—with him, it was simply that he naturally and irresistibly wore his learning on his sleeve, as subject-matter for his famous talk.

Australian writers and artists have always tried to sell their work in a larger market; Henry Lawson is just one who failed to make an impression in England. After the natural break of the war, with rationing lingering on in Britain, and food parcels recently being sent from Australia, it must have seemed a particularly opportune time for infiltration.

Peter told me that he went to England because he felt like a cave-dweller among the beach-goers of his homeland. Having been persecuted by the sporting types at his boarding school, he carried a resentment with him into adult life. He always claimed Australia was a place where happiness was “demanded”, where healthiness was “enforced”. The inner life had little chance against the climate of Queensland.

I met Peter at Geoffrey Lehmann’s house, on his first return visit here, in 1974. By coincidence, I was able to give him, in close succession, the source of two quotations that were on his mind, and he formed an unwarrantedly high impression of my learning. (In those days, before Google, it was important to retain things in one’s memory, and one had a conscious attitude of doing so.) Subsequently, over more than thirty years, we would meet whenever one of us was in the other’s country. Gradually, I did become better read, although always able to be instructed by him, in his areas of interest; and he would have talked to me anyway, since he would fall into deep conversation with a newspaper boy on the corner.

We became participants, through the years, in an irresolvable game of chess—I found that we agreed on almost nothing. But the activity of arguing was enough, for its own sake. I will outline the drift of our exchanges, as I remember them, for their contribution to an accurate, collaborative portrait of the man. (I don’t claim to have been one of Peter’s most intimate friends: others may want to disagree with and supplement my impressions. Peter was so popular as a person that I am sure we are now going to have a downpour of commemorative poems and reminiscences.)

In debate with Peter, I defended poetry as “the true voice of feeling”, while he thought the best poetry was the most “feigning’. He admired Auden and Stevens, among the moderns; I thought they merely talked about experience, while Whitman, Hardy and Lawrence evoked and exemplified the sensuous world and its people. The affective content in Auden was low; Stevens was a solipsist. The poets I liked realised a human warmth. Peter thought this a “humanist fallacy”. “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world,” said Stevens, but it is Lawrence who convinces me of how much this is the case. (Peter said that everything he hated had D.H. Lawrence somewhere at the back of it.)

Poetry, I claimed, was interknit with living: it rehearsed the practices of sensual life. It was vicarious experience, like the art of the Lascaux Caves, and educative of the senses. To Peter, poetry ought to endeavour to be an almost sealed world, analogous to music. That it couldn’t achieve its aspiration, with our inevitably referential language I thought decisively compromised this idea. Peter approved of referentiality being obscured by an autonomous, purely verbal experience. He loved the frisson brought to language by peculiar conjunctions of words.

Most readers find that the best or most powerful poetry that Peter himself wrote is the most directly emotive, which denies his theory. “I rejoice to concur with the common reader” here. The poetry of Peter’s that is sure to survive is that about the death by suicide of his first wife, in the volume The Cost of Seriousness, because it affects us in our viscera, it becomes a real physical experience, in a way that relatively little of his other work does.

He disliked Romantic music; I enjoyed Sibelius, Bruckner, Mahler, Elgar. He told me that Italian opera was “operetta”. He didn’t like the Romantic poets, nor the Victorians, except for Browning. He had no real interest in Hardy, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Louis MacNeice, nor even in Larkin. (The most acceptable poem by Larkin was an uncharacteristic one, “Water”.) He was saturated in the Renaissance, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in Rochester, Dryden, Pope, Gay, Crabbe, but he had never read Paradise Lost (nor our other great long poem, The Prelude). What he knew best was Shakespeare, in his entirety. (One of the most interesting essays I have come across on Shakespeare’s poems was not by an Oxford don but was on the front page of the TLS last year, by this autodidact from Brisbane.) Of modern poets, Auden was far ahead; the runners-up were William Empson and Lawrence Durrell. With Americans, I remember he thought Emily Dickinson linguistically the greatest poet in English after Shakespeare; and he liked John Ashbery, and was influenced by him. Ashbery showed him a way to write, he said, when he thought he might have run out of things to say.

He was the first to point out that Les Murray was the best Australian poet, which he later took back, in some moods, in favour of Gwen Harwood. He didn’t like the Irish poets, including Yeats, and particularly not Seamus Heaney. I can’t remember what he thought of Paul Muldoon—one might expect him to approve.

Looking back, I realise there were great gaps in Peter’s reading, for all the impression of erudition he gave. He wasn’t greatly familiar with fiction: he had read Jane Austen and Dickens and Middlemarch, that I know of, but he once told me that what he really thought was his favourite novel was Nada the Lily by Rider Haggard. He received all the books of William Trevor from the author, since they were friends and had worked in advertising together, but he hadn’t read them all. He admired David Malouf’s work.

I was once with him for dinner at Patrick White’s house, when Patrick baited him by saying how dreadful people like Clive James and Martin Amis were, and Peter said they were his friends and defended them. The evening became unpleasant and ended as soon as possible after the food did.

Peter expressed an interest in visual art, but it was almost exclusively that of the Italian Renaissance; he had an entirely “literary” taste, being really only concerned with the anecdote that the picture illustrated. Walking around a gallery together, he was bemused if you wanted to talk about painting as painting, in formal terms. He had no curiosity about modernist art.

He was also disdainful of philosophy, and mildly bored by science, but had a real interest in psychotherapy. I would say that if any label could be attached to him he would be a Freudian. One of the books most influential on his outlook was Civilization and its Discontents. His second wife, Christine, underwent analysis, trained as a therapist, and practised psychotherapy, at the flat in Paddington where they lived. Peter was interested in the British school, which branches out from Melanie Klein, and we had many discussions on the books of Rycroft, Winnicott and Bowlby. He said that he had at one time shared a mistress with, or had had a relationship with a former girlfriend of, Charles Rycroft. When I decided that with real mental illness there was more benefit to be had from the pharmacopoeia, than from all of the sectaries of analysis put together, he was scornful. As for ordinary neurosis, I said, that was our inheritance, as animals standing at a tangent to the world; that was human nature. I remember quoting Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is the disease for which it purports to be the cure.” The disease is self-obsession.

Peter often appeared self-obsessed: he was never one not to complain. This was because he felt himself to be physically vulnerable—a sense of bodily confidence had been denied him in his school experiences. (Which is not analysis, but simply tracing cause and effect; nothing therapeutic follows from it.) His nervousness was such that he would quaver if he were induced to cross even a wide-open road, anywhere but at the traffic lights, or to step onto a damp and remotely slippery-looking pavement. He didn’t like nature, and would flinch if he had to sit on a green bench at a bus stop. He said that he was a physical coward, and I wondered whether there was really any other sort, and he gave me one of his thunderous looks.

He had no interest in the cinema, that I can remember. His idea of a good meal was the murk that is served by Indian restaurants in London. Once he came to our house for lunch and was served by my wife, thinking he must be a discriminating diner, with the sort of pretty meal that you make for guests: a grilled fish, sweet potato chips and avocado salsa, but he asked if there were any more of the chops the child was eating. Fish bones frightened him, he said.

He told me that he had given a poetry reading with Auden and Stephen Spender, and that afterwards he had overheard Auden, his great hero, say, “Let’s go and get a drink, but don’t ask that Australian to come.” It was a sign of his disinterestedness that he never allowed this affront to effect his estimation of Auden’s work.

Once he was asked to give a reading at Oxford. He was met at the station by three dons; two of whom excused themselves after dinner. He walked to the hall with his remaining host, who had mumbled an excuse at the door and not followed him in. The room was empty. He waited, but nobody came. He walked back to the station on a rainy night and took the train home. Later he was to win the Queen’s Medal for poetry.

Peter was, as everyone says, one of the great talkers of his time. We used to meet in the Marble Bar in Sydney or in the pub opposite the British Museum, and in either place, if he spotted me in a far corner as he came in, he would begin talking from the doorway, and be in full flight by the time he reached our table. But he also listened and responded; he preferred a conversation to a monologue, something veering and reacting, if you would keep up with him.

Though he received many awards toward the end of his life, I think his earlier work is generally his best: that in the first volume of his two-volume Collected Poems from Oxford University Press; and within this, particularly the books The Last of England, Preaching to the Converted, The Cost of Seriousness and English Subtitles. The early work is brilliantly satirical and has an Expressionistic energy. There is at times a fascinated horror about violence, which is far more affecting than anything in Ted Hughes (a Laurentian, whose work Peter disliked), because it is more genuinely and fearfully felt—see particularly “An Anthropologist’s Confession”, “Story from a Time of Disturbance”, “A Hoplite’s Helmet”, and for their neurotic crackle “The Great Poet Comes Here in Winter” and “On the Train Between Wellington and Shrewsbury”. His work reminds me, in its realism combined with social horror and violent satire, of that German school of painters of Weimar times, the Neue Sachlichkeit. There are too many fine poems for an anthologist to be able to represent him adequately: he is a poet who will survive with his book.

The poems written following the death of his first wife, Jannice, which I have mentioned, are the greatest sequence of their kind in English poetry, after Hardy’s “Poems of 1912–13”, which has become, or will become, a commonplace judgment. It is a bitter irony that these poems through which his name will live are poems he would have wished never to have had to write. He always denied that they were his best work.

It can be said, ironically again, that while Peter Porter is a poet obsessed with music, as a subject, his work has no real musicality, no aural texture; and that while he is a supremely intellectual poet, he has no philosophy. He is a maker of aphorisms that have lowered sights: the biggest issues don’t appear in them. But the copiousness of the apothegms he does have (to use a noun he liked)—limited to society, as if the proper study of mankind really were man—is nevertheless an exhilaration in his work.

I came to think that I lived only intermittently in the suburbs of his pleasure. Our intractability began to tire us, after so many years. I could not hide that I found the versification of his later work stolid. He had adopted a sort of general utility style, in which to talk, and he did so over long stretches, in his too plentiful work. The style was, in itself, merely functional; not a live medium, but used as a means, for what it said. Another irony, given our earlier ideologies.

My wife said that the only time I came home really drunk was when I had been out with Peter Porter, and she approved that I liked someone well enough to sit and talk to him for eight hours, unbrokenly. (I should say here that Peter was not an alcoholic; he drank steadily but within his capacity, and never went on a binge. These rare sessions we had were social, celebratory and remained coherent. With other people, too, his drinking was not primarily for drunkenness, but for the sake of talk.)

Much of our talking was gossip about other writers, which is a writer’s particular aptitude. As Yeats has said, applicable to any generation of poets, “We are too many”, and it pleased us to be able to agree concerning so-and-so, most often some British poet, that “he is for the dark”.

Peter was grateful to me, I think, that when I came to London I never wanted to stay with him, as so many people turned up asking to do, but took a hotel in Paddington, and that I never wanted to meet English poets, although I was happy to inquire about them. I didn’t think their work was much good, in recent decades. I did have the opportunity to meet Ted Hughes, but was strongly advised against this by Peter, who said he knew I had reservations about Hughes’s work and that the “master” only tolerated yea-sayers around him, so my stay in Devon would be unpleasant. He did introduce me, as a surprise, to one poet, whom he was right in thinking I would be glad to meet—Ian Hamilton, the editor of the New Review, who is now dead. I liked him greatly, and he gave me a complete set of his excellent magazine, which I shipped home. He offered to help me find work, but I belong to a generation that has no desire to live in London, nor to make a way among English poets.

Peter was wary of being associated with ambitious Australians in London. Clive James and he were enough; and James, until recently, was not particularly known as a poet. (James has always spoken up for Australian work, in England. Peter genuinely didn’t like it as much as James does.) He greatly approved of Randolph Stow (though not his writing) who had lived for many years in England and had never tried to “ingratiate himself” on the scene.

I passed through London recently and heard that Peter was ill, but I did not call him because I had the flu badly and thought how inevitably sentimental, how lachrymose, it would sound to commiserate with him, to say goodbye, in a sodden voice. What a self-centred consideration. When I got back home, a friend who had been in touch with Peter gave me a generous message from him. I began to compose a letter (we had never exchanged more than occasional postcards) that would be a masterpiece of tact and entertainment, and that would explain away any slight estrangement between us. Occupied with this project over some days, whenever I could be, I one evening turned on the television, for the news …

The last time I saw Peter was in Sydney, and when it came time to say goodbye, then, we were both so plastered that although our hands wove about each other, like swaying pythons, we couldn’t connect them. Our taxi drivers sat nearby in their cars, smirking. “Never mind,” Peter said, “you know what is meant.” “Yes,” I had said, “we can take something for granted.” I hope he remembered, even momentarily, that we could. “Taken all in all” he was a great poet and a marvellous man.

Robert Gray’s memoir The Land I Came Through Last (Giramondo, 2008) has been discussed in Quadrant by both Stephen McInerney (April 2009) and Jamie Grant (March 2010).

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