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Friday, 23 April 2010

Peter Porter Has Died

Sad news.  The major poet Peter Porter has died at the age of 81, in London.  Just heard this on the six o'clock BBC news.  The BBC report (a brief obituary notice) noted his "tragic life" - death of his mother at 9, and the suicide of his first wife, which led to his most-acclaimed book, The Cost of Seriousness.  It also noted that, while he has born Australian, he had long ago become one of England's most admired poets (he moved to London in 1951, half a century ago).  It noted his formal similarities to Auden, and his satirical edge.  It also noted his love of music and painting - constant themes in his poems.  Finally, it noted his many awards, including the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, and the Forward Prize.  I met Peter Porter soon after I moved to London in 2003.  While I cannot claim him as a friend, he was always an exceptionally courteous and lively interlocutor, at numerous literary events and parties, where my wife and I would often stroll over to him, and we'd all chat; often he'd be in conversation with his contemporaries, the fine poets Alan Brownjohn and Anthony Thwaite.

Porter was a gentleman, and very good to talk with.  Personally, I liked him very much.  While I don't share the full extent of his more traditional formalist bent, I considered him one of the greatest poets writing in the English language, and told him so, on several occasions; he was modest and I am sure my Canadian bluster embarassed him - he's become more English over the decades.  He seemed to me to be the major Australian poet of the 20th century, and, more than that, after Larkin, one of the later 20th century's best verse formalists, simply.  His masterful poems were always erudite, and brilliantly aphoristic.  It is hard to imagine a more cultured or civilised poet will come again soon to London, or make more of an impact.  While less vicious than Pope, he had some of that kind of inventive literate genius.

I should say that, one day was particularly enjoyable with Peter Porter.  We had just finished recording his work for the first Oxfam CD, Life Lines, in Camden.  He was the last of the day at the studio, so we went out and got a bit drunk together at a nearby pub.  He told me marvellous stories, including one about how he had been friends with (and he saw the irony) of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, when they were both younger; and he recalled, fondly, his old friend David Wevill.  Porter did have somewhat anti-experimental views (he was a disciple of Hobsbaum's and in The Group), though he wrote intelligently on Ashbery, among others.  At the end of the day, he left us some magnificent poems that will last.  The Guardian's obituary is here.
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