Books: The Meaning of Recognition — A Man Called Peter Porter |
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A Man Called Peter Porter

When I first read him more than forty years ago, I thought Peter Porter was the same age as he is now. Impressed by his evident conviction that the modern world was essentially a Technicolor version of one of those Dürer woodcuts in which the knightly rider was flanked by death and the devil in his journey through a landscape ravaged by war and plague, I pictured the agonized artist as a gaunt, white-bearded figure hunched under a velvet cap, knocking out his long-pondered apocalyptic visions by candlelight. Not that his poems creaked: indeed they hurtled. But however long their rhythmic breath and legato their line, they still sounded like the last gasps of a sage, and all the sages I had ever heard of had whiskers on them. It was a poem by him that first led me to look up the word ‘eschatology’. The poem was called ‘The Historians Call Up Pain’ and ‘eschatology’ was the last word in it. Up until then I had thought I understood roughly what he was talking about in the poem, although I had to delve deep into my memory of Sydney University First Year History lectures on the Holy Roman Empire in order not to be stopped cold by the word ‘chiliasm’. Deep down, as in a sunken cathedral, a bell rang: ‘chiliasm’ was something to do with the millennium. But what was ‘eschatology’, precisely? I didn’t even know what it meant vaguely. I had seen it before, probably rendered phonetically in my own lecture notes, but I had put off finding out. Now it was time, although I couldn’t tell then that it would be far from the last time that I would owe some of my education to Peter Porter. Whenever, today, I read ‘The Historians Call Up Pain’, its colloquial yet erudite sonorities bring back for me a place, a year and a state of mind in which I was ready for a new kind of mental thrill. The historians may call up pain, but the poets, when you remember your first encounters with them, call up the past: your past, the personal past, a stage of your life. Popular music works the same way, but no popular music ever had a vocabulary like this.

We cannot know what John of Leyden felt
Under the Bishop’s tongs — we can only
Walk in temperate London, our educated city,
Wishing to cry as freely as they who died
In the Age of Faith. We have our loneliness
And our regret with which to build an eschatology.

I had very few books in those days. Luckily one of them was the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Eschatology’ turned out to mean the branch of theology concerned with the end of the world, the last things. Well, that fitted. He was talking about the last things as if he were one of them. It was death-bed stuff. In the absence of any biographical notes on the author, I judged his home address to be a veterans’ hospital, possibly an iron lung. But I was in pretty bad shape myself. The year was 1962, I had just arrived in London, I was cold and broke, and it felt as if life on earth were coming to an end. Here was a poet who spoke to my condition. Suddenly I was less alone. I had become a walker in our educated city: a description that took redoubled force from the consideration that I could hardly afford to ride on a bus. In the winter of that year I was living in a large paper bag on the floor of a kind English acquaintance in Tufnell Park. His name was Geoffrey Hindley, he was working for Thames and Hudson at the beginning of what would be a distinguished career in publishing, and he had pressed upon me a slim volume called The Less Deceived, by some librarian called Philip Larkin. By Larkin I was suitably bowled over: was encouraged, even, to rise from my paper bag and write a few more poems of my own.

But Peter Porter I discovered by myself, and the impact, as a consequence, was even more to be cherished. Nobody had said: ‘You must read this: it’s good.’ The poems themselves said that, especially when I didn’t fully understand them. The first poems of his I read were in a little book called Penguin Modern Poets 2, published that year. There comes a time in your life when most of the places you go to you will never go back to, and nearly all the books in your shelves you will never read again. But this little book I go on and on picking out of its shelf. Until recently I bought every copy of it I found second-hand, until I realized, with a jolt of guilt, that I might be depriving some other young walkers in our educated city of an essential discovery. The volume featured three poets: Kingsley Amis, Dom Moraes and Peter Porter. I knew who Kingsley Amis was. There were whole passages of Lucky Jim that I could recite from memory, and very soon I felt the same way about his poetry, which would have ranked him unquestionably among the most celebrated modern poets if it had not been for the gravitational distraction of his celebrity as a novelist. Moraes I had somehow read about in a copy of Isis that had reached Sydney before I left. He was an Isis idol, and when I read his poetry I thought that ‘idol’ was a fair description, although in the not very long run he turned out to be one of those poets whose mature accomplishments come mainly at the beginning.

But of Peter Porter I knew nothing, and only realized that he might be of Australian origin from internal evidence in his work. Provocatively scattered among the copious European references there were weatherboard churches, Bunya pines, milk shakes, the Canberra Temperance Hotel — which was perhaps in Brisbane instead of Canberra but certainly wasn’t in Salzburg or Vienna — and (the title of a poem, this) ‘Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum’. Phar Lap had been born in New Zealand but it sounded as if Australia might be the point of origin for the poet, a long way from John of Leyden and the bishop’s tongs. You will guess correctly that I wasn’t reading many literary magazines at the time, or the literary pages of the heavy newspapers. I couldn’t afford to. Sometimes, today, I wonder heretically whether that kind of ignorance wasn’t the best state to be in. I wasn’t reading about books, I was reading the books themselves. I was in contact with the primal stuff, just as, when I slept, I was in contact with the floor. Sleeping without a mattress is not as dangerous as flying without a net, but it can be equally invigorating. So can reading and judging poetry without the pre-emptive commentary of professional intermediaries, or even the fervent introductions of an enthusiastic adept. If there is a line in the poem that gets through to your mind unannounced, like a cosmic particle appearing in a bubble chamber, then it must have been sent by real power. Phrases, lines and whole stanzas by Peter Porter had that kind of brain-drilling impact. Let me start with the phrases.

‘Once bitten, twice bitten.’ It was part of the title of one of his poems — later I found out that it was the actual title of one of his early collections — and I thought straight away that it was the ideal condensation of an attitude: a proclamation of innocence, and a protest against being saddled with it. By now, all of his friends have long known that he makes a point of presenting himself as the incorrigible gull; just as, less self-destructive in his personal habits than almost anybody else, he has always presented himself as someone about to disintegrate physically; and, more neatly dressed and better-looking than almost anybody else, as the werewolf in the cheap Daks suit that ‘hugs me in its fire’ with a classical overtone of the shirt of Nessus. I hope, before the busy scholarship of posterity gets a look in, that the accumulated ribbing from his delighted colleagues will help to establish that his tremulous stance as a victim of fate was always more persona than actuality. As the Italian scholars have taught us, there is a difference between Dante personaggio and Dante poeta, and it would need a very clueless student to believe that Porter poeta’s large and still steadily increasing achievement was not the product of a confident artist in majestic control of his output. But it should also be said that he has never pretended to be in control of events. From the beginning — and this is surely part of the reason why he never sounded young — he had an unusually honest capacity to register the terrifying indifference of circumstances to the individual, no matter how blessedly gifted that individual might be. The proper name for this is humility, but he was always ready to play the patsy in order to underline it. He made himself out as the man who, in everyday life, would not get what he wanted, and who was twice as culpable for wanting it. Once bitten, twice bitten: that whole idea in four words, or six syllables if you prefer. It was chastening to see him pack such a lot in. He was eloquent, but reading him made me feel garrulous, as it still does.

Another pregnant phrase: ‘If only I had a car’. Porter personaggio was without wheels. It followed that he could not get the kind of girls he had already condemned himself for wanting, the ‘girls in Jensens’. That was yet another phrase, and one I painfully remembered when I paid my first visit to the King’s Road and saw what he meant. When London first began to swing in the early 1960s, it soon became horribly clear that the promised freedoms of swingingness would not include freedom from the fixed exchange rate between cash and sex. The most desirable young women seldom walked when they could ride, and what they were riding in was not only priced to be out of reach, it was shaped to look it. The sinuous apex of the bird-puller car market was reached by the Marcos sports two-seater, which was actually designed so that young women of a certain refinement would be obliged to lie down straight away when they got into it. But Porter had already seen this happening in the 1950s: ‘Love goes as the MG goes’ was another phrase potent with impotence. As the patter and rattle of bongo drums leaked from the coffee bars, the MG was usually going home to where the rich lived, and the girl was in it. Either in the passenger seat or behind the wheel, she — I loved this phrase — ‘vanished on the road to Haslemere’. There was a longing in the cadence: the longing for what was teasingly available, except that you couldn’t have it. I knew just how he felt. Moving up from phrases to lines, I can still quote from memory the line that made me realize I knew. ‘The flesh-packed jeans, the car-stung appetite.’ He was deriding himself for desiring what he was not supposed to desire. Here was poetry that said, in its every stanza, that art and history were what counted. Yet it was also poetry that admitted the full force of the advertised consumer world. Despite the consolations of high art, money mattered; possession mattered; even breeding mattered. Out there in Haslemere, he said, ‘the inheritors are inheriting still’.

He could not bring himself to say they shouldn’t, because he could not deny his hankering to share their privileges. That suave matinee idol Harold Macmillan, in his scarcely believable role as prime minister, extolled a way of life ‘based on the glossy magazine’. Macmillan actually said that, and your political convictions did not have to start very far to the left of centre for you to find what he said absurd. But Porter did not find it absurd that anyone should feel that way. He said that it had always been that way. It had been that way in the time of the Jacobean playwrights. The MG girl on her way to Haslemere showed up in a poem called ‘John Marston Advises Anger’, from which came another compulsorily memorable line that I found myself mouthing glumly as I watched the high-born miniskirts swerve out of reach. ‘It’s a Condé Nast world and so Marston’s was.’ For the line to work, you didn’t have to know exactly what John Marston wrote. At Sydney University I certainly hadn’t known, although some of the examination questions suggested by their wording that it might be prudent to pretend I did. But you did have to know what a Condé Nast world was. It was a world of advertised attractions that really did attract. It was useless to say they didn’t. Not even Trotsky would have been able to get away with saying that. He might have said that they shouldn’t, but that was a different thing.

Porter was saying that they shouldn’t, but saying it from the position of strength — strength, not weakness — conferred by his admission that they did. By conceding his own lust, cupidity and frustration, he was reinforced in his bold determination to identify those same things as important strands in the coaxial central cable of history. Here was the fruitful paradox behind his eschatological manifesto: if, despite the threat of nuclear annihilation, there was to be a future after all, it would be made of the same stuff as now, because now was made from the same stuff as the past. There would be a future as long as there were humans. In the long run, even inhumanity was human. After all, sharks don’t build concentration camps, and ants only look as if they do. Cruelty has always been a component of the human world; things had always been terrible for just that reason; and creative for the same reason. Life, although it had always seemed, to the sensitive and cultivated, as if it were coming to an end, was a continuity. This was a cold consolation to draw, but if you were living in a paper bag it had a charm all the more seductive for being ascetic. I found myself unable to stop learning his poems by heart.

Later on, when I wrote my first critical article about him, I fatuously chastised him for his obliquity, and said that his poetry fascinated me despite my not much liking it. In just such a way, men say of the woman they love, but who is giving them a hard time, that they love her but don’t much like her. The truth always was that I loved his poetry, and in the matter of his obscurity I didn’t even have the courage of my convictions. Scarcely able to read French prose in those days, I had nevertheless put in the hours memorizing the great modern French poems since Tristan Corbière and Laforgue — my recital of them would have made a comic performance excelling even the only intact speech in French by Edward Heath that we have on tape — and I had reached the correct conclusion that Rimbaud’s ‘Bâteau Ivre’ was an inexhaustibly rich treasure house, a true masterpiece. But I still believed then, and partly believe today, that its magnificence comes at a high price to the reader, who sometimes can only feign to be abreast of its action. Rimbaud had once written a new poem on a cafe table, using his own fresh excrement for ink. If I had been the proprietor of the cafe, I would have charged the pungent little vandal double for the mess and triple for not making sense. But he did make a kind of sense, of course; and so, I gradually realized, did Porter. Not all that much later still, when I wrote about Porter again, my conclusions reflected my awareness that the way I had learned his poems without trying proved that they had a certain kind of intelligibility after all. In fact they were as understandable as could be while getting so much in.

In recent times I have had the privilege of collaborating and contending with him in several series of dialogues for ABC radio in Australia, and the subject of intelligibility in poetry has often come up. Though I still think he is too generous in finding Wallace Stevens valuable as a whole instead of in part, and in rating the later, deliberately opaque Ashbery as high as the earlier Ashbery whose thread I can follow, the Porter line on this point is hard to rebut. It is not, after all, as if he endorses holus bolus the idea of poetry written for poets, and he positively dislikes the idea of music composed for musicians. Loving music too much to put up with the music that has no inspiration beyond its own technique, he feels the same way about poetry. He would be no more likely to quote J. H. Prynne than to whistle anything by Schoenberg after Verklärter Nacht. But he is right to think that there can be poetry that makes sense of itself beyond any argument paraphrasable in prose. The evidence has been in since the very earliest Eliot that tone and intensity can do the uniting in a poem, and the weight of its fragments can hold them together. Porter still writes that way, becoming clearer and clearer as he goes on only because he has always written that way, and his approach to a theme has become part of our repertoire of recognition. As now, so then, his characteristic tone was of a delphic bulletin you couldn’t quite follow, illustrated with imagery you couldn’t forget. If he had not been driven by a sense of structure, he would have been impossible to remember even by the phrase. But I found myself remembering him by the line, and then by lines that linked inseparably to each other: by stanzas, in other words, although he did not always write in stanza form. Indeed his signature form in those days was a one-piece oratorical extravaganza, welded together by the arc-light intensity of the paragraphs that had been drawn into it. Paragraphs like this:

Outside by the river bank, the local doctor
Gets out of his ’47 Vauxhall, sucking today’s
Twentieth cigarette. He stops and throws it
Down in the mud of the howling orchard.
The orchard’s crouching, half-back trees take the wind
On a pass from the poplars of the other bank.
Under the scooping wind, a conveyor-belt of wrinkles,
The buckled river cuts the cramping fields.

The poem was called ‘Death in the Pergola Tea-Rooms’ and soon I knew it all, or anyway I could recognize any line from it, which is really the way we learn poems by heart unless we deliberately set out to memorize every word for performance on stage. Because I never put in the donkey work of rote learning, I never could recite the whole of ‘Who Gets the Pope’s Nose’ without making a mistake. But it wasn’t often in the next four decades that I failed to remember its last stanza, especially when I was suffering from the effects of too many cheap cigars in a hot foreign city: New York in August, for example, or Buenos Aires in January.

And high above Rome in a room with a wireless
The Pope also waits to die.
God is the heat in July
And the iron hand of pus tightening in the chest.
Of all God’s miracles, death is the greatest.

Here was an unmistakable music, but it wasn’t the music of a bush ballad. It was a music that went back at least as far as the tough articulation of Metaphysical poetry: at least as far as Donne. The displaced and reinforced rhythms of St Lucy’s Day were somewhere behind the way that line about the heat exploited the momentum of the line before it. ‘The Pope also waits to die.’ (Wait for it.) ‘God is the heat in July’. Even remembering it under your breath, you had to observe the heart-seizure of delay as the first line turned over into the second: the staccato pause before a dying fall. But Porter didn’t have to go to Rome to get the sense of Christendom winding up. He could get that in Harrods. There had been nothing startling about that death knell since The Waste Land. What was startling was the energy: the snap and syncopation of the dirge, as if the orchestra on the tilting deck of the Titanic, instead of playing ‘Abide With Me’, had broken into ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You’. Porter, like Amis and Larkin, might be delivering the opinion that England was all but dead: but, again like them, he was delivering it in an English language that was as exultantly alive as it had ever been in its greatest flowering. This was what I liked best about the best of the poetry that came out of what was journalistically known as the Movement: that it continued to be lyrical even as it pushed on into the furthest reaches of resignation, whether personal or political. (Porter is usually assigned membership in the Group, which followed the Movement: but by now, I think, we can afford to shuffle those tags, if we can’t forget them altogether.) Those two areas, the personal and political, were connected, of course: for an artist they always are — one of the main reasons why artists aren’t to be trusted in their political opinions. But Porter, especially, could scarcely conceal the impresario’s delight he took in assembling the last things and counting them off. If this was a Totentanz out of Holbein, it had lyrical flourishes out of Charlie Parker. Perhaps motivated by my personal circumstances at the time — there was a Haslemere girl in a cashmere twin-set and tartan skirt ensemble who didn’t want me to touch any of it or even breathe out in the same room — I especially admired the closing couplets of a dramatic monologue called ‘Made in Heaven’. Clearly the poem was taking its heartfelt revenge on some unattainable young woman who had married for advantage, and had lived to repent at leisure. But the poem didn’t take advantage of her: not, anyway, in the sense of neglecting to admit the power of her initial attraction, which had been a poetic power.

As she watched her husband knot his tie for the city,
She thought: I wanted to be a dancer once — it’s a pity

I’ve done none of the things I thought I wanted to,
Found nothing more exacting than my own looks, got through

half a dozen lovers whose faces I don’t quite remember
(I can still start the Rose Adagio, one foot on the fender)

But at least I’m safe from everything but cancer —
The apotheosis of the young wife and the mediocre dancer.

Cancer was much mentioned by Porter, and would go on being so. He wrote about it as if he had it. He didn’t, but it was a useful marker for a theme. Written out more fully, the theme was that the body disintegrates. He wrote about his as if it already had, so for his younger friends it has been progressively more startling as the years go by to find him looking almost exactly the same as when we first met him. (Those of us who have lost our hair find it hard to suppress the suspicion that it has been stolen in the night by those who have kept theirs.) Written out more fully still, the theme would be carpe diem; and the same theme, elevated beyond the personal, would be that society disintegrates too. In this last aspect he fitted all too well into the frame already assigned to Larkin and Amis, both of whom seemed to thrive on the idea that it was all up with the England they loved. In Porter’s poems about the First World War trenches — ‘Somewhere ahead of them death’s stopwatch ticks’ — there was plangent evidence that he had the same sense of a tragic loss of social coherence, even though his sense of the injustice that had made the coherence possible was equally vivid. From all three poets, the sense of an accumulating historical disaster seemed to me irresistibly persuasive on the artistic level, even though I personally believed that history was getting better all the time. By and large I endorsed Sartre’s joke on the subject. It was the only successful joke Sartre ever made, so we ought not to be shy about repeating it. Sartre said that he could have no real quarrel with history, because it led up to him. My three chosen poets had the opposite opinion: even Amis, superficially the most self-assured of men, showed signs to the keen eye that he felt disabled by the cultural wreckage piled up around him, and neither Larkin nor Porter made any secret of it. That they could treat this shared vision with an eloquence precluding sentimental indulgence was surely a sufficient claim to seriousness. In my own view of the way poetry in the English language was coping with post-war reality, their accumulating achievement was at least the equal of what was coming out of America. By picking on these three I don’t mean to say that there weren’t other Britain-based voices who impressed me just as much. I found much to memorize in the early collections of Thom Gunn, and David Holbrook, though he turned hopelessly chatty afterwards, had one poem, featuring the daunting line ‘I do not want to have had my day’, which for me permanently nailed down the feeling of falling apart that comes when you realize you have postponed your visit to the dentist for so long that he will call an ambulance if you finally turn up and open your mouth. Donald Davie, whose Olympian stance and de haut en bas critical attitude drove me high up the wall for the way they left Herbert von Karajan looking diffident, had one poem that I thought splendid: ‘Remembering the Thirties’. And, of course, one good poem is enough to make you a poet. (One major poem is enough to make you a major poet, for that matter: another bogus classification crying out to be ignored.) But these three poets, Amis, Larkin and Porter, were clearly going to go on being excellent, no matter what the critical opposition.

Some of the critical opposition was home-grown, and from a powerfully influential source. Al Alvarez not only thought that Ted Hughes got in more of the angst of the modern world than Larkin, he thought that the American heavyweights got in more of it than any of the British English poets at all. Lowell and Berryman, according to Alvarez, were the grownups: the poets who flew in the face of danger using its hot wind for uplift. Sylvia Plath’s suicidal commitment was a proof of seriousness. In comparison with the American effort, anything home-grown was threatened by the enervating heritage of the genteel. Only Hughes and a few others could hope to break out, to break through. Alvarez’s presentation of this line was dramatic, obviously heartfelt, and, as always with him, argued with a command of rhetoric all the more persuasive for being tersely stated. I didn’t like to disagree with him. Reverential by nature for anyone who can write an elegant sentence, I have never enjoyed disagreeing with the essayists I look up to. Lately, as an Australian who believes that the still-flourishing Japanese right wing should not be encouraged in the convenient fantasy that the United States tricked their country into World War II, I felt bound to disagree in print with Gore Vidal, from whose earlier prose I learned a lot about the assembled sweep of plain rhythms. But in condemning American imperialism he had neglected to examine the extent to which he himself carried American imperialist assumptions, and I thought he needed to be called out on it. Much earlier, and presuming hugely on my scarcely established position, I had felt obliged to call Alvarez out on what I saw as the dangerous extent to which he was praising as professional commitment the careerist presumption of the American poets in taking the whole world’s suffering upon themselves, not just as if it were their responsibility — all artists feel responsible for everything — but as if it were somehow mirrored in their own interior drama, their unblushingly proclaimed psychic turmoil. It was the desire and pursuit of the whole: a potentially misleading desire, in my view, and a doomed pursuit. Convinced that Hannah Arendt had been right when she said that an artist is making a mistake when he views his own soul as the battlefield of history, I thought that the British poets, in restricting their historical and geographic scope, had a better chance of being true to the world beyond their set borders. None of them would have been capable of the blasphemous foolishness shown by Lowell when he described the dead Sylvia Plath as rising in her saddle to slash at Auschwitz. The British poets didn’t even mention Auschwitz. They had their own worries closer to home, and universal resonance, I thought, was more likely to arise from the treatment of those than from self-consciously, and self-servingly, addressing a big theme.

But Porter did mention Auschwitz, as confidently as he mentioned the Battle of the Somme. One of my British poets was an Australian, and what separated him from Larkin and Amis was the overt, stated inclusiveness of his historical range. Neither Amis nor Larkin much liked the place they called ‘abroad’. Porter loved it. Much more than theirs, his curiosity was at home everywhere, and in all times. He ranged further, and further back, than the echt British poets had chosen to find legitimate. Larkin deplored the very idea of writing poems about paintings. Porter wrote poems like that all the time. Amis, in one of his finest poems, harked as far back as a European princeling who had to bring his land to ruin before finding out the elementary truths about decent behaviour. But Amis rarely harked back as far as ancient Rome. Porter practically lived in ancient Rome: he was on quipping terms with Martial. I hadn’t thought Alvarez right when he argued that provincialism was a disabling flaw in the home-grown poets. But there could be no doubt that he was right in thinking them provincial. They were proudly so; and effectively so; but being so, there was bound to be a great number of reference points that they left out, even when the reference points were in their heads. Porter used what was in his head. There was a lot in there, and, as we now know, there was to be a lot more.

In the best sense, the body of Porter’s work, both in poetry and in prose, is an education: an education both for him and for us. From his published beginnings, he showed none of the mandatory Movement diffidence about a display of erudition, and he has gone on to build in print the university that he never attended, and which can’t be attended by anyone in any other form but this. What the Germans call Bildung is made manifest as the work of a lifetime. His body of poetry, in particular — his enchantingly conversational prose serves, but as a subsidiary — reminds us of how Proust would bring into his great book anything that excited him about the humanities. A critical anthology as well as a novel, A la recherche du temps perdu is forever in search of understanding: the understanding depends on what has already been understood by others; and Porter’s poetry works in the same way. In the field of classical music alone, his poetry could serve as the ideal introduction for the beginner, and the ideal reminder for the adept that the treasury of achievement belongs not to an individual nation, or even to the West, but to the world. And as with culture, so with history, the vivid pyramid built by this benevolent pharaoh marks a tomb asking to be plundered before it is even occupied. How does Porter escape Arendt’s dictum that an artist should not pretend that his own soul is a measure of all the world’s agonies? He escapes it by his selflessness. All who know him in real life are well aware that he is the most selfless of men. But there are seemingly humble people who are monuments of conceit in their public work. You would not need to know this artist personally, only to know his art, to realize that he is selfless even at the centre of his creative impulse. His famous poems written in honour of his first wife’s tragic death are merely the most obvious example. It took a supremely self-effacing poet to make a subject of the awkward fact that he couldn’t help seeing such an event as an opportunity for expression as well as a cause for grief. Milton never did that for Lycidas, or Tennyson for Hallam. You might say that it was a specifically modern possibility. But even in the framework of that modern ambition in which anything at all is grist to the mill, it was a specifically Porter possibility. Confessional poetry, of the type exemplified by Lowell when he printed his ex-wife’s letters without permission, excuses itself from ordinary responsibility on the grounds of a higher calling. Porter excused himself nothing. He made a self-examining, and indeed self-flagellating, subject out of the poet’s unstoppable urge to make poetry: the necessary shame of seeing inspiration in absolutely anything. You could call it recklessness if you liked, but surely a better word was courage. The hallmark, then as always in his work, was a sense of intellectual adventure.

Being Australian helped. Offended locals often remarked of the post-war Australian expatriates that they were treating the world as their oyster. Actually the first wave of Australian invaders into Britain were music-and-theatre people stretching from Melba through to Robert Helpmann. The second wave were the war correspondents: Chester Wilmot, and the commanding figure of Alan Moorehead, later to be the acknowledged mentor of Robert Hughes. Porter, Barry Humphries and Michael Blakemore were in the third wave, and the bunch to which I belonged were only the fourth. When my lot hit the beach, it was still not realized that these occasional incursions were adding up to a determined assault. No doubt I was unusually clueless, about that as about everything, but as I dug my foxhole below the dunes it took me some time to realize that Porter had already gone in miles ahead by parachute. As Baudelaire pointed out, writers who use military metaphors are laying claim to a belligerence whose physical consequences they would prefer to avoid. So I hasten to point out that there never was a battle, because there was never any real opposition. Except perhaps in Haslemere, Britain welcomed us with an open house. No criticism from the natives ever equalled the opprobrium from home, where for a long time the expatriates were thought of as having sold Australia short. But in fact they exemplified Australia’s greatest strength, and carried it with them as a flag. They were confident that the whole heritage of the arts, learning and history was theirs to be possessed by right. If anything about the Australians appalled the resident intellectual, it wasn’t their accents or their table manners, it was their world-eating propensity to loot the museum of history. Unplaceable by class, the Australians had no inhibiting expectations that they would be stopped at the door. The native assumptions of accreditation by background did not apply to them. They did not believe that they needed a double-barrelled surname to walk at large in Europe.

In the literary field, Porter was an early example of this freedom. Now nobody is astonished to find Germaine Greer helping herself to a naked young male body by Praxiteles, although she hopes that they will be astonished by what she says about it. The old Empire has turned upside down; Australia is a productive demonstration that the colonial investment didn’t all end up in the debit column; and Australian voices help to project the English language, with a nasal shading to the vowels perhaps, but with all its resources fully and boldly deployed. Peter Porter is a big part of that Australian expatriate story, which even in Australia is now seen to be part of the total Australian story of an emergent, rapidly proliferating culture growing on the well-grounded trellis of political stability. Australian literature has become a thing of glamour. Inevitably, Australian poetry, as a highlight of the literary picture, is becoming a thing of glamour too. Already there is talk about which one is the Australian poet, Peter Porter or Les Murray. Actually both know that there are many other Australian poets who count. Murray writes about the late Philip Hodgins, and Porter about the late John Forbes. Both died too young; neither ever really left home for long; and they would have been enough to establish a national literature by themselves.

But really there is no such thing as a national literature. There is only literature, and a nation can participate in it only by ceasing to be nationalistic. Nor is there any competition between stars, although the illusion that there can be is the inevitable consequence of literature being granted journalistic attention. It could be said that Murray is to Porter as Heisenberg is to Einstein: Murray dealing with the subatomic world, and Porter with everything from the atomic to the celestial. It could be said that Porter is to Murray as Haydn is to Mozart, with the proviso that nobody can understand Mozart who does not love Haydn. These hyperbolic things could be said, and probably will be: but they should be said only as part of the inexorable buzz of commentary that swarms around a successful literature — a buzz it craves, so why protest? It’s a Condé Nast world. But it’s also a more serious world than that, and Porter has helped to make it so. In doing so, he exults, even as the last things gather to overwhelm him. One of his later collections is called Fast Forward. Perhaps I am especially fond of it because it is dedicated to me: one of the biggest honours I have ever been paid; an honour so big that I have never known how to thank him. The poems in Fast Forward are, as always, mainly flashbacks, but they do point to a future: a permanent future, built on the hope that is left when all disappointments have been faced. You can’t say that of those who have suffered unjustly, and Porter is always careful not to say it. But he does say it about himself, even in the poem called ‘Dejection, an Ode’. If this is dejection, listen to the vaulting music of its opening paragraph. I said earlier that in his first poems you could hear a sonority both colloquial and erudite. Well, here, in 1984, you still could, and even today you still can.

The oven door being opened is the start of
The last movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony —
The bathroom window pushed up
Is the orchestra in the recitative
Of the Countess’s big aria in Figaro, Act Three.
Catch the conspiracy, when mundane action
Borrows heart from happenings. We are surrounded
By such leaking categories the only consequence
Is melancholy. Hear the tramp of the trochees
As the poet, filming his own university,
Gets everything right since Plato.

But the strength of those lines depends on a poet who knows that he can’t get everything right since Plato: he can only desire to, and be as true as he can to the desire. Everything is indeed connected to everything else, but suffering is still suffering; injustice is still injustice; and the four horsemen will always ride. Our consolation is that even our metaphors of destruction are human creations. The same horses once drew the sun out of the sea. They are there again above the portico of St Mark’s in Venice, and one of them shakes its mane in Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Navona. Art, thought, the humanities, creativity itself: it really is a unity. Until it ends, it can’t be started again; it can only be added to; and Peter Porter, by helping us to see, hear and think in his way, has added to it abundantly. What was it he said about the fifth horse, Phar Lap? It was his simple excellence to be best.

TLS, 13 February 2004. This essay was first presented as a keynote lecture for the Peter Porter symposium organized by the Graduate School of English Studies, University College London, and by the Robert Menzies Centre.


At the Melbourne Festival in 2000 Peter Porter and I went on stage to do nothing for an hour except talk together about literature. The unscripted dialogue attracted a gratifying amount of approbation, much of it centred on the fact that we had done a lot of quoting from memory. To the blushing surprise of us both, to quote from memory was hailed as a rare and daunting display of skill from the exotic past, like scrimshaw, wampum and the ability to measure distance in miles instead of kilometres. The dialogue between literati was itself regarded as an unusual form — which, indeed, in the non-English-speaking countries it is, although in Germany and France it is common, and in a country like Argentina it is a staple (Borges and Sabato said some of their best things while talking to each other). In the age of the interview and the profile, two question-and-answer forms that have been worked to death, Porter and James found themselves in the delicious position of having started something new. The word of mouth got out from Melbourne and the media moved in. Radio really counts in Australia — the publishers would rather have their writers on radio than on television — so we had good reason to be pleased when the ABC invited us to try the same dialogue form from a radio studio. The distinguished arts producer Jill Kitson pressed the buttons in Melbourne when Porter and I went into the ABC’s studio in London for our first series of six dialogues. The programmes went to air in Australia as soon as post-production had been completed in Melbourne (post-production consisted mainly of toning down my heavy breathing) and they worked well enough on the national network for Jill Kitson to commission another series, which was duly followed, in the course of time, by a couple more, to a grand total of twenty-four programmes, with, we hope, more to come. In the pub after each recording session we try to make it a rule not to talk away the material for the next one, but the rule is hard to keep. Most writers, when they talk to each other at all, talk about sex, money, physical ailments, and the unending perfidy of their literary enemies. Porter and I talk about those things too, but we have always enjoyed talking about the arts, and the chance to do so on the air has been very welcome. With an uncharacteristic stroke of acumen, I retained the webcasting rights, and all the dialogues can be heard in the Audio section of, together with, in the Video section, a television dialogue we recorded in my living room. (Viewers are free to decide whether faces add anything to voices: I think, in this case, on the whole, not.)

Like many of the best things in life, this broadcasting partnership happened by accident, and was followed up more through self-indulgence than through altruism. But every writer cherishes the dream of setting the young on fire, even if only by a cigarette butt tossed casually over the shoulder, and when we meet young people who say that they were inspired by what we said to rush off and read the books we were talking about, we can congratulate ourselves for all those guilty hours when, the last two left after a long lunch, we went on arguing about everything we knew. He knows more than I do, but if I live long enough I might catch up; and that’s the way some of the young Australian writers feel about both of us, or so they say. Not that you can trust them 2.54 centimetres. We’re agreed on that.