Peter Porter, who died on 23rd April 2010 at the age of 81, was one of the finest poets of the late 20th century. This interview was conducted in January 2003, and is published here for the first time.by Duncan Fallowell / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Born in Brisbane on 16th February 1929, Porter emigrated from Australia in 1951 and spent almost all of his subsequent life in England. In 1955, following a troubled early career and two suicide attempts, he began attending meetings of The Group, a poetry discussion group founded by Cambridge graduates Philip Hobsbaum, Tony Davis and Neil Morris. Porter’s first significant publication came in 1958 in Delta magazine; in 1960 his poem “Metamorphosis” was printed in the Times Literary Supplement and brought him wider attention.
Porter’s first collection, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, was published in 1961. He went on to release over 20 more collections—the last, Better Than God, on his 80th birthday in 2009. Although never as famous as some of his contemporaries, such as Ted Hughes, an occasional attendee at The Group, Porter won wide recognition in his productive later years. His honours included the 1988 Whitbread poetry award, the 2002 Forward poetry prize and the 2002 Queen’s gold medal for poetry. In 2007, he was made a Companion of the Royal Society of Literature.
Cleveland Square is among the grander survivals of lesser Bayswater, that land of immigrant bedsitters and cheap hotels drifting into Paddington and towards Notting Hill Gate. Its north side, freestanding, is palatial, while the other three sides have a curious cramped quality. The houses are large, but not wide enough, and are run together in long, tight terraces of cream stucco. Peter Porter has lived in one or other of these since 1960.
I’m ushered into the living room through those heavy swirling curtains known as draft-excluders. Gas and plug-in heaters are plonked about the place—there is no central heating. He goes to make the tea while I get back my breath. Books. Sofas. No antiques that I can make out. It is cosy, except that the hissing heaters remind me of the dentist in childhood.
“This square was lovely when I first came, nice and slummy.” He hands me a packet of biscuits. “Now it’s full of the super-rich with their horrible cars.”
Obviously he doesn’t drive. So many poets can’t.
“You’re an old-fashioned leftie.”
“Oh yes, completely. And unlike the lefties of my acquaintance, like Chris Hitchens, I don’t spend my whole time dining at rich men’s tables, that Ken Tynan thing. A perfect example of the falsity which was inherent in Tynan is this story—he was in a…