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 restaurant and being particularly difficult and demanding of the waiters and his companion said ‘Look, Ken, I thought you were a believer in equality. Why are you treating the servitors in this fashion?’ Tynan replied ‘To encourage their sense of grievance and hasten the day of their fightback.’”
“How did you come to live here?”
“One of my old friends, now dead unfortunately, was the Sydney girl [and actress], Jill Neville, a great beauty in her day. She came over on the boat with me. She got married to an appalling man called Peter Duvall-Smith and she was leaving her flat to settle in Rosslyn Hill with him. So we moved into Jill’s flat on the ground floor of 43 Cleveland Square in the spring of 1960.
“A few months later Jill rang up and said ‘Look, I’ve got to have my flat back.’ And we said—I was living with my first wife but we weren’t married yet—but you can’t have it, we’ve just got here. But Jill was pregnant and Peter had buggered off, so we had to give in and luckily were able to move down to the basement at the start of 1961. I was married from that basement. My first wife was a doctor’s daughter from Marlow. In 1963 we got a place across the road at 27 until 1968, when the old lady who owned the house died. This place became available in March or April 1968. It was a good place to bring up our two daughters because of the gardens in the centre. Like everything that’s good in England, it’s unfair—only the people who live in the square can use the gardens.”
“But that’s very important—otherwise the gardens would be rubbished like everything else.”
“That’s perfectly true. The people who lived here then—I suppose there was some upward mobility but most of the mobility seemed to be downwards.”
“Have you ever been burgled or mugged in London?”
“Been burgled—at number 27. Never mugged. I’ve only been in a fight once and I started it. That was jealousy. Some bloke was screwing a girl I wanted. It was by the Thames.”
One can hardly imagine it—yes, Porter is big, but he is also kindly and cherub-faced.
“Do you feel jealousy a lot?”
“No. I feel envy, not jealousy. Jealousy is like the dog with the bone that growls if anyone comes near it. Iago says to Othello ‘Beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is a green-eyed monster that doth feed upon thee.’ Othello isn’t envious. He just doesn’t want anyone to get near Desdemona. Envy is less damaging and more widely experienced but in the end it’s also a horrible emotion because it’s the desire to be like someone else. Why is Derek Walcott an admired poet? I don’t admire him.”
“You’ve got his Collected Poems. I’ve seen them on a shelf.”
“But I don’t like them. Why is Seamus Heaney the most famous living poet? Very nice man, talented, but well below the level of greatness. I can also be envious of people who can do things I can’t. I’d love to wake up one day and be Stravinsky.”
“You said somewhere that literature is inferior to music.”
I’ve glimpsed his study shelves. They are lined with CDs.
“Oh much inferior, yes.”
“But it’s not a competition.”
“Music is like breathing. We makes noises, rather than speech, when we’re really pleased. And the true musical geniuses are always copious.”
“But he’s not up there with Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Bach.”
“I think he is. I have this modern taste for concentration.”
“Look at Haydn—83 string quartets, 104-odd symphonies, and each one a masterpiece.”
“Whenever I think of Haydn I see a Singer sewing-machine. You’ve got this big German thing.”
“German is the only language I have a feeling for.”
“How many languages apart from English do you speak?”
I’m talking a bit too much. But Porter is tremendously garrulous and it encourages me. Of all the people I’ve ever interviewed, only Dame Alicia Markova, the ballerina and choreographer, could take the ball and run away with it more. With Alicia you never got the ball back. But Porter likes exchange.
He is also producing more and more poetry the older he gets. A spewing forth out of loneliness and neglect, logorrhoeic with the approach of death, an urgency of effusion because he started late or feels he did. When I said on the phone “I’ve read your Collected Poems of 1983,” he replied “I’ve written as much again since then.” So his conversation is as copious as his Haydns and Bachs, interesting and fast, but easy; he is so easy to be with. His poetry too has this affability. You can read it on an aeroplane or in bed. Its obscurity is charming, not threatening, its surrealism is gentle (Delphi: the clouds are parked in the fields).
Porter is a cultural tourist. Europe is his favourite theme park. That isn’t the problem—after all, Europe is the richest part of the planet, culturally; its culture has conditioned the world; and Australia is a European country. But in Porter’s work is there too much imagery, not enough intellect? Too much rhetoric, not enough revelation?
“I always think of a poet as a counsellor arguing a case. Most people think poets are lyrical. Poetry it seems to me is a rhetorical art. I know Yeats said ‘Strangle rhetoric.’ But you should be wary of what poets say about poetry.”
Porter likes to use words to clothe and elaborate himself. Is this what rhetoric is? He is a soft poet, not a hard poet, he of the creamy ear. He is a cat person and his poems have feline sinuosity. Somehow the following—from his poem “Real People” in the 1970 collection The Last of England—is not cruel:
In the chartreuse glow of the tropical fish tank, the doctor tells me his good news: the better the new cures the longer the teeth of the thing that gets you in the end
The word cancer crops up a lot, prowling softly, an abiding modern fear, like terrorism, the elusive, uncontained menace against which you cannot take effective precautions.
“Yes, a lot of people I knew died of cancer. There was a boy at my school whom I detested. Suddenly he died of cancer. I didn’t know what to feel—pleased or ‘how awful for someone so young.’ I’m frightened of illness. I suffer from physical fear. Terribly nervous on aeroplanes. That line—is it David Lodge?—a man shivering with fear in his aeroplane seat says ‘If God had intended me to fly he would’ve given me courage.’”
“Your mother died early.”
“Yes. From illness.”
“No. A ruptured gall bladder. Which developed into septicaemia. In 1938 there were no antibiotics for that sort of thing.”
“If your mother had been alive when you wanted to come to England…”
“I wouldn’t have come.”
“That’s a very important admission.”
“Yes, it is. She died when I was nine. I came to England when I was 21. Who knows what would’ve happened in between if she’d been alive?”
“You’ve said that coming to England was an escape from family suffocation—but it seems more like an escape from sadness, from loneliness.”
“I think it was, yes. I was a bit of a mummy’s boy, an only child. My mother had lots of miscarriages. My father was quite old when I was born, in his forties. He lived to be 97. But I came to England out of a burning desire to escape from Australia. There were a lot of very neurotic people around, in my family particularly.”
“Were there lots of aunts around? You became a parcel.”
“They were dreadful. My mother’s sisters all married successful businessmen. I was the poor relation. I was farmed out a lot. But I was a difficult, unpleasant little boy because I was suffering from—I think you could call it grief.”
“Yes. And I was sent off to boarding school at the age of nine and spent the next nine years in them. They were brutal camps. My father spent all his money sending me to schools and had nothing left to send me to university. So I had to work and began as a cub reporter on the Brisbane Courier—there is no lower possible start to a career in literature.”
“Do you ever feel guilty about living here instead of in Australia?”
For a long time he didn’t go back. Now he goes back regularly, “But my returns have always been in the Australian winter. I’m not very good in the heat. I haven’t seen an Australian summer for over 50 years. But that will change with my next visit at the end of this year because I’m visiting my daughters, who are out there now.”
Porter was born in the year of the Wall Street crash, 1929. “A terrible time of poverty and unemployment,” he emphasises.
“I never think of that for Australia,” I say. “For me it is always oranges, surf, white villas, fabulous landscape.”
“It was a period of great faddery, people forget that, but Australia had a frightful time in the 1930s. My rich aunts used to welcome poor country boys down from the bush, boys who’d never seen the sea, who smelt, who didn’t have proper clothes. The first school I went to in Brisbane, half the kids came to school in bare feet.”
His father, born in Australia in 1885, was pro-British but never left the country, and worked in what they called Manchester goods: imported cottons. His grandfather on his mother’s side came from Glasgow and worked in the same trade.
“A lot of Australia was owned by British companies in the 1930s and to get their money, they sent carpetbaggers out from London to squeeze the Australians—because everybody in Britain was suffering badly as well. Sir Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England, was sent out specifically to make Australia pay wartime debts. Which is one reason the English are not very popular in Australia.”
“Would you vote for a republic?”
“Oh, yes. But I’m not passionate about it. I’m in favour of an English republic too. When I was awarded the Queen’s gold medal for poetry, I wondered whether I ought to accept it.”
He did, of course. And he doesn’t write republican poetry—his line More means worse comes to me. Like many socialists he is intoxicated by the patrician world. More than any living poet I know he revels in the grandeur of European culture.
“Palaces obviously turn you on.”
“Oh yes. But the republics of Greece and Rome were very high culture. I don’t think whether you’re a monarchist or a republican has anything to do with whether you fancy high or low culture.”
In many ways he is the opposite of the author Patrick White, who was born in London and educated in England and returned to his ancestral land to become the great elegist of Australian society. Porter has come to Europe to remind us of our greatness. As the English surrender their sense of place without a fight, he strives to tell us who and where we are.
Yet his most moving poems are on Australian themes. His voice is entirely Australian in accent—but again light, soft, fleet-footed, tinted with wry Ozzie humour and candour. He is also shy. He admits it: “Australians aren’t tongue-tied but they are shy in many respects.”
A book was written about Porter called Spirit in Exile. This is going too far. He is obviously not in exile.
“Yes, I objected to the title.”
“I don’t think Australians can be expatriate in the UK. They can in France.”
“My family had no surviving connection with the UK but the education I received was wholly in British culture. You have to be careful not to fall into the mistake which Ezra Pound fell into. He said Europeans were unworthy custodians of their own culture.”
“But Pound invented modern poetry that way.”
“He did, yes. You could argue that was through a misunderstanding of Robert Browning and Walt Whitman.”
“Yes, mistakes can be very creative.”
“The most radical thing Pound did,” he continues, “was break the power of the iambic foot. He put the emphasis on the first syllable of the foot rather than the second. Therefore his poetry doesn’t sound as though it is connected to Shakespeare. And Auden went on to say we’ve had enough of that, let’s go back to the iambic tradition.”
“You mention Auden a lot. Are you trying to escape him or embrace him?”
“I think everything you love very much, which is deeply part of you, is something you have to escape from. As Auden himself thought. Which is why he went to America. I hate the English for not forgiving him for going to America. It is so mean-minded. He didn’t do much explaining but he did visit the British consul in Washington and offered to come back and do anything useful.”
“Was he a friend of yours?”
“No, but I knew him. I couldn’t have been a friend of his because I wasn’t homosexual or useful to him. Auden was a great authority. Even Cyril Connolly could be reduced to tears by him. Have you seen that letter Auden wrote to Britten? ‘Grow up, Benjie, stop being such a little boy.’”
“One might well have said that to Auden in some respects.”
“He was a mummy’s boy—but tough.”
“I was thinking more of his love life. Choosing to build his life round the unpleasant Chester Kallman.” Who after the initial sexual encounter refused to have further sexual contact with Auden and picked up people in front of his partner and went off with them. Maybe Auden needed torture.
I turn to Porter’s own work. “Having just read your poems straight through, I have the feeling that with the 1975 book Living in a Calm Country your poetry suddenly moved forward, became more mature. It’s very noticeable to me.’
“That might be true. I’d been struggling. My daughters were born in 1962 and 1965. I was kicked out of my job in advertising in 1968. I got an asbestos handshake. Because I was no good at it. I’d got to know Ian Hamilton…”
“The alcoholic? I had a big fight with him.”
“So did I. But I ended up very fond of him. He’d had enough of being the poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement and passed the job on to me. John Gross gave me the sack after a year and a half. I was paid so little anyway.”
“But a regular cheque is delightful.”
“It is. In 1973 Terry Kilmartin took me on as poetry critic for the Observer which I was for almost 20 years. It was never a popular feature but Terry thought it important. Now I find that the Observer is just a desolation of celebrities.”
How, I ask, does he write a poem?
“A poet’s a bit like a sheep who walks through a burr field. Something gets in its wool. It won’t be happy until the burr is teased out. In my case, there was little encouragement. I’m not sure one needs encouragement—I’m rather against creative writing classes.”
“Have you ever been a writer in residence?”
“Oh yes, I’ve done that. You feel half like one of those prostitutes in Amsterdam, sitting naked in front of a large window, and half like a vet receiving students with their sick little pets. There are two things which stop you going mad—creating something and dreaming. I wasn’t precocious, I wasn’t particularly gifted, I had to work hard to get anywhere.”
Don’t we all.
“You’ve answered the question why you write a poem. I asked how do you write a poem.”
“I write in books, never on loose sheets. Always in longhand, mostly Biro. About a third of my work now is in rhymed stanzas. I have an idea and often change it a lot in the process of writing and cover the page with arrows, indications, replacements.”
“Like a drawing.”
“Then I type it out and frequently change it again. I have a folder of newly-written poems which I’m correcting.”
“Do you know what your poems mean?”
“I think I do. It may be more exciting to say that I don’t.”
His poems often resemble highly compressed short stories. The content moves forward. Indeed one is called “Short Story,” another “History.” I think this is one of their most attractive qualities.
“I don’t think I’ve ever consciously written a meaningless sentence. I know poets who do. There’s an admired school up at Cambridge who virtually do that and a school in America of language poets who use words like beads on a thread. But for me half the meaning of poetry is in syntax. The greatest syntactical poet of all time was Milton. Everything is so superbly knitted together.
“I’ve got about 800 unpublished poems but about half of them date from before I published my first book at the age of 32. I was a late starter. I greatly admire people who aren’t. Alexander Pope wrote what I consider to be his most perfect poem, “Essay on Criticism,” at the age of 21. When I came to England I had Australian friends but I didn’t join an Australian ghetto. My career as a poet was largely organised by all these chaps just down from Oxford and Cambridge. George Macbeth, Peter Redgrove and so on. I’ve always found the English intellectual class very welcoming, though I retain the Australian dislike for the English class system.”
“Your early poetry is very class conscious.”
“It was. But I think I don’t have class resentment any more. At the time it was all mixed up with sexual frustration.”
“You couldn’t pull smart birds.”
“Is Melbourne still more posh than Sydney?”
“Yes, although history has gone the Sydney route.
Melbourne was never a convict settlement. Sydney was. Melbourne boomed in the 19th century because of gold and became the headquarters of English gentility.”
“How does New Zealand fit into the antipodean class system?”
“Most Australians don’t know where New Zealand is. I’ve never been there. We think the New Zealanders are more civilised than us but we also think they’re wankers. They are more British. There’s a joke—what do you call a cultured Australian? A New Zealander.”
“So where are we now in your literary career?”
“Towards the end.”
And like most writers, he feels underappreciated and insufficiently understood. As he puts it in the poem “Into the Garden With the Wrong Secateurs,” from his 1994 collection Millennial Fables:
Since privatisation of the means to fame
Post-Modernist thugs control the Book Reviews.
“The children are all grown up. We have grandchildren. My first wife died in 1974. That was self-inflicted.”
“Yes. It’s in a lot of the poems, especially in that book The Cost of Seriousness. Oh… she was an alcoholic. She was also very… I mean I like a drink or two. Wine mostly. It adds to the melancholy of one’s nature.”
“Does wine help you dream up poetry?”
“No. One reason I’m deeply suspicious of Harold Pinter is that I was told once that he writes his plays out of his dreams. In which case he has extremely poverty stricken dreams.”
“What do you enjoy about being over 70?”
“Not very much.”
“They always say that.”
“Largely because I’m not dead but many of my friends are. More positively, I look forward more to the act of writing itself.”
“What are your strengths?”
“I could tell you what my weaknesses are.”
“No, I don’t want to know those.”
One of his early weaknesses was feeling the need for a clever effect at the end of a poem. Another weakness is the way he’ll occasionally spoil a poem with the wrong sort of banality—Sharks would drown if they ceased swimming or Bliss in that dawn! or Nature or Nurture? What I love best is the sense of being shown round by a highly cultivated, unpompous traveller whose personality remains fresh.
“Strengths… a love of mixing and matching words for their own sake. To be a good writer you first have to love words, then you’ll find you have something to say. If you start out with something to say you end up with journalism or propaganda.”
“All right—a weakness—what makes you feel guilty?”
“I can think of some extremely nasty things I’ve done—not big things—but paltry, extraordinarily unpleasant things I feel deeply guilty about. One of the worst things is to be ashamed of the people who are yours, a lover or a family member.”
“Ashamed because they’re not quite up to scratch?”
“Yes, yes, that’s the worst of all. I used to be an outrageous culture snob, like all people who are uncertain how cultured they are. Jill Neville was very pretty and ebullient and I’d correct her in public, saying ‘No, no, it’s Weber the composer.’ But she could get her own back by being ashamed of how terribly unromantic I was. At a party somebody said ‘What do you do?’ and in a deliberate piece of upside-down self-aggrandisement I said ‘I’m a clerk in an office,’ and she said ‘No, no, he’s not. He’s a poet!’”
The Last Wave Before the Breakwater (2004)
The engine dies. The dream has by degree Come to where the green is lightening, the rocks Are somewhere in the civil distance—sea Is moving up in mist, a paradox Within this calm. Something is now to be.
The storm is distant, just the lights behind The eyes are left of lightning’s ambuscade, But still the swell is present in the mind And now the panoply of waves is made By memory and allegory combined.
And it is here, the last surviving wave Which starting years away was following, A true occasion which the heart might save Its courage for. A very little thing, It says to die, to rhyme into a grave.
And know the dreaming self will not relent Or convalescent mind afford its hope, The voyage ending here before its end, No harbour lights, no casting of a rope, Wordless, auxiliary and irredent.
From “The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems” by Peter Porter (Picador, £12.99)