One of the greatest elegies of the 20th century was written in a flat-roofed Australian beach house beside scribbly-gums and banksias in 1975. The poem and the circumstances out of which it grew are painful. Nearly 20 years ago the poet allowed an Australian academic, Bruce Bennett, to publish details of the events behind it in Spirit in Exile.
In the 1950s Jannice Henry, an 18-year-old doctor’s daughter from Surrey, fell in love with her father’s locum, Neil Micklem. Their affair lasted for years; Jannice hoped it would end in marriage. It did not. She married instead a 30-year-old advertising copywriter called Peter Porter. He was an Australian immigrant in London, and had written a lot of poems, but published relatively few; she was a nurse who seemed ‘very English’ in accent and tastes, and was admired for having a figure like a ballet dancer. They set up home together in a London flat below that of Porter’s former partner, the Australian novelist Jill Neville. After a fight which seems to have involved Porter throwing Neville into the Thames, the couple had split up. In her 1966 novel Fall-Girl, Neville depicted Porter as Seth, a knuckle-cracking, gawky Australian detester of ‘the English Class Thing’.
Jannice went on writing to Micklem after her marriage. She and Porter had two daughters, but there were quarrels, resentments, silences. Each had affairs. By the 1970s, when Porter was establishing himself as a poet, the marriage was in trouble. Jannice, who had appeared to be happy at home with the children, was suffering from depression and developing a serious alcohol problem. Among her close friends had been Assia Wevill, who in 1969 murdered the daughter she had had with Ted Hughes then killed herself. Jannice was also fascinated by the story of the artist Dora Carrington, another suicide. Worried about the situation, Porter accompanied his wife to a psychoanalyst, but the encounter was disastrous. Jannice refused to go back; Porter did and was told by the doctor (I quote from Bruce Bennett’s book, which gives Porter’s 1988 recollection of the doctor’s words):
From what I have read of your wife’s history, it looks to me as though when you got married … you were both on the rebound from other sexual disasters and misalliances. You were both highly neurotic, highly disturbed, highly nervous, probably to the point of near psychosis. You couldn’t cope, you thought there would be a kind of collective support in this. In practice, what has happened is that you have healed in the marriage and your wife has got worse. She has enabled you to grow strong and become healthy. You have caused her to be destroyed.
In 1974, by which time he had published several accomplished collections, Porter went off to Australia, leaving his wife in London looking after their daughters. He had accepted an invitation to read at the Adelaide Arts Festival, and while in Australia he fell in love with Sally Lehmann, the wife of the poet Geoff Lehmann. Just after he returned to London, Jannice told her husband she wanted to go to her parents’ place for some time alone. He waved her off from Paddington. She phoned London on her first night away; two days later, Porter tried to ring her. No reply. She had gone into the attic where she had slept as a child, had written a note (which Porter was not shown), then downed sleeping pills and a bottle of gin. An open verdict was recorded by the coroner, but Porter was sure she had killed herself. Early in 1975 he returned to Australia and to Sally Lehmann, and wrote ‘An Exequy’, which is patterned on the 17th-century poem of the same title in which ‘Bishop King/Once hymned in tetrametric rhyme/His young wife, lost before her time.’
Porter’s poem begins by acknowledging separation, remorse, confusion and affection:
In wet May, in the months of change,
In a country you wouldn’t visit, strange
Dreams pursue me in my sleep,
Black creatures of the upper deep –
Though you are five months dead, I see
You in guilt’s iconography,
Dear Wife, lost beast, beleaguered child
As the poem builds, it moves towards a heartbreaking simplicity in lines that were quoted by several obituarists when Porter died in May last year:
The channels of our lives are blocked,
The hand is stopped upon the clock,
No one can say why hearts will break
And marriages are all opaque:
A map of loss, some posted cards,
The living house reduced to shards,
The abstract hell of memory,
The pointlessness of poetry –
These are the instances which tell
Of something which I know full well,
I owe a death to you – one day
The time will come for me to pay
When your slim shape from photographs
Stands at my door and gently asks
If I have any work to do
Or will I come to bed with you.
‘Exequy’ changes direction several times. It has moments of humour as well as of ‘black responsibility’. It deploys but also subdues the clever irony that at once hallmarks and holds back so many of Porter’s other poems, allowing his most masterly piece of verse to reach a measured yet unexpected conclusion:
The rooms and days we wandered through
Shrink in my mind to one – there you
Lie quite absorbed by peace – the calm
Which life could not provide is balm
In death. Unseen by me, you look
Past bed and stairs and half-read book
Eternally upon your home,
The end of pain, the left alone.
I have no friend, or intercessor,
No psychopomp or true confessor
But only you who know my heart
In every cramped and devious part –
Then take my hand and lead me out,
The sky is overcast by doubt,
The time has come, I listen for
Your words of comfort at the door,
O guide me through the shoals of fear –
‘Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir.’
As in most elegies, not least those in which men elegise their lovers, there is something self-regarding here. We learn considerably less about the dead woman than we learn about Douglas Dunn’s dead wife in his 1985 Elegies. Some readers may find it odd that the poem ends with the dead woman comforting the grieving husband; except that the German words spoken in the last line may not be wholly comforting: they beckon the guilt-ridden man into death.
Twice in the 1950s (a period of his life still less than thoroughly examined) Porter had tried to gas himself. Often the most memorable moments in his poetry have a disturbingly angled sense of appalling extinction. A poem from his first collection, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, published in 1961, concludes:
London is full of chickens on electric spits,
Cooking in windows where the public pass.
This, say the chickens, is their Auschwitz,
And all poultry eaters are psychopaths.
Porter’s mother, Marion, died suddenly when he was nine. An only child, born after his mother had had five miscarriages, he alluded to this trauma in poems written over at least five decades and saw it as the root of the childhood misfortunes that marked him for life. After his mother’s death, Porter’s grief-stricken father had sent him to his grandfather’s house. Later he was sent to board at the Church of England Grammar School in Brisbane, which he hated. ‘Auschwitz’, he later called it, and said that when he was there he felt almost ‘homicidal rage’. One of his acts of revenge on his father, an enthusiastic grower of red roses, was to sow radishes among them.
The first poem in The Rest on the Flight, a chronologically arranged selection of Porter’s poems deftly edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson, deals with his Scottish Australian ancestry, and with despair-haunted, hard-drinking, church-building men who have ‘no life but the marking-time of work’. Probably with Porter’s father’s garden in mind, it ends with an image of ‘country roses, a hard red wealth’. Porter’s poems are full of autobiographical details transmuted into verse that appears to be effortlessly precise. ‘Mr Roberts’, the second poem in the book, is a verse portrait of the ‘great Consul’, E.H. Roberts, the Latin-loving headmaster at Toowoomba, where Porter was sent after the school in Brisbane. Porter’s early published poems, which were preceded by more than 500 unpublished ones, reveal a poet fusing Auden (not least his sense of the fascistic public school) with his own Australian background and his situation as an immigrant fascinated by London. In ‘Annotations of Auschwitz’ we hear of ‘lives ignoble as ungoverned glands’, which is so Audenesque that it actually anticipates ‘No, Plato, No’ in Thank You, Fog, in which Auden writes of the futility of giving ‘orders’ to his ‘ductless glands’.
Though he is sometimes admired as a socially observant, even mordant poet of 1960s London, with its ‘jeans and bums and sweaters of the King’s Road’ in a world of ‘Market Researchers married into Vogue’, a good deal of Porter’s best poetry, early and late, has Australian resonances. Phrases from his poems of London shine out with self-protective irony; he found his clever-cleverness too hard to resist. But the finest of his early poems are those in which he engages not just with Australia but with his upbringing. ‘Eat Early Earthapples’, published in Penguin Modern Poets 2 (which Porter shared with Kingsley Amis and Dom Moraes in 1962), is skilfully autobiographical. Its ‘eagerly unhappy’ protagonist may be Audenesque in his self-presentation as ‘The boy with something wrong reading a book’, but the setting among prep school boys ‘who made fifty pounds/Over the holidays selling kangaroo hides’ is confidently and sophisticatedly Australian. It is meticulously placed in a milieu where schoolboys and schoolgirls obsess about sex on a train spattered with ‘Queensland Railways’ coal dust’:
So many ways of losing a troublesome innocence
But so many ways of keeping it too. Being troubled,
I found a sophistication which drove me mad
Sitting out dances, a viewed humiliation,
Walking through waltzes on boracic’d floors,
(Chopped horsehair rising, said to make girls sexy).
The girls were nicer than I needed, the Headmaster
Led the Jolly Miller, the knowing athletes
Waited for the Gypsy Tap, their stories next day
Full of what they’d managed on the dark verandah.
The use of the adjective ‘viewed’ is beautifully reinforcing there. The lines, though not end-rhymed, have a strong sense of music in their verbal repetitions (‘So many ways …/But so many ways’), and there are elements of rhyme (‘sophistication … humiliation’) or part-rhyme (‘Walking … waltzes’) ensconced jazzily within the lines. There is pinpoint accuracy (‘boracic’d’) but also an apparently autobiographical candour that makes it moving as well as smartly observed.
Not that he couldn’t do other voices. A bit like his more experimental contemporary, the late Edwin Morgan, another poet whose work catches the 1960s and 1970s splendidly, Porter enjoyed making poems that were consciously artificial – constructed – in their voicing. The best known of these is ‘Your Attention Please’, written in the flat tones of a government information broadcast, and mistaken for such by some anxious listeners to the BBC Third Programme in October 1961 who thought (in an episode that recalls Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds) that there really was an incoming ‘nuclear rocket strike’. BBC bosses were not amused by the ensuing headline in the Daily Mail: ‘Voice of Doom on the Third: H-Rocket Poem Panics Listeners Expecting an Opera.’
Other poems, such as the very impressive ‘Gertrude Stein at Snails Bay’, can also be set beside the work of Morgan, author of ‘Wittgenstein on Egdon Heath’. Porter spent time as a writer-in-residence in Edinburgh in the 1970s, and I remember hearing him read at Glasgow University late in that decade. I suspect that as well as reading Larkin – whose influence can be heard in some church-going Porter poems – he also read Morgan. In both there is an interest in importing foreign material into the poet’s native culture and seeing how the two do or do not align.
I am Miss Stein
and this bay is mine
I am Miss Stein (pronounced Steen)
and this sea is green
That’s Porter, ventriloquising Gertrude Stein; but it could easily be one of the voices of Morgan.
Yet where Morgan, like Miroslav Holub, chose to stay in his native land whether or not he was happy with its literary or party politics, Porter’s relationship with Australia was more problematic. Morgan could write a confident essay in the 1970s entitled ‘The Resources of Scotland’, but it’s hard to think of the young Porter writing an unironic essay called ‘The Resources of Australia’. Porter had a fondness for Renaissance art, well performed classical music and metropolitan culture. He had found these lacking in Queensland. His emigration to London was a difficult escape from his country, and to some extent an only child’s abandonment of his father (who would live on until 1982) – further causes for guilt. His affair with Sally Lehmann made him feel better disposed to the land of his birth. He made several extended visits to her in Australia in the later 1970s, but continued to value the England to which he had emigrated.
Australia presented Porter with more than he sometimes admitted. It gave him, for instance, the education in Latin that underlies After Martial, a gem of a book from 1972. The editors of The Rest on the Flight include more from After Martial than from almost any other single collection. This is a smart move. Porter (who set sail from Australia for London just after his 22nd birthday) clicks with the ancient poet who left Bilbilis in Spain at the age of 24 for the metropolis of Rome. After Martial may have been overshadowed by Tony Harrison’s more recent US Martial, but it holds its own vividly, whether presenting an apprentice ‘knobbly, cataracted/with the expression of a frozen cod’, or just swaggering: ‘I’m all right,/I’m a big frog in Bilbilis.’
Porter hadn’t studied classics at university, he’d simply read a great deal. He never went to university – there wasn’t the money – and veered between the style of a great autodidact (like Burns at his best) who just takes what is needed from high culture, and the less impressive autodidact, who overdoses on it. He had a weakness for lines like ‘Cantilena to their klangschönheit’; when Anthony Thwaite was told some of Porter’s poems were being translated into German, he is said to have asked if they weren’t in German already.
Though Porter came to be lauded in England, it was sometimes for his weaker performances. Not The Cost of Seriousness, his finest book, or After Martial, but less impressive stuff from the 1980s brought him awards. The best of his writing still harked back to the deaths that haunted him; poetry’s ‘task is still to point incredulously/at death’, he wrote, but quite a lot of the other poems in these volumes were just clever stuff, as in ‘Bad Dreams in Naples’:
I’m drinking Ischian white wine,
It’s someone’s piss, not even mine,
And now instead of riding pillion
My head is under Hugo Williams.
This is funny, but Porter’s real ‘bad dreams’ were worse. When he relaxed the cleverness and the deflection of pain through irony, they kept coming back. ‘I cried for sheer simplicity/as though I took an everlasting heart/from my long-buried mother.’ For all his suspicions of academia, Porter could sometimes sound too gabbily professorial. He mocked that weakness in himself, but also succumbed to it. The Rest on the Flight does a fine job of disguising the fact, by leaving out the poems that talk too much.
‘My vernacular was always bookish,’ Porter wrote in a late poem published long after Les Murray had celebrated Australia as ‘the vernacular republic’. Porter’s realignment of his attitude towards his native country, following his affair with Lehmann, led to an engagement with ideas of Australian identity. Living in a Calm Country, published in 1975, contended that ‘Australians are Boeotians’ and engaged in a kind of verse dialogue with Murray. Porter, in part reacting to Murray’s loving depictions of Australian rural life and ideals, championed the ‘permanently upright city’ as a place ‘Where one escapes from what one is and who/One was, where home is just a postmark’. Yet just as Murray can be seen as drawing on metropolitan culture even as he sings the bush, so Porter the apparent urban sophisticate retains a fascination for the ‘Woop Woop’, the back of beyond, in Australian culture – that place from whose ‘famished acres come anecdotes/of men with recipes for “cockatoo-au-vin”’.
The debate between Porter and Murray lies at the heart of modern Australian poetry. In 1986, David Kinloch and I organised a festival of Australian poetry at St John’s College, Oxford and invited Porter to speak about contemporary Australian poetry. In his talk Porter paid tribute to Murray, whom he described as the greatest Australian poet. We already knew that. When we took Porter out for an Indian meal afterwards we tried to conceal from this – as it seemed to us – suspiciously metropolitan poet that we wished we’d had the cash to invite Murray from Australia instead.
When I’d first heard Porter read in Glasgow just after he published The Cost of Seriousness he impressed me. Eight years later over dinner in Oxford he seemed less beguilingly dour than intimidatingly soured. Speaking to young Scottish fans of Murray in Oxford, he must have known there was a lot of wariness in the room. Yet, even if he was sour at times, he didn’t talk down to us. Perhaps we were all a little bored. It just wasn’t possible to speak to him about his greatest work; that was clearly too bound up with personal pain. Instead the conversation had to stay in the shallows. Was that what had gone wrong with Porter’s poetry?
Reading through this astute new selection, I still think there’s a falling off in the later 1980s and early 1990s. Sometimes it’s as if he has been reading Ashbery, but can’t quite pull off the style. He keeps one foot on the ground, whereas Ashbery just levitates into language. There’s something a bit drab in his work at this point, and maybe he knows it:
The heavy spirit of ambition
tells you to write first this way,
then the next, to station envy
at the door of Nature’s clubmates,
circulate among Time’s franchise-takers,
simply to make the most of being here –
there is no coming back, don’t sourpuss
the talent-network which is all you have.
Around this time I stopped reading Porter. Who would want to read lines like these when they could read the Murray of ‘Translations from the Natural World’ instead? Now I see I was wrong to be so narrowly absolute: there are poems that show Porter’s continuing strength. ‘Hardy, 1913’ gives us one great elegist on another, and is utterly telling in its last line: Hardy sits at home remorsefully elegising his first wife, ‘Her pets all killed or dead from his neglect’.
Though they admit tones of self-pity as well as remorse, Porter’s elegies are distinguished by the way they balance a certain egotism with a shrewd critique of egotism. It is this which allows him to perceive both the greatness of Hardy as an elegist and the self-indulgent behaviour which wounded those around him. Part of Porter’s nobility – and he did achieve a kind of disillusioned nobility – was signalled in his conduct after Jannice’s death. However much he was in love with Lehmann, he put his children first. He brought them up alone, and stayed where they wanted to stay, in London.
Porter’s last few collections, published by Picador after Oxford turned its back on new poetry, are not just beautifully accomplished. They are also full of a mellow maturity. There continues to be an unflinching awareness of how ‘The writer who has turned remorse to habit/keeps coming back to his decreed disaster,’ but there is also some sense of resolution. ‘Deuterothanatos’, from his penultimate collection, Afterburner (2004), opens with the speaker rediscovering a poem written by the now dead addressee at the age of 13. It ends:
I see myself revealed
in solemn Greek proceeding hand-in-hand
with airborne Hermes, second-
guessing what’s to come – with you ahead,
the light already low, and perhaps goldening.
The ‘perhaps’ is ethically just, but so is the ‘goldening’. It is hard not to feel that the tone of these last poems is inflected by his much happier second marriage to the psychoanalyst Christine Berg, a witty divorcée whose raising of her two daughters impressed Porter, and whose driving of her Mini was celebrated by Porter, a non-driver, in a light-verse piece (not included in the present selection) called ‘Legs on Wheels’. Though in his seventies he was still returning to old wounds, still ‘Leafing through the Latin Dictionary’ or linking Horace and the Parthians to more modern ‘pet legions … brought home/in body bags’, still writing about Australia, Porter seemed more content.
One late poem, ‘Christmas Day, 1917’, draws on stories about his ancestors who were killed in the First World War and on photographs of their graves taken by Porter’s grandchildren. The poem is striking not least for its sympathy with his parents:
My Mother must have been living still at home
When the news came, but she didn’t die alone.
My civilian father did.
Another poem, written decades after Porter sowed the radishes among his father’s roses, pays a tribute of fidelity to his father as a gardener of ‘ranunculus … hard to grow from seed’.
The last time I saw Peter Porter was at StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews – in 2009, I think. He was sitting in the Byre Theatre bar at a small table with Douglas Dunn. I remember the sight of those two elegists together as if it were a mythological scene, every bit as remarkable as if they had been sitting with Thomas Hardy.