Australian-born poet whose moving, elegiac work was seen as among Britain's finest

Robert Potts

Robert PottsPeter Porter (1929-2010), who has died of cancer, was, though Australian by birth, one of Britain's best-loved and most prolific poets. His life and work exhibited a voracious and passionate care for European and humanist culture, especially music, which he valued – though not without a certain regret – even above poetry.

Porter was born in Brisbane, Queensland, and was educated initially at the Church of England grammar school there. In 1938, after the early death of his mother, he was sent to board at Toowoomba grammar school, which he later described as resembling a prison camp. "In fact, I'm sure some people did not survive it. They are probably buried in the grounds." He left school at 18 and did not attend university, since his father was unable to afford it. Instead he worked as a journalist in Brisbane, listened to music, wrote plays and was eventually sacked for his "unworldliness".

He first travelled to Britain in 1951. On the boat, he met the novelist-to-be Jill Neville, whose 1966 novel Fall-girl portrayed Porter as the character Seth. After taking various undemanding jobs, he returned to Australia, sick of London, but 10 months later had another shot at it. This time he found work at an advertising agency, alongside a surprising number of poets and writers: William Trevor, Gavin Ewart, Edwin Brock and Peter Redgrove.

He also discovered a literary community. The Group was an informal association of poets living in London, established in 1955 by Philip Hobsbaum. The writers included Redgrove, George MacBeth, Martin Bell and Edward Lucie-Smith, later joined by Fleur Adcock, Adrian Mitchell and others. The Group offered an alternative to the prevailing orthodoxies but did not form a coherent movement. Margaret Owen, another member, recalled later that "no one else had Porter's note of pain and indignation. But he also had a kind of gracelessness which was potent and surely Australian."

His first published poem appeared in a university magazine when he was 28, but it was not until four years later that his first volume, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten (1961), was published, by Scorpion Press. Porter's 1960s work offered a satirical portrait of the period, with a cast of artists and media types in swinging London. Oxford University Press took up his fourth book, The Last of England (1970). They were to publish him from then on, until the press's poetry division closed, controversially, in 1999, just after they issued his Collected Poems. Thereafter he was published by Picador.

In 1961 Porter married Jannice Henry, with whom he had two daughters. From 1968, having left advertising, Porter never worked for a salary again, apart from odd teaching stints. He freelanced for the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement, did readings for the Third Programme (now Radio 3), and reviewed books. From 1973 to 1990 he was the "sporadically active" chief reviewer of poetry for the Observer, and before that for the Guardian.

In December 1974, Jannice killed herself. She was found dead in her parents' house, in the nursery that had once been her own. Porter's poems about this period, especially in The Cost of Seriousness (1978), are among his most moving and arresting: "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."

In the opinion of the poet and editor Mick Imlah: "It may be for these Hardyesque poems about his wife that Porter will eventually be remembered." In 1991, Porter married Christine Berg.

In addition to these elegiac poems, and some candid and moving lyrics, Porter's work from the 1970s became more meditative, packed with allusions to myth, philosophy, art and music. With urbane wit, and often in a colloquial or aphoristic tone, he investigated the relationships between art, reality, death, suffering and language.

Over the years, his sense of nationality gradually changed. "I haven't an atom / in my body which I brought to Europe / in 1951," he once wrote, and, in The Last of England, in 1970, he made a definite statement: "I have made a conscious decision to change myself from an Australian into a modern Englishman ... I am saying farewell to my past and the country my family went to in the middle of last century." Much later, he would remark that "I sometimes think that I belong to the most notorious nationalist country; the country of 'me', so patriotism and allegiances are small matters in comparison with my egotism."

In 1996 Porter edited The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse, an anthology embracing several of the conflicting tendencies in post-second world war poetry. "I think that by the time I was finishing the anthology, I was a good deal more open-minded than when I began it," he commented later.

The publication of his Collected Poems demonstrated both the breadth of his achievements and their variety. George Szirtes called attention to that range: "All the apparatus of high culture ... cats, popes, domestic sorrow, Auden, money, conspiracies, torture chambers, concentration camps, consumer goods, sex, domesticity, agents of political oppression, seediness, dreams of welfare state Britain, corrupt institutions, great tracts of Shakespeare, the Bible and big encyclopedias, the chatter of history and the chatter of the chattering classes."

Clive James described Porter's work as "so freighted with learned references that I can't even tell if I don't know what they mean". Other critics had similar notes of qualification: "A poet of superior chit-chat"; "The second half of Collected Poems can read like the Porter pocket guide to western culture, with guilt, religion, sex and the decline of the west, all written up in a tone of the uttermost, maddening reasonableness." Gerald Mangan noted that the later Porter was "increasingly haunted by the later Auden, the gourmet-sage in carpet slippers, whose eschatology is consoled by small sensual pleasures".

Porter, in the Collected Poems, wittily acknowledged the receipt of a grant, for which, at the age of 70, "I am especially grateful ... at such a crucial stage in my career as a writer". He had received awards and prizes throughout, among them the 1983 Duff Cooper memorial prize; the 1988 Whitbread poetry award (for The Automatic Oracle); the 2002 Forward prize, for Max Is Missing; and a Queen's gold medal for poetry in 2002.He was honoured in Australia too. In 1998 he received an emeritus award of A$30,000 from the country of his birth. Porter published two further volumes: Afterburner (2004), whose post-meteoric title wryly acknowledged his advanced years; and Better Than God (2009).

Although frequently self-deprecating, with "a deep impulse towards anonymity", he was a proud as well as modest man, whose lectures rarely missed a chance to quote his own work, and whose conversation at parties could sometimes resemble a lecture in itself.

"What I have written, I have written, and I do the best I can," he wrote in his late 60s. "But I don't think of poetry as an exalted calling, as some poets do. I love music so much that, in poetry, I'm always looking for an authority in language that is not wholly dependent on meaning. I want meaning to be elsewhere. But that authority, of course, cannot be found ... I am a baffled realist, frustrated formalist and superstitious humanist. If there is a message in my poetry, it is that human dilemmas are constant, evil exists alongside some manifestations of good, and that one must write out of all aspects of life as one encounters it."

He also described himself as "an unmodified socialist" who believed that "everybody should be paid the same wage or rewarded to the same degree, irrespective of talent, application to work or contribution to society". But he was sceptical about the place of politics in poetry: "In general, however, it is in mapping out the world in as much detail and complexity as the forms of verse allow that poets do most for political enlightenment."

He is survived by Christine, his two daughters and two stepdaughters.

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