Peter Porter Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Porter, Peter 1929–

Porter is an Australian poet now living in London. He has been praised for his ability to present traditional concerns in original forms and textures. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Porter might be described, unkindly, as another, younger, quirkier, brighter Betjeman. Certainly his verse is marred by the same jocose, inapposite cleverness…. He is not always … offensive [in Preaching to the Converted], he is often merely glib, and fancy: "I've never been on Ulysses' island / or on Isherwood's"; "God is a Super-Director / who's terribly good at crowd scenes, / but He has only one tense, the present." I take it there is a strategy here, rather than simple recklessness: hard, brittle jokes are an oblique (very oblique) mark of your sensibility. Of course, an open, sentimental concern for the issues of our time can look very fraudulent, and Porter nattily defends the old Poetry...

(The entire section is 302 words.)

Peter Washington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Porter is riotous, prolific. Fond of baroque, he is really a mannerist—that style which isn't a style but a near-chaos of old habits and new fashions fighting for life in an attempt at glory. He often refers to the period:

Perhaps it did happen,
the Renaissance, when even the maggots
had humanist leanings.

It isn't that Porter sees the worm in every apple: for him having worms is all a part of being such fruit. In the same poem [in Living in a Calm Country] he calls it the "central unfairness." In others he takes this further: is it, he asks, essential to have an apple to be a respectable...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Douglas Dunn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Porter's poems have always represented the authority of the articulate and hallowed. A disturbing sanity has been at the centre of his work. Concern for cultural values and the dilemmas of metropolitan life has not led to whatever ossified styles "new geniuses" might have expected from him. Porter is a man of at least two artistic temperaments. Culturally he is conservative; artistically he is adventurous, and though his staple is simplified baroque, it has been seen capable of taking whatever weight of invention Porter would like it to carry. Though I have reservations about the extent to which Porter is willing to be a diehard in defence of his particular interpretation of "cultural values", there is no...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

Richard Pevear

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Porter's "Family Album"] is all too easy, too foreseeable, and too clever. Darkness, despair, and death are handed the victory without a struggle and apparently without cost to the poet, who passes off as insight or as truth what is merely the available, conventional resolution of the poem. Reading these things one trembles, as Kierkegaard said, "at the thought of what it is to be a man." (p. 310)

Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Emma Fisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Porter's poems on the death of his wife, where the agonising minutiae—the appointment card from an optician, other mail after she's dead—are presented in all their nakedness [in The Cost of Seriousness]. He makes Gertrude Stein say:

Nothing can be done in the face
of ordinary unhappiness
Above all, there is nothing to do in words
I have written a dozen books
to prove nothing can be done in words.

Porter does a lot in words but cannot do much about ordinary unhappiness, and this inability is a subject of many of the poems.


(The entire section is 409 words.)

Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Peter Porter's The Cost of Seriousness, language is not a vast element with which the poet contends, but a game rhetoric forces him to play. In this book it is also a faith that has failed. If the subject of Porter's poems is the death of his wife, their recurring theme is disillusionment with 'the lying art'….

Porter has always been an erudite poet, and in this book (much his best) as in earlier ones, the safety net is expertly displayed—even when he attacks poetry as 'pointless'…. The poem ['An Exequy'] is a strange mixture of pastiche, doggerel and genuinely moving verse. It is as if Porter were unable to approach his grief without surrounding himself with intellectual...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

Fleur Adcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Porter has always been, to put it mildly, interested in death: in his earlier collections he frequently reflected upon the deaths of others or contemplated his own, and even in his lighter poems death was always ready to sidle in among the lines of pointed social commentary and the mosaics of multi-cultural allusion. Now in this fine new collection [The Cost of Seriousness] death is at the centre. It is difficult to say it without sounding callous, but it needs somehow to be said: the death of his wife at the end of 1974 presented Mr Porter with a subject ideally suited to his gifts and temperament. The best of the poems about his loss have a poignant bleak simplicity, a sober concentration; without...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Desmond Graham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Cost of Seriousness] is important in what it attempts, and important for Porter, I should imagine—not just because of the more intimate and painful area of experience on which many poems draw, but because he has cut out so much of the clutter of cleverness which lumbered previous volumes.

The cost of seriousness is not, as Porter writes in his title poem, 'death', but emotional pain; and the pain in these poems extends beyond the poems directly mourning his wife, and reaches into the process of making art. Porter feels with force 'The Lying Art':

… Real pain
it aims for, but can only make gestures,

(The entire section is 350 words.)