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Peter Porter

Who was it led us to overestimate the New?

The Greatest Living Poet’s recent volumes
are in a stack at your left hand – what do you do
in between getting on with your journalism?
Go back to his earlier and more spritely days
cool along your face, when you decided,
notwithstanding your resistance, as you claimed,
to literary fashion, that this intransigent
dandy got the world into his impure verses
as almost no responsible rival did –
so much so indeed that a jaunty episode
among the Check-Out Sylphs, an Ode to a Torpedo,
or some sort of squirrel-hounded sexual outing
in the Allegheny Mountains seemed, as you read it,
a calm reflection worthy of Matthew Arnold
minus his Rugby gloom and moral nimbus.

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As the grand navigator steps back in his boat,
As the last notes march to Heaven on a page,
So the attenuations of our lives
Are charted as polite reverberations,
Ready to be eroicomico indulgences
Or merely subjects in an academic quiz –
For such is memory’s braking, as the grave
Soul of humankind is shown as nought
On star charts, and each immensity
Aspires to be a simple once-born number.

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Early on, my mind was in reverse.
I read a book the name I thought was From
White Cabin to Log House, and ever after
I knew ambition must go to cancrizans.

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Collected Poems I 1961-1981 by Peter Porter & Collected Poems II 1984-1999 by Peter Porter

July 1999, no. 212

Peter Porter first came to prominence nearly forty years ago as an ironic, tough, rather dandyish poet who wore his Australian expatriatism with a flair and who kept his poetic distance on a London which enthralled and appalled him. He came out with striking lines like ‘I am only the image I can force upon the town’ – all glitter and brittleness – but he was also the kind of poet who could produce the sort of set pieces which seemed to sum up the world of a London which was swinging almost as if it was on a gibbet: ‘All the boys are howling to take the girls to bed’ is the promising opening of ‘John Marston Advises Anger’ which evokes with, yes, sub-Jacobean panache, a time and a place intimately known but still half strange and riddled with the glamour of the stage set, the rhetoric of the nothingness of where it’s at.

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Oxford University Press has begun a welcome series called Australian Writers. Two further titles, Imre Salusinszky on Gerald Murnane and Ivor Indyk on David Malouf, will appear in March 1993, and eleven more books are in preparation. Though I find the first three uneven in quality, they make a very promising start to a series. In some ways they resemble Oliver and Boyd’s excellent series, Writers and Critics, even being of about the same length. However this new series is less elementary, more demanding of the reader. It is, predictably, far sparser in critical evaluation, concentrating on hermeneutics, and biographical information is as rare as a wombat waltz.

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In the The Automatic Oracle, Peter Porter’s second book since his Collected Poems (1983), this writer is at the height of his powers as a versatile, intelligent, and provocative voice of our times. He is a resistance fighter against false prophecies by disc jockeys, bureaucrats, businessmen, lawyers, academics, politicians and others. Such utterances must be scrutinised or ridiculed because they muddy the language itself, the sources of all oracular wisdom and the hero of this book.

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The Amorous Cannibal by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

May 1986, no. 80

As artists get older, they are supposed to mature, and commentators begin to look for the demarcations of their three periods, a nice bequest from Beethoven. One vitiating side effect of this is to misplace freshness in their art. Judging the vital middle period works, and bowing before the sublimity of the late, the critic bestows a nostalgic glance over his shoulder to the early output – ah, what freshness, what morning glory there! It may be true of Beethoven, but the experience of most of us lesser creatures is more often the opposite. We start a bit grey and elderly: only later, after much experience, do we throw off ponderousness, embrace wit and light-spiritedness and appear verdant for the public gaze. I hope Chris Wallace-Crabbe will not object to my including him in this (to me) honourable company: those who write, after thirty years on the job, with twice the élan they had at the beginning.

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The Typewriter Considered As Bee-trap by Martin Johnston & Fast Forward by Peter Porter

December 1985–January 1986, no. 77

I have sat on these books longer than is reasonable for a review, yet have to confess that I am not satisfied with the readiness of what follows. I got the Porter first, but receiving the Johnston thought that they in some ways offered similar difficulties, perhaps similar rewards, to the reader, and that it might be neat to review them together.

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It is a brave thing to publish your Collected Poems in your early fifties, braver when you are an Australian resident in England publishing there, and a loading might be put on for additional hazard when, like Peter Porter, you are poetry editor both for Oxford and for The Observer. For, when it comes to Collected Poems, it is your very influence that makes you vulnerable.

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