The poet Peter Porter has died this afternoon, aged 81, after struggling over the past year with liver cancer.
Hailed by his friend and colleague Anthony Thwaite as “one of the finest poets of our time”, Porter was a prolific writer, who combined erudition, sophistication and a human touch to produce a series of marvellous collections stretching over five decades.
Born in Brisbane, Australia in 1929, he came to London in 1951, working as a bookseller and in advertising before writing on poetry for the Observer. According to Thwaite, Porter “never quite knew where he belonged”.
“In Australia he was considered English, and in England he was considered Australian,” Thwaite explained. “He sort of floated.”
Porter published his first collection of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, in 1961, already demonstrating the ingenuity and charm which came to typify his work. He found critical acclaim in 1978 with The Cost of Seriousness, a collection written after the suicide of his wife in 1974. In it, he examines whether art can wield any power over death and despair, suggesting that “it can only make gestures” in the face of “real pain”.
A string of prizes followed, including the Duff Cooper prize, the Whitbread poetry award, the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry, and the Forward prize in 2001, for Max is Missing.
The editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, paid tribute to his “marvellously furnished mind” and called him “a tremendously generous presence in British poetry, not only because of his integrity, but also because of the range of his own work”. He was “an enormous role model”, she continued, who demonstrated how a “love of music and visual art and poetry could be brought to bear to produce magnificent poems”.
His most recent collection, 2009’s Better Than God, was hailed in the Guardian as “a densely fleshed book by a poet at the height of his powers”. A selection of his poetry is due to be published by Picador next month.