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Dorothy Porter
(Australia, 1954–2008)   
 
 
 
Dorothy  Porter

The work of Dorothy Porter, one of Australia’s most popular and most read poets, both in Australia and abroad, is fuelled by a lusty, human humour and a generously sharp-tongued spirit. She grew up in Sydney and the Blue Mountains, living later in Melbourne, and published seven collections of poetry; two novels for young adults, two librettos for operas performed in Sydney, Melbourne and London; and four verse-novels. She has received numerous awards for her work, including The Age Book of the Year Award and the National Book Council Award (Poetry) for The Monkey’s Mask , and the FAW Christopher Brennan Award for Poetry in 2001.

Porter’s writing ranges across lyrical poetry, the verse-novel, opera libretto and children’s fiction. She is best known for her verse-novels which have, more than the work of any other Australian poet, renewed and extended the form in Australian literature while also opening up the world of poetry to a whole new popular readership.

Porter’s work couples a lucid grasp of the demotic with deep reading into her poetic forebears (other populists such as Homer, Dante and Brecht spring to mind!). She gives the reader a sensually and intellectually stimulating ride through the crossing of genres, the conflagrations of contemporary sexuality, and the intimate detail of familiar quotidian detail – transformed and resonant with the myths that underwrite a Western understanding of the world. Porter’s use of language is often pared back. There is a generosity and sly hard wit to her work that both stimulates and unsettles as it closely examines the selflessness and selfishness people are capable of. Her poetry and verse-novels alike couple intellect with an, at times, raw immersion in sexual energy. Central to all of this is a desire to be read and understood, to follow Dante’s example in bringing poetry back to a popular audience. Porter commented:

Looking for an audience. Wanting to be understood by an audience. Was Dante in danger of being shipwrecked on the reef of populist vulgarity? Many of the male Latin scholars of his own day were very dismissive of Dante’s writing poetry in the vulgar tongue. Why would any great poet, they argued, care if ordinary people, too stupid or too uneducated or too plain simply DAUNTED, couldn’t read his poetry?

Doesn’t this ring a few modern bells for us in the contemporary poetry community? Do we care if we’re read or not? Are we content, like the Latin scholars of medieval, squabbling Italy, to write within the confines of an exclusive club just for each other? Are we too writing in a ‘dead’ language?


Porter’s work is geared towards a defiant stand against academic, obscurest or life-style/diary-like writing. She believed in and sought to popularize a poetry of open and direct communication, of force and lucidity:

LUCID. What a lovely word. A word that forms a firm shape with the tongue right behind it – but feels full of light and expansion even as one speaks it – or writes it. Its meaning is multifarious – shining, bright, clear, transparent, rational, sane, leading to perception and understanding.For me it is also means a kind of carefully, even lovingly, chosen language where the light shines through – and in. An illumination . . .

Lucidity does not mean the reams of docile looking-out-the-window poetry that seems to be a staple of the Australian poetry diet. The “I am a poet and I will write a poem today” school. Lucidity can write with a tongue of fire. Often it’s a sense of urgency, a sense of dire times that can make a poem searingly lucid.


The broader canvas of Porter’s verse-novels – rather than being simply extended verse-narratives, or loosely gathered collections of lyrical poems – are fine examples of the novelistic art, coupling the symbolic charge of poetry with skillful characterization, potent, at times cinematic dialogue and an ever-careful attention to the development of plot. The multi-award winning The Monkey’s Mask has been adapted for stage, radio and film, and been widely translated and published internationally, making Porter one of Australia’s best-known poets internationally. Her most recent verse-novel Wild Surmise – a paean to poetry, rich with an aria-like weaving of science, poetry and personal relations – was the first book to win both the South Australian Premier’s Award for Literature and Poetry, a clear testament to Porter’s skills both as a poet and a novelist.

Judging by her past achievements and her most recent poems, some of which are gathered here and others in the forthcoming Poems January-August 2004, Porter’s writing continues to set a benchmark in Australian poetry for lucidity, emotive charge and accessibility. As Australian literary-critic Don Anderson once noted, she is Australia’s Norman Mailer. Porter is a defiant voice against the obscure and effete in poetry, unafraid to see poetry as a popular art form in the twentieth century, a feast open to all, immersed in the sweat, blood and tears of contemporary life, its hum-drum realities and headlong rush.

© Michael Brennan

Poems
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE’S GRAVE
PLEASURE
THE HAMPSTEAD HEATH TOAD
NUMBERS

View the Camera Poetica recording of Porter.

Interesting websites

In English


Lyrikline
The author reading from her work.


Bibliography
Poetry

Little Hoodlum (1975)
Bison (1979)
The Night Parrot (1984)
Driving Too Fast (1989)
Crete (1996)
Other Worlds (2001)
Poems January-August 2004 (2004)

Verse-Novels
Akhenaten (1991)
The Monkey’s Mask (1994)
what a piece of work (1999)
Wild Surmise (2002)

Libretti
The Ghost Wife
The Eternity Man

Young Adult Fiction
Rookwood (1991)The Witch Number (1993)

 




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