In the late 1980s I was working on The Epigrams of Martial (a book that in its own way ‘got back’ at the anti-modernists in the Australian literary world who’d savaged the work of my friends and myself). I had read and enjoyed Peter Porter’s book After Martial along with his other poems, but I deliberately didn’t go back to it while I worked on my own versions. Only when I had finished the work did I do so only to discover that our translations barely corresponded. This in itself was a lesson in poetry and poetics. Peter’s versions focussed on social mores whereas mine tended towards literary politics and ad hominem barbs. I saw Peter many times over the years, in Sydney and in London (where he and Christine put me up on one occasion). Late last year he delivered a paper at Australia House. He was clearly unwell. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to talk at this event but a few days later we did so at length on the phone.
I met Peter in early 1983 at the launch of John Forbes’ magazine Surfers’ Paradise. Peter and John had been in contact for some while, probably since the mid-seventies when John had worked for a few months at Australia House in London. I gave Peter a copy of my book Adventures in Paradise. Not long after I received a postcard from him (JW Waterhouse’s painting of ‘The Lady of Shallott’) expressing enjoyment of the book. At the time reviews of my work were mixed at best, often downright damning. That same year a manuscript of mine that Hale & Iremonger had scheduled to publish was refused funding by the Literature Board. I was able to read the anonymous reader’s report and it seemed clear that the book had been knocked back largely for reasons of literary politics. Hale & Iremonger said they would try again the following year. Someone suggested I send the manuscript to Peter in the chance that he might write a recommendation for the publishers. This is what Peter wrote. It is an acute comment. It gave me heart and does so still, twenty-five years later:
Mr Duggan is a stylist in an area of poetry where style is notoriously difficult to maintain . . . a form which demands absolute sureness of touch if it is not to collapse like a shattered mosaic. His lyrics of circumstance catch the tone and peculiarity of urban Australia convincingly . . . He makes structures which are more than the facts and opinions they employ. That, I think, is poetry.
Though this post may seem to be more about me than about Peter I wanted to put on record an instance of great kindness, a rare enough thing in this edgy world of factionalism.