A Japanese Joke – Peter Porter and William Blake

As with a number of people, I was saddened to hear about the death of Peter Porter on Friday, although gladdened that he had reached the marvellous age of 81. Born in Brisbane, Australia, Porter had moved to Britain in 1951 where, aside from a short return to Australia, he was to remain until his death.

There were some tragedies throughout his life but many more successes, including notable awards (the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1988, the Queen’s Gold Medal in 2002, and many more) and nomination for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2004 and election to the Royal Society of Literature in 2009.

Porter’s interest in Blake was sometimes oblique and not necessarily an obvious one, although it was probably as a satiric poet that he responded more to the earlier Romantic. The only poetic allusion I know is that in one of the series of “Japanese Jokes” published in The Last of England (1970):

William Blake, William
Blake, William Blake, William Blake,
say it and feel new!

The series of haiku of which this is part forms a mocking response to writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Michael Horovitz’s collection, Children of Albion, published the previous year. Porter’s membership of The Group was hardly likely to make him amenable to the hippie re-appropriation of Blake taking place in the late sixties and early seventies and, among other things, The Last of England offered a different type of anger at the old country of England compared to the giddiness of Horovitz’s Blakean “Afterwords”.

However, while Porter could cite Blake mockingly, this was as much because of what he considered to be a misappropriation of the poet. In 1986 he wrote an introduction to a selection of Blake’s verse that was published by Oxford, with illustrations from Blake’s art. As one of the Illustrated Poets series, I remember owning a copy of this in my early twenties (now sadly lost as a search of book shelves revealed last night). It was a very compact book, which I would sometimes carry around and read. As such, Porter’s death is doubly sad for me: he wasn’t the writer who introduced me to Blake, but he did ensure that the Romantic was a companion for me in a very literal sense.

Peter Porter: February 16, 1929 – April 23, 2010.

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