Hal Porter’s Pastoral Vision

By | 7 January 2009

I have called the sentiment nostalgia, tentatively following the example of pastoral scholarship. But in The Hexagon's eponymous poem, a blueprint for the foregoing, Porter calls it the Past's distillation. The poet-drone returns to the neat, hexagonal cells of the grave-cool hive where, in that quiet, ordered world, he transforms the gleaned sensations of the orchard into verse. Life's remembered sensations, the insubstantial Past, are distilled into verbal substance, the poet's tasteless honey: every flower, fruit, fabric, vice, and yearning is given its proper name and all quantities are measured with precision.

Porter's poems are routinely discounted as 'an intellectual exercise' or the work of an 'intelligent apprentice'. So it is, then, that his first collection of poems, published at 45 years of age, is classed as juvenilia. Which is a shame. 'Adam – The First Kiss' (later published as 'First Kiss'), at least, is one of the outstanding sonnets of the twentieth century, though Les Murray and Geoff Page each prefer 'In a Bed-Sitter' (Murray: 1996; Page: 2003).

But in the 1966 spring number of the Hudson Review, Melbourne's own Noel Stock, of the Pelican Life of Ezra Pound, reviewing the second volume of Poetry in Australia put his finger on exactly why Porter's poems ought to be remembered:

What strikes me most about the collection as a whole is the paucity of verbal creation – The only poet, actually, in the entire anthology who displays any degree of skill with word-combinations is Hal Porter. In much of his work that I have seen, including his book The Hexagon, he is too often eccentric without justification. But in parts of “Sheep” he displays a talent for genuine verbal creation, which reminds us of Marianne Moore (161-6)

In any case, Porter's so-called apprenticeship led to a vocation other than poetry. It seems he lost confidence in his early verse style; many of the poems published in The Hexagon were revised and subsequently republished in his Elijah's Ravens (1968), much to their detriment. It is the loss to poetry of this talent for verbal creation that we should mourn. Porter (1980) had his own take on his fate:

I think I really should have been a poet, but while I've written five or six heavenly poems, that's about all. Much of the poetry goes into the short stories, if you watch carefully, in the mood, in the arrangement of words (398).

Since the 1960s, few Australian poets besides Porter have pursued the possibilities suggested by the European pastoral tradition; even Porter himself by the 1970s and 80s had backed away from that potential. The lingering influence of Lawson, which even today manifests in a poetic predilection for direct, utilitarian diction, is pervasive. This preference has, I think, promoted in Australian nature poetry an abundance of 'regional' writing and a smothering of more literary forms.

I have suggested that Porter's poems are pastorals and this has brought us to a conclusion that was already the critical consensus: The Hexagon is a herald's wand, intricately carved, thrown down to announce Porter's literary arrival. The reason we might stoop now and re-examine this not-quite-a-minor-poet's wand, and why we might want to re-visit the ideas behind pastoral, is for that quality of sophistication, and for another way of writing about the land and how we, the most of us who live in cities, interact with it.

*Unless otherwise indicated, all poems referred to in this essay are taken from The Hexagon (Sydney: Angus and Robertson: 1956).


Capone, Giovanna (1990), Incandescent Verities: The Fiction of Hal Porter (Roma: Bulzoni).
Chaudhuri, Sukanta (1989), Renaissance Pastoral and its English Developments (New York: Oxford Univ. Press).
Lerner, Laurence (1972), The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry (London: Chatto and Windus).
Murray, Les (ed.) (1996), The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (South Melbourne: Oxford Univ. Press).
Page, Geoff (2003), The Indigo Book of Modern Australian Sonnets (Charnwood: Indigo).
Porter, Hal 'Answers to the Funny Kind Man' in Lord, Mary (ed.) (1980), The Portable Hal Porter (St. Lucia: Univ. of Queensland Press).
— (1968), Elijah's Ravens (Sydney: Angus and Robertson).
— (1956), The Hexagon (Sydney: Angus and Robertson).
Stock, Noel (1966), 'Review: Poetry in Australia' in Hudson Review Vol. 19 No. 1, pp 161-166.

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