She was proud to be a self-supporting poet who never received a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She had studied to be a teacher but then subsidised her poetry by lecturing part time at university.
“In the past I’ve worked very, very hard for very little money,” Porter recalled last year. “I’ve done part-time teaching, being paid a pittance, and juggled it all with writing just to keep going. It was hell.”
In 2001, at the Australian Poetry Festival in Sydney’s Balmain Town Hall, she delivered the Judith Wright Memorial Lecture, with a forthright attack on what she called the “docile looking-out-the-window poetry that seems to be a staple of the Australian poetry diet”.
In contrast, she claimed, poetry should have a “tongue of fire”. It should be written with a “sense of urgency, a sense of dire times that can make a poem searingly lucid”.
“She had such a vitality and a grasp of life which was extraordinary,” said David Malouf, who remembers teaching Porter at Sydney University when she was a student. “She had enormous energy and she was a really feisty person. And I think you see that in the way she made her poetry work, in very spare tight verse. And she not only found a readership for her verse novels, she found a very large readership.
“It’s just very sad, and I think there’ll be a lot of people out there who admire her, and are fond of her and will miss her very much.”
Poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe said her work had a kind of concentrated strength. “She had an ability to pursue different directions in verse narrative, to abridge the idiom of the thriller with the free but short-line lyric stanza.” And all that went with an enormous generosity of spirit in relation to her fellow writers. “She bore whatever burdens she had to carry with unfailing good spirits.”
Porter wrote lyrics for Paul Grabowsky and Katie Noonan’sBefore Time Could Change Us. Grabowsky said she was the most perfect kind of writer because she could compress complex ideas in a very few words. “She had a keen ear for the way things sounded and there was a natural fit as far as I was concerned. “
When she was first diagnosed with cancer, Porter wrote The Ninth Hour: You may think/ your quicksilver spirit/ has your furtive flesh licked/ But darkness/ is stronger/ than light/ The flesh knows best/ who’ll win line honours/ in this fight.
Dorothy Porter’s last poem for Overland was published in edition 192. It’s reproduced below.
You can’t preserve love
behind foggy windows
when your back is finally
she steps out
shakes herself down
does her lipstick
and walks away
perhaps with an insouciant
swing to the hips
that would hurt
if you insisted
on looking back
if you regretted
not shackling her
in your car forever
but you don’t want to spend
the rest of your life
blubbering in torn pieces
or tasting a toxic dollop
of Lot’s Wife
on congealing cold eggs
so you don’t fight it
you don’t fight
to wind down
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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