Anne Porter, Renowned Poet and Widow of Fairfield Porter, Dies At 99 - 27 East

Anne Porter, Renowned Poet and Widow of Fairfield Porter, Dies At 99

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author on Oct 18, 2011

A number of people have described Anne Porter as living in the shadow of her husband, the late artist, critic and poet, Fairfield Porter. But those who knew her best said she cast her own bright light.

Mrs. Porter, who wrote her own award-winning poems and gave back tremendously to the community, died on Monday, October 10, in the Hampton Bays home she shared with her daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth and John Balzer and surrounded by several of her children and grandchildren. She was 99.

Mrs. Porter, who lived on South Main Street in Southampton for more than 40 years, was surprised by her friend and fellow poet David Shapiro in 1994 when he asked her to give him a collection of her poems for his birthday—and secretly submitted them to Steerforth Press. “An Altogether Different Language” was published to Mrs. Porter’s surprise, thrusting her into the world of poetry readings, interviews and criticism.

“I can’t believe I tricked Anne Porter,” said Mr. Shapiro, who currently teaches art history at William Paterson University. “She had a hidden treasure.”

According to Ms. Balzer, Mrs. Porter was inspired one year by a book called “Getting Organized.” She found several poems she had never completed and so she got out her Olivetti typewriter and edited her poems.

“She revised, and revised and revised,” Ms. Balzer said. “There were cross-outs and White-Out all over. She never got organized and never got past the first chapter.”

When Mrs. Porter realized she had been published, she was shocked. At the age of 83, she was named a finalist in the National Book Awards—something she never expected to happen.

Wanting to continue to share her writing, she added 39 new poems in a second volume, “Living Things: Collected Poems,” published in 2006.

“She was a little celebrity of her own,” Ms. Balzer said. “She gave poetry readings, book signings—she taught and mentored children. She never relished the limelight, but did enjoy that time in her life. It was like a late spring.”

Born on November 6, 1911, to Henry and Katharine Channing, she was raised in Sherborn, Massachusetts, one of three children. Although Sherborn was in the countryside and not a cultural hub, her mother read poetry religiously to her children. She could recite many poems by heart and “gave us the idea that poetry was perfectly natural,” Mrs. Porter said in 2006.

By age 7, she was creating her own poems with her great uncle, Laurence Minot, who would write them down for her and illustrate them.

“She was very fond of him,” Ms. Balzer said, laughing. “She remembered him having little veins in his face and pouring cream on his head like shampoo. They were very close.”

Mrs. Porter published in Poetry, A magazine of Verse in the 1930s, but was unable to continue when she began a new chapter of her life.

After completing two years at Bryn Mawr College and one year at Radcliffe College, she married Fairfield Porter in 1932 in the garden of her parents’ house. The couple had met quite a few times, but it wasn’t until they went camping with Mrs. Porter’s sister, Barbara Channing, and another friend that they decided they cared for each other.

“Lovers,” a poem that recalls the trip, ends with: “I can still feel your hand/ Holding my hand/ That day/ When human, quarrelsome/ But stronger/ Than death or anger/ A love began.”

When the Porters started a family, it was difficult for Mrs. Porter to focus on writing poetry. Between 1934 and 1956, her five children occupied most of her time, as did her hospitality to friends from the city after the Porters moved to their South Main Street home in 1949. Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Roy Lichtenstein and Kenneth Koch were among the friends who frequented their home. The Porters were very much a part of what is known as the New York School, painters and poets who often collaborated. In 1953, Rudy Burckhardt filmed a silent film, “A Day in the Life of a Cleaning Woman,” starring Mrs. Porter in a comic role.

Running a household, raising her children and taking care of those who came through her door, she was always on the move. Marriage and family was her vocation. Oftentimes she would sit for Mr. Porter and allow him to paint her. Much of his art includes his wife in her natural state: standing in the kitchen doing dishes, sitting in a chair, or holding one of her children.

“We loved to pose for him,” her son Laurence Porter said. “We knew that was helping him. We knew that if you sat there quietly you would be contributing.”

“I remember once having to leave when he was painting my feet, so I slipped out of my shoes and left them there for him to paint while I went away,” Mrs. Porter said in an interview with Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau in their book, “Artists’ Estates: Reputations In Trust.”

“I was in a painting, but painting was the thing that was important,” she said.

When Mr. Porter died of a heart attack in 1975, Mrs. Porter began the job of preserving her husband’s artwork, authenticating it and seeing to his posthumous reputation. She donated 186 paintings to the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton in order to keep them together as a body of work and allow them to be appreciated by everyone.

“It was a really important gift for any museum to receive,” said Penny Wright, the programming director at Rogers Memorial Library. Ms. Wright started working for the museum in 1976 when Mrs. Porter’s full-time job was finding a place for Mr. Porter’s artwork. “It was something I was really happy to be a part of—arranging that gift,” she said. The museum currently has the largest collection of Fairfield Porter’s work.

Once Mrs. Porter no longer had a family to raise or a big house to keep, she began writing poetry again.

What some would label as Christian poetry, Mrs. Porter’s writing was simple and often reverent of the beauty of nature. “She writes with almost the soul of a child who’s in awe of the wonder of creation,” Ms. Balzer said. In 1955, at the age of 44, Mrs. Porter converted to Catholicism, surprising her family.

According to her son Laurence, her poetry was a “simple expression of thanks to God for having created us and the beauty of nature around us, like the gentle Psalms of David.”

“I think she has a genuine voice,” said artist Paton Miller, a close friend and artist who rented the Porters’ studio for 23 years. “There is an honesty to her poetry. It’s very refreshing to hear an honest expression of faith.”

Never one to proselytize, Mrs. Porter rarely spoke about her Catholic faith. She instead relied on her poetry to express her thoughts, feelings, and questions about all things spiritual, and her actions to convey her love for people. She had a lifelong fascination with St. Francis of Assisi and eventually became a Third Order Franciscan. Mrs. Porter lovingly and generously gave of herself to friends and even to groups of people she had never met. If anyone needed a place to stay or someone to talk to, her door was always open.

“One of the luckiest things that has ever happened to me was just being around her for all those years,” Mr. Miller said. “The studio was a vehicle for me to focus on my work, but most importantly it was the proximity to this amazing human being. I could live three lifetimes and not be someone as special as Anne.”

Mrs. Porter is survived by her children, Laurence Porter of Michigan, Richard Porter of Colorado, Dr. Katharine Porter of Illinois and Elizabeth Porter Balzer of Hampton Bays; and seven grandchildren. In addition to her husband, she was predeceased by a son, Johnny.

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