Same Again?

Peter Reading. Collected Poems 3: 1997-2003

[320pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe]

I used to like Peter Reading. I liked him for his irony, wit, black humour and wry pessimism. Unfortunately, this third volume of collected poems, apart from a few oases, is a bleak, acid-white desert of death, doom and despair. The message is nauseatingly monotonous: ‘I’m going to die, my friends are dead, and you are going to die too.’

The classical forms he uses do little to distract you from the numbing tedium, because what he puts in them is exactly the same. The occasional glimpses of invention, reminding me for a few nostalgic seconds of why I used to enjoy reading him, are mere mirages, and certainly not enough to sustain you through the next hundred pages.

Included are his six most recent books – Work in Regress
, OB., Marfan, [UNTITLED], Faunal, Civil, the title of the last the marginal mark for delete. Listing them, it is clear how gruesomely predictable he has become. To me, the grimness of C was worthwhile and inventive, but he has since become a lacklustre parody of himself.

Because I still liked him then, I tried to forgive the appalling pretension of titling a book Untitled
, or, indeed, the marginal mark for delete. It is not so much the pretension I despise, but – and no amount of irony can detract from this – the fact that it is such an obvious thing to do. Appropriately, one sequence in this volume is entitled ‘Repetitious’.

, Reading’s holiday diaries from his stay in the eponymous Texan town, is perhaps the most tiresome of all. It’s so easy to rubbish somewhere like Marfan. It is as soft a target as Liverpool or Hull. It’s as easy as Michael Moore interviewing Charlton Heston about guns in his self-publicising documentary, Bowling for Columbine.

The poems are definite and well-wrought with no superfluous words, as they always have been. But this grim lack of any decoration or ornamentation heightens the monotony of the content. I concede there is a problem in reading such a thick volume of one person’s work, but when the poems barely vary in style or content, it becomes more than wearing.

                        Ill-concealed contempt
            is, perhaps, what I evinced
            when the rep. walked in.
                        Everybody knows
            someone devoid of talent –
            I know more than most.”
                                    [‘Nips’, from Work in Regress
, 28]

There are few things more tedious and depressing than listening to a bitter middle-aged man moaning about his life and death. It’s not funny anymore. There is a lot of anger, but it is not arresting, and you walk away from him like a beggar shouting to himself in the street. His fulminating rants are about as subtle, biting and amusing as Rory Bremner.

The white streaks of paint messily daubed on the hair, forehead, eyebrow, ear, nose and beard in Peter Edwards’ vile portrait of Peter Reading, which graces the dull front cover of this dull book in Bloodaxe’s traditionally vulgar style, makes him look as though he has been shat upon by a whole flock of birds – and the poems confirm this impression.

He is stuck in a groove – a Shostakovich record repeating itself – a one-man-band of doom playing the same old tune. After several hundred repetitions and rephrasings of the same motif, I shout at the blank, unresponsive pages of the book, ‘I know, I know, I know I’m going to die, but please say something interesting or different or original now.’

Alan Jenkins asks if we can compare Reading to ‘Rothko, Shostakovich, Beckett – who found themselves, in extremis
and in their later works, continuing to create less and less, moving inexorably towards the point where they would be left with nothing, the point (presumably) of artistic extinction?’ Yes. He also is rapidly vanishing up his own arse.
Disappointingly, the longish, ten-page poem, ‘Alert’ – by far the most imaginative, exciting, engaging, witty and energetic poem in here, rich with images and ideas, which briefly restored my hope and interest – is actually by someone else: ‘(from Vahé Oshagan’s literal English rendering of his own Armenian poem.)
’ O well.

I’m sure his use of classical forms is very clever, but they are filled with the same dross, and don’t turn me on. Neither do the over-done allusions to Greek mythology. Both the vernacular and non-vernacular language he employs seems affected, and the celebrated mixture of high art and gutter language is a conceit ready for an unceremonious burial.

            Between the Bookie and the Balti House
            a grim homunculus purveys the Echo
            but periodically he sallies forth
            to cow his patrons with a raised clenched fist,
            and they are clearly discomposed by this.
                                    [‘Integration’, from Work in Regress
, 27]

By describing his poems as ‘scathing and grotesque accounts of lives blighted by greed, meanness, ignorance and political ineptness’, the blurb tries to give them a moral and political relevance; but the ‘accounts’ are heavy-handed and crude, amounting to: ‘you are greedy, ignorant and politically inept’, but in terse, turgid and unfamiliar language.

This Beckettian haiku is an example of some of the more digestible, less contestable poems, which, however, doesn’t stray from his (over) familiar stamping ground.

            En Attendant

                           I have been here now
            for long enough to know that
                           you will not turn up.
                                    [from Work in Regress
, 35]

If only you didn’t have to wait around on the literary equivalent of a deserted country lane, only to see them pass like strangers you hoped were who you were waiting for.

And, as if you hadn’t already had enough, an insert announces a ‘WORLD FIRST FOR BRITISH POET’: in time for Christmas, the Lannan Foundation, ‘America’s prestigious arts sponsor’, has funded a 22-hour film of Peter Reading reading all his published poetry. My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness... Now that really would be challenging.

            © Paul Rowland 2003