An Interview with Peter Reading by Robert Potts
I met Peter Reading at his home in Little Stretton, a village tucked away in delightful Shropshire countryside. Sitting outside his cottage, drinking a business-like Hungarian Chardonnay '87 and later a splendid Chateauneuf du Pape '83, we had a fine view of the hills and fields which constitute his exhilarating 'back garden' - although Reading sardonically predicted its imminent burial beneath a Kwik Save supermarket.
Reading is one of our most original and talented poets. His last five collections have dispensed with individually titled poems, standing instead as 'novels in verse': cross-referenced, polyphonic studies of human life from cosmic, global and individual perspectives. Most recently, volumes cmploy a variety oftype-faces, and incorporate letters, newspaper-clippings, fragments of novels and criticism, as well as verse in appropriate and perfectly rcndcred metre. There's much humour, most of it black: topics include terminal disease, mental disorder, nuclear catastrophe and urban violencc and destitution.
Reading started writing poetry "seriously" when at art college in the sixties, at the same time as he started "seriously painting pictures", although he pinned down his earliest work as dating from "the age of fourteen - pubescencc". He cheerfully quoted some Keatsian lines from his schooldays, even then exhibiting faultless metre. Reading's early touchstones - once he got over Keats - were, unsurprisingly, Hopkins, Tennyson and Swinburne. His admiration for Swinburne is particularly understandable, both in terms of his general knowledge of poets past, and given the fact that he was" au fait with all the metres in accepted poetical literature in the nineteenth century."
Although Reading's present concerns are evident in his earliest published work, not least the attempt to unify a collection through cross-reference, it was a while bcfore he felt able to abandon the single, independent poem altogether. "I'd come to mistrust the idea of a poem with a title, standing up on its hind legs, begging for a lump of sugar"; but the requirements of publication, in the TLS for example, and "worries about publishers actually accepting the stuff', meant that he had to wait until relatively recently to produce his more novelistic and ambitiously presented works. He prepares plates himself, sending bromides in order to avoid accidents at the hands of "typographers trawled from the supertrog region".
Predictably, some critics have baulked at his uncompromising choice of subject matter. Ukulele Music (1985) is at some levels a riposte to these critics:
'Life is too black as he paints it' and 'Reading's nastiness sometimes seems a bit over the top' thinks a review - so does he.
Too black and over the top, though, is what the Actual often happens to be, I'm afraid. He don't invent it, you know.
"For a while I was accused of voyeurism, or 'obsessional nastiness'," he remembers. "When Stet won the Whitbread I was unable to attend the ceremony, but apparently Lord Havers publicly denounced it... said he wouldn't want his children to read it." Although recent reviews have been almost entirely favourable, Reading admits a tension: "Of course there's an element of voyeurism, of dwelling on nastiness - of providing a frisson for the reader. There's a close border between expressing dismay at certain aspects of life and actually being as offensive as the original perpetrators."
Perduta Gente (1989), a volume focussing on London's down-and-outs, though also encompassing a Chernobyl-style accident, prompted a review entitled 'What Does Peter Reading Want?' Reading shrugs off the question. "It presupposes poetry is some sort oftool to engineer something. It can be, but it doesn't need to be as calculating as that. Paintings don't do that; when you look at a Rothko or a Giotto, you're not assailed with the question 'What does he want?' There are certain allegiances, but you don't ask that question ... you see the thing, and a kind of vision." He adds: "What - to be crassly naive about it - what I want in Perduta Gente is an end to the unpleasant circumstances which its heroes and heroines have to put up with.
"If people are upset, it's probably a good thing, a making fresh what we're bombarded daily with by the tabloids. They relay it as it is. " I pointed out that in books like Diplopic (1983) he entertains the notion of poet as vulture, or ambulance-chaser; that he consistently suggests that his treatments are at some level playful, ludic, while maintaining simultaneously a passionate outrage. By constantly undercutting any perspective, not least the ones which are apparently his own, he in some way invites disapproval from those who would rather have their poets take a distinct position, preferably on a line with their own. The sophistication of Reading's fictions and shifts of tone frequently anticipates or preempts critical reaction, although he self-effacingly dismissed them as "literary techniques for tiny tots, part one - I had the energy to be bothered by these things. I was aware of the paradox and had the energy to grapple with it."
Reading feels that he has less and less energy nowadays. Though engaged in writing another collection, Evagutory (literally, wandering away from; or, figuratively, diversion, extravagance), he says it will probably be his last. "It is, now, a unified collection, but far too short. By my standards, it's been a long time, over a year, and the end is still a long way off. I feel less inclined to hasten the issue, or to think that any research would assist its completion." More than once he said that he would most likely fall silent, adding dourly, "My time now will be spent meeting household bills."
This has seemed for some time to be the logical conclusion of a poetry which constantly suggests its own redundancy: Final Demands (1988) ends with a smattering of deleted dactylic metre, and even his first collection, Water and Waste, contains the lines -
But having found love I am left with nothing to say. And I find, in place of socialist leanings,
a ninety percent misanthropy,
which once expressed gains nothing by repetition.
Yet the sentiment seems more serious now. Asked if he's experienced a similar block before, he said, "I did feel that a bit after Final Demands, but I also felt that it was a purposeful hiatus. But if I can finish this, I've nothing else to say."
There are various reasons why Reading feels he will "fall into Sibelian silence," not least the absence of any posterity, any future reader to write for. His lack of faith in the survival of the human race makes Martin Amis look optimistic. The Gulf Crisis merely confirms Reading's worst fears and predictions; his belief is that we have destroyed our environment already, and war - nuclear, chemical, the burning of oil-fields - would merely hasten an inevitability. "There's no posterity to write for. I'm writing now for mutated arthropods." His concern for the environment dates back to his childhood. "From the time I was a boy, and aware of the sorts of enviromental issues which affected my prinicpal interest - ornithology - I was alarmed and angered by balls-up in areas like the tipping of pollutants into water sources. I and my colleages could see in the late '50s that the Dee was shit-filled. We assumed it would come to the attention of the people who could do something about it." Later "it was incredible to me that nothing whatever had been done to check the - what seemed to us then, in a despairing mood - inevitable chain of events.
"Species are always superseded by others, but this is more accelerated than any of us would have thought. It has been precipitated at a vast rate." Reading maintains that this is not necessarily depressing (although "of course the collective ego suffers") but that a position of "absolute impotence" can also be "comfortable. Two hundred years ago, when we would have been able to exercise some control, something could have been done," but now the matter is out of our hands. Hence the tendency towards silence. Not only is poetry an irrelevence, it also contributes to that situation by demanding the razing of rainforest for paper. Reading refers to "the sheer volume of Parnassian stuff produced, which, as a reviewer, I can't help but be aware of as the jiffy-bags thump on the mat." A sense of weariness is unignorable: "in years gone by I've had sufficient resilience. This isn't a life that I like, or accept, but it is one I'm prepared to acknowledge. Nothing has meant more to me than writing. Without any satisfaction - indeed, with great dissatisfaction - I feel I'm facing the end."
I asked if, like Amis or McEwan, Reading had found fatherhood had softened his approach; his thirteen-year old daughter Angela is referred to in later poems. He thought not. "I lovc my wife and child, but I'm not going to get mawkish about them." When asked if he was worried about his daughter's future, he replicd simply, "She has no future." Although Reading, his family and friends are also writtcn about in the early volumes, he makes it clear that "thc characters were meant to be stereotypes which anyone could empathize with, sympathize with, get cross with the attitudes struck." Suspicious of poetry editorial ising, he refuses to write "about personal likes or dislikcs unless they are monitored by the artisticprocess .... I write about 'Peter Reading' so he can cease to exist."
This authorial self-effacement, and that distaste for mawkishness, arc dominant concerns. When goaded, Reading can produce elegant and beautiful pastoral and elegaic pieces, but he hedges them about with qualification. Following an idyllic description of a family picnic (apparently an amalgam of several such events, and found in various forms throughout his corpus), he concludes:
Paean to celebrate this: [pastoral, cliche, old hat -
blush at the schmalty word] Love [but today it is, though, it is this].
To an extent, the feeling is expressed all the more powerfully for this reluctance,just as Reading's clinical detachment in many poems makes the atrocities he describes more grotesque. Equally, although any cry of pain, grief or self-pity is followcd up by a terse, critical condemnation ("drivel", "enough of all thatshite", "pah"), Rcadingportrayshumanfrailty humanely. C, in which Reading first examines then treats terminal disease from the perspective of everyone involved, allows more dignity to those suffering the indignities of their condition simply by avoiding twee euphemism and being entirely honest. This was a well-researched volume, stemming from "a hatred of the kind of inadequate elegy we're all familiar with"; not for the first time, Reading seemed to have more time for text -book empiricism than the limp consolations of verse. The book is preoccupied with a search for an appropriatc metre; if it cannot find one, cancer is hardly an appropriate subject for verse. Instead, mirroring the arbitrariness of disease, the volume consists of 100 loa-word units.
Reading entcrtains a global perspective in which disaster (AIDS, radiation - the modem manifestations of Weird) is a democratic leveller; and his juxtaposition of different registers, neighboured through the logic of metre or alliteration, makes the same point. Characters such as cosmologists and palaeontologists inspect star systems and timescales that dwarf our own. At the same time, he writes from the point of vicw of individuals, offering the human response to its own insignificance; while Homo sap. may bc a mere blip on the chronostratiograph, and any individual only one of five billion, the species retains its irrational values nonetheless. Not thc least of these is love.
In his own words, this combination of painstaking care and "ninety percent misanthropy" is the "slick prestidigital art of Not Caring/Hopelessly Caring". When toying with words to describe his stancc - atheist ("what alternative?"), nihilist, empiricist - he finally quoted Swift and Addison by way of explanation. "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin ... " (Gulliver's Travels) and "Thus I live in the world rather as a spectator of mankind than as one of the species" (The Spectator I). He points out that in spite ofthe detachment or disgust, "they were actually concerned about their people."
Reading's work must rank as some of the most ambitious, intelligent and disciplined English currently published. At the same time it is fuelled by a philosophy which makes it all but futile. But he has been working with these contradictions for twenty years now, and the volumes have continued to appear. It is to be hoped that recent recognition in the form of a grant from the Lannon Foundation (Heaney and Mahon are among the other recipients) might prevent his current current block becoming as permanent and "Sibelian" as he imagines.