I do not like Peter Reading’s poetry. I do not like its relentless, empty cynicism, which treats all enthusiasm as stupidity. I recognize his talent, but I see no value in the uses to which he has put it.
I have been making my way through the first volume of his Collected Poems (Bloodaxe), and have read the first three collections therein: For the Municipality’s Elderly, The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery, and Nothing for Anyone. I intend to finish the volume; perhaps I will find work more to my liking in what follows. But I am not encouraged.
A blurb on the back of the book promises that Reading’s poetry is animated by “his contempt for cant, ‘wrong-headed duff gen’ and poetry that refuses to face up to grim realities.” I have found this. It also promises a “complex, self-accusing sense of compassion and impotence.” I have found the self-accusation and the impotence. I have not found the compassion. Therein lies my fundamental distaste for the work.
Reading is very much anti-cant. Much of the work involves the humorous (humor is attempted, at any rate) takedown of absurdities. “The Con Men”, for instance, goes after the cant of preservationism:
It isn’t that we care about the Hippo,
but that we want our children’s children’s children
to see it for their entertainment.
our children’s children’s children precisely who
make the extinction of the Hippo (and
themselves) inevitable. (p. 132)
And there is much else in the same vein. In itself, it’s not a problem: cant is cant, and ripe for takedown. The trouble is that Reading appears to detect cant wherever people show any enthusiasm for anything whatever. That is what I mean when I decry his cynicism. As someone prone to that sort of mockery of enthusiasm, and who must guard against it in myself, I don’t find much pleasure in reading the work of a poet who appears to treasure it. Of course, this makes my distaste quite personal—but that is as it should be.
The exceptions to his cynicism are informative. In “Address Protector”, for instance, Reading makes his contribution to the grand poetic tradition of praising drink:
I know (no names/no pack-drill) of a drunk
who seeks unconsciousness because he can’t
stomach his fellow-men: but when he drinks
he strikes up new acquaintanceships – which means
more twerps to seek escape from the next night…
Aloofness is not that easily achieved.
Colt’s the only foolproof way yet known. […] (p. 123)
It isn’t unreserved praise, but it is praise. Drink is worth seeking: it is one route to aloofness, to the avoidance of other people, who are of course full of cant. The one enthusiasm he can stomach is the one that protects him from people and their enthusiasms.
There is a larger background picture animating Reading’s cynicism: the view that we exist in a large, impassive universe, that we are not special, and that, given the forgoing, our actions and enthusiasms are basically arbitrary. (I largely agree with this view, as it happens. I dislike the uses to which Reading puts it.) This is given its most direct expression in “CUT COSTLY RESEARCH!”:
CUT COSTLY RESEARCH!
Is aerosoled on
the Chemistry Wing.
say I. Long may my
heroes pay homage
to what ennobles
sapiens man – the
of what is conceived
by puny us to
be mysterious. (p. 125)
Reading likes the word ‘puny’: its appearance in this poem is a reappearance. Its first use in Nothing for Anyone reveals a great deal:
We’re crusted enough to know
we can’t immortalize this,
but gooey enough to want to
try to honour a morning
as honeyed as England ever
gifted a couple of spooners with.
So let’s hymn this: that at 8
on a summer morning the dew,
licked from the roses we nuzzle
nose to nose in the garden
of lichened Pipe Aston Church,
is luscious as Gewürztraminer.
And if anyone wants to see
they can in the Visitors’ Book
our puny dignified gesture
(the most we can do, Little Mortal,)
that today we are here. 17th
of June 1975. (p. 105)
Two things are worthy of note here. First, the opening lines contrast the “crusted” realization of our puniness within the universe with the “gooey” way in which we still have enthusiasms, despite the pointlessness of it all. Knowledge is crusted, passion is gooey. That is Reading in a nutshell. There is no escape from these poles, each ugly in its own way.
But a positive picture does emerge: we can make puny, dignified gestures, which do not exactly immortalize us but which do… something. Satisfy our gooeyness I suppose. Reading here is taking his stand on poetry’s greatest cant: the search for immortality. “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, &c. Reading is at his gooiest when contemplating people whose lives have not been futilely monumentalized. This occurs especially in For the Municipality’s Elderly. Here is a clear statement, from “Brabyns Park”:
The only permanence is, I suppose,
in having been – and whether known or not
to others, hardly enters into it. (p. 30)
Here is a thought. Permanence in having been. Reading hints at a view that sees self-sufficiency in having existed: having one’s existence be known, especially after one’s death, doesn’t enter into it. But just how gooey is Reading here, really? I don’t find that he especially develops the positive side of this picture, the one that points toward a view of how to live in the world as he portrays it. (If he does, it’s to praise the search for aloofness, which hardly counts.) Instead, it really does seem primarily aimed at distinguishing him, as a poet, from those other poets who sought immortality. His apparent praise is not really praise. It is criticism only very slightly veiled. One might call it: cant.