Reading, Peter

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Nationality: British. Born: Liverpool, 27 July 1946. Education: Alsop High School; Liverpool College of Art, B.A. 1967. Family: Married Diana Gilbert in 1968; one daughter. Career: Schoolteacher in Liverpool, 1967–68; lecturer in art history, Liverpool College of Art, 1968–70; laborer, and worker in animal feed company, Shropshire, 1970–81; writer-in-residence, Sunderland Polytechnic, 1981–83. Since 1983 weighbridge operator at an agricultural food mill, Shropshire. Awards: Cholmondeley award, 1978; Dylan Thomas award, 1983; Whitbread award, 1986. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1988. Address: 1 Ragleth View, Little Stretton, Shropshire, England.



Water and Waste. Walton-on Thames, Surrey, Outposts, 1970.

For the Municipality's Elderly. London, Secker and Warburg, 1974.

The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery. London, Secker and Warburg, 1976.

Nothing for Anyone. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981.

Fiction. London, Secker and Warburg, 1979.

Tom o'Bedlam's Beauties. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981.

Diplopic. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.

5x5x5x5x5, with David Butler. Sunderland, Ceolfrith Press, 1981.

C. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.

Ukelele Music. London, Secker and Warburg, 1985.

Essential Reading, edited by Alan Jenkins. London, Secker and Warburg, 1986.

Stet. London, Secker and Warburg, 1986.

Final Demands. London, Secker and Warburg, 1988.

Perduta Gente. London, Secker and Warburg, 1989; as Ukelele Music: Perduta Gente, Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1994.

Shitheads. London, Squirrelprick, 1989.

3 in 1. London, Chatto and Windus, 1992.

Evagatory. London, Chatto and Windus, 1992.

Last Poems. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994.

Collected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour Editions, 1996.

Work in Regress. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour Editions, 1997.


Developing Engaged Readers in School and Home Communities. Mahwah, New Hampshire, Erlbaum Associates, 1996.


Critical Studies: By Tom Paulin, in Grand Street (Denville, New Jersey), 7(4), summer 1988; "'No-God and Species Decline Stuff': The Poetry of Peter Reading" by Dennis O'Driscoll, in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, edited by C.C. Barfoot, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1994; "Poetic Subjects: Tony Harrison and Peter Reading" by Neil Roberts, in British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art, edited by Gary Day and Brian Docherty, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

*  *  *

Peter Reading's third volume begins with an Auden pastiche, and there are further outcroppings, in the primly ludic vein, as late as his sixth, e.g., "Englished." The older poet's example—the deliberately impure diction, the notion of form as a set of ground rules—has certainly set its mark even on Reading's more pungent and characteristic verse. But whereas for Auden form and theme had to come together in his mind before he could write and impurity was ecumenical (disparate vocabularies convene on surprisingly good terms), for Reading the clash is all.

To that end Reading's details are frequently offensive and tendentious. As he often manages to sound both haughtily fastidious and recklessly insensitive, it is small wonder that he has incurred reprobation:

Muse! Sing the Rasta, who stabbed out a
baby's eye with a Biro …

Despite appearances, this is not gutter press racism but rather a meditation on the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword, a meditation that swallows its own tail:

[Squirrelprick Press is producing my
  latest, Blood Drops in Distich,
    hand-deckled limp-covered rag,
    Special Edition of ten.]

The "uriniferous subway" where the atrocity occurred runs, we are told, "Underneath Blake St." We have not built Jerusalem, and Reading's sword sleeps in his hand. The rowdy diction admits its own complicity.

The close of the early "Chiaroscuro" married wit to formal sensitivity, but Reading increasingly went in for bravura experiments whose expressive raisons d'être were somewhat banal and obvious, as in "Nocturne" or "Trio." The next step, taken in "10x10x10," from Nothing for Anyone, was to eliminate the raison d'être:

One might as well invent any kind of
structure (ten stanzas each of ten lines each
of ten syllables might be a good one),
the subject matter could be anything.

We are in the realm of the put-on. If form and theme are not to be married, at least they might struggle.

But once Reading's books ceased to be mere collections, their plots brought significance to the arbitrary forms. The best is C, a poem of one hundred proses, each comprising one hundred words and assembled, we are to believe, by a terminally ill cancer patient. For the reader each section becomes a day in a life whose end is terrifyingly calculable, and the inventiveness within constraints seems in consequence the trace of life itself. The ninety-ninth ends dramatically in midsentence. The hundredth is within parentheses:

(The suicide is untrue. Bodily weakness prevents my moving from the bed. The dismay to my wife and child which suicide would occasion renders such a course untenable. They would interpret my self-destruction as failure on their part to nurse me properly. Conversely, the grief my daily decline causes them is difficult for me to bear. If I could only end the terrible work and unpleasantness I cause them … But bodily weakness prevents my moving from the bed. Shit gushes unbidden from the artificial anus on my abdomen. My wife patiently washes my faece-besmirched pyjamas, for prosaic love.)

Tears (or Grace) are said to "gush unbidden," and the penultimate sentence does not gainsay this, nor does the third in its choice economy hold aloof.

This tensely lucid prose, in which form and theme are as one, is, however, not typical. Reading's later work skips or flounders in the swampy and uncertain terrain where spoken English leaks into printed language and vice versa. Consider the opening distich of Ukelele Music:

They must have been about 17/18, possibly 19:
one, tattoed on his hand MAM; one tattoed on his arm LOVE.

In direct speech newsprint conventions have nonetheless dictated the less audible form for the youths' ages. Contrariwise, the quite inaudible slash midline should, for some readers, mark a caesarea ("In the hexameter rises /the fountain's silvery columns"). Three imperfectly compatible rhythms—of heard speech, of the eye's silent scanning, and of an alien prosody—fight it out in the reader's ear, an internalized Lebanon where capitals might mean emphasis but probably do not.

The reader, thus wrong footed, is to register this cacophony as his own culture's, while seeing, with eerie slow-motion precision, its consequence—a type of event that is usually diagnosed or deprecated from the comfortable distance of a morning paper:

Now the kid started to skrawk; one of our heroes smirked, 
fondled the empty pint bottle he had in his hand and then
  smashed it
on an adjacent brick wall, held the bits to the child's throat.
I said "Hurt me if you like but don't injure the innocent baby—
  it can't defend itself, see? Don't do it don't do it please!"
He said "If I do the baby, I'll get what I want, so I'll
  cut it."
He shoved the glass in her cheek; twisted the jagged edge in.

Such writing takes nerve. The writer must not be too quick to show that his heart is in the right place, as he is here with "our heroes," as the sarcasm reassures. But in one sense these lines are easier to read, for the meter, in enforcing both the desperate rhythms of the mother's pleading and the muscular "shoving" and "twisting," temporarily naturalizes itself. Generally, however, the appeal of Reading's verse to the ear is, though intense, intermittent.

—Hugh Buckingham