A Swift for a soiled England

Peter Reading's poetry is dark, uncompromising and technically brilliant. By Lachlan McKinnon; Collected Poems Volume I by Peter Reading Bloodaxe, pounds 9.95
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Peter Reading is extremely well-known in the small world of contemporary poetry, but hardly at all beyond it. The publication of his Collected Poems (the second volume will follow, next year) brings together the 17 volumes he has published in a format designed to engage a wider readership. Reading has himself said that his writing career will end with this edition, and that terminal note is echoed by Isabel Martin's helpful introduction.

One of the persistent notes Reading strikes is that of a despair of writing. In the early "Raspberrying", for instance, he opens "Last sun ripens each one, through rubicund, black/ then each rots. Lines are tight with late swallows,/ oak rattles leaves icicle-brittle ..." The knotty syntax of the first sentence and the surprising, exact word "rubicund" show Reading's focus and his refusal to concede anything to the reader. Having begun with this description, he changes course: "A bit neo-pastoral, one will admit,/ but then something conspiring to make decay more/ than the usual end of a season makes Nature/ itself as anachronistic today/ as a poem about it." The self-deriding critical judgment is followed by the sense of "something" terrible happening "today" which darkens all his work.

Reading's England has always been soiled. In his first book, he observed during Conservation Year "pus in the weir; where once a white cumulus froth/ of cauliflowers boiled, there's a fetid and curdling slack/ of turpentine slick clotting up with each new pollutant/ in a piled scum of rainbow blown corrugated and poxed". The energy of disgust here, and the refusal to look away, are extraordinary. The vivid imagery, the paradoxically seething "slack" and the way in which "blown" suggests animal decay are all marks of Reading's skill. This picture of nature in ruins is not presented without a human significance, however, for in the next line we are told that this happens "while the same goes on in our own intestinal tracts". The dirty landscape is inhabited by a demeaned humanity.

The people in Reading's poems suffer: "Thought nauseous by his wife, A Barns, BA,/ devotes himself entirely now to work - /the running of a Comprehensive School." The wife's repulsion becomes ours: the self-important capital letters given to the school tell us all about the man's egotism, and suggest a terrible futility in his life. The expectation that marriages will be unhappy, is a constant. "With marriage (or at least the sexual act)/ we have groped through darkness", Reading writes in "Dead Horse", "at least towards a sweaty consolation,/ making our mutual best of a bad lot."

Reading has been seen as a negative laureate of Thatcherism, describing dossers, drunks and punks with a Swiftian gusto, but all the elements were there long before. Indeed, the moral shabbiness of the Thatcher experiment can be seen as a vindication of Reading's prophetic tone. I have so far focussed on very early work because Reading's writing shows very little development. There is a steady increase in technical skill, certainly; Reading is now one of our most formidable metrists. The climactic work of this volume, "C", is largely written in prose, though, because "Verse is for healthy/ arty-farties. The dying/ and surgeons use prose."

"C" deals with cancer. In a hundred 100-word units, Reading explores the agonies of the victims and their carers. The writing is terrified and terrifying, riddled with the squalor in which hope and love end. "Shit gushes unbidden from the artificial anus on my abdomen. My wife patiently washes my faeces-besmirched pyjamas, for prosaic love." This is not a work one easily forgets.

Reading has been attacked for his often obscene vocabulary and for his apparent insensitivity to readers' expectations. On both these counts, he can easily be defended in terms of artistic integrity. What is more worrying is that his work consistently gives life less than its due, as if atheism had to mean imaginative thinness. Not all cancer patients die in despair. Craft and skill are vital, but the vision they serve must in the end justify them. Work that consistently emphasises its own futile triviality may, however readable, cry wolf once too often. Like a larger but equally death-fixated atheist, Philip Larkin, Reading seems to have written himself into a corner.