Peter Reading: Poet whose pessimism was pierced with humour

 

The poet Peter Reading spent many years rehearsing the final event, with such titles as Last Poems and Ob, immersed in what he himself called "a congenital English pessimism". But this did not stop him from being an amazingly prolific poet as well as a strikingly original one.

He was brought up on the edge of Liverpool, in an area that in his childhood was semi-rural, though since then built over and polluted. From an early stage he was an acute nature observer, in particular of birds. But the whole "English" thing of pastoralism, or worse, anthropomorphism, provoked Reading to furious contempt. On one occasion, at a symposium at the King's Lynn Poetry Festival on "least favourite poems", his ploy was to draw proceedings to a close with a manic rendition of Ted Hughes' "Hawk Roosting" – "my manners are tearing off heads" – and a final shout of "ANTHROPOMORPHISM!"

His earliest creative interests were to do with the visual arts, and at the age of 16 he studied at Liverpool College of Art, graduating with a First in 1967. He taught briefly, but then moved to Ludlow, where he worked in an animal feedmill, doing a repetitive but undemanding job which left him with energy to do what he really wanted to: write.

Reading later acknowledged that his successful entry into the literary world was not a difficult, long-drawn-out business. Without his insinuating or ingratiating himself, some of his early poems came to the attention of George MacBeth, a powerful force in BBC poetry, who broadcast a few Reading poems.

Then MacBeth passed to me a little pamphlet which Reading had just published with Howard Sergeant's Outposts Publications. After the launch of the Secker and Warburg poets series under Tom Rosenthal, I was keen to find other good poets, following James Fenton. My invitation to Reading brought the substantial typescript of For the Municipality's Elderly (1974).

Its reviews (by Dannie Abse, Martin Dodsworth, Gavin Ewart and Peter Porter and others) were good enough to give Reading credibility; from then on he turned out vast quantities of work: more than 25 volumes, including a far from definitive three-volume Collected Poems from Bloodaxe, beginning in 1995. Increasingly he produced unified sequences, often weaving together narratives, bits of "found" material (some of which he must have invented), different voices. Some of the books took on the deliberate appearance of drafts, palimpsests, damaged manuscripts.

All this was in the cause of a restless fiction-making urge, which was also alert to reportage, particularly of the black, the grim and the fantastic. What he uniquely had was an obsessive craftsmanship, at ease with every kind of verse-form, matched with a macabre, bizarre sense of humour. He relished the stately and the ceremonial, as much as he kept his ears open for the demotic, the inarticulate, the speechless. Because of the composed unity of Reading's books, he is almost impossible to quote from in brief extracts: whatever one plucks out looks "untypical", whether it is such a piece as "(Untitled)":

"A reach of Severn such as Elgar knew,
Redolent of Englishness and English art;
a boathouse with a plaque incised I.M.
LIEUTENANT LESLIE SHAW WHO
COACHED THE EIGHTS...
The kind of Englishman who went, when
called,
With decency, and who did not come back"

Or any of the 50 tiny poems very loosely modelled "after" Li Po (in Chinoiserie), in which Reading played new tricks with that old trio, wine, women and song, some of them flat in their perfect glum acceptance:

"Each day of the year
I drink till I slump.

Though you married me
any sot would do."

Indeed, Reading was a steady, sometimes destructive, drinker. He didn't make life easy. After 22 years he eventually threw in the feedmill job, when new employers tried to insist on the wearing of uniform. He managed to survive as a writer-in-residence for a couple of years in the early 1980s at Sunderland Polytechnic, but a later appointment at UEA was unhappy.

At the same time he won awards: a Cholmondely, a Whitbread, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and, most importantly, the generous patronage of grant from the Lannan Foundation which allowed him to travel in the US, and to live there for a time in the desert town of Marfa.

He was married three times, and had one daughter, Angela. His final book, Vendange Tardive, published last year, is prefaced "For the attention of Penelope Reading (Nunc scio quid sit Amor)" ["Now I know what love is"]. The book includes this, "Inflationary":

"In the old days
you would have been charged
one obolos to cross.

There became so many passengers
That the authorities
Had to lay on more ferries.

Today it will cost you
1,200 euros, £1,000, 1,377 US bucks, 130.380
yen
to achieve the further bank."

Anthony Thwaite

Peter Reading, poet: born Liverpool 27 July 1946; married three times (one daughter); died 17 November 2011.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Multi Trade Operative

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An established, family owned de...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen for a Customer ...

Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

Recruitment Genius: Fundraising Manager / Income Generation Coach

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A smart software company locate...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project