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.
The kind of Englishman who went, when
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
to achieve the further bank."

Anthony Thwaite

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