A Poetry Safari with Peter Reading
Peter Reading’s new volume of poems opens with a quote from Charles Darwin: “We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence.” Reading’s readers over the past thirty years will be aware that his poetry has never done anything else, and that Darwin’s ‘struggle for existence’ refers here not merely to the world of nature but also to society, Reading’s perennial theme and target.
Faunal, as its title suggests, is in larger part a book of poems about animals, or more specifically about Reading’s real or imagined experiences of the beasts of the earth, and of the most powerful beast of all, humanity. The poems are peppered with Latin names which function as tags marking the animal world as the property of the linguistic universe constructed by people, and Reading’s main attention here is to the ways in which people interact with animals, usually to the detriment of the latter.
This gives these poems an edge which is both polemical (again a familiar Reading trait) and, at times, instructive. Reading is a poet who wears his emotions on his sleeve, investing a deal of righteous anger and outrage in conducting his verbal vendettas against the stupidity of humanity. His misanthropy is always legitimised by a political motivation (in the case of this book, a kind of anarchic eco-awareness), so it never quite veers into the ranting to which it nevertheless approximates. At another extreme, Reading is often capable of moments of intense power, aesthetically and ethically shocking and metrically stunning, as in the translated Old English of ‘Reiterative’:
“Marvels are many, mankind among them who navigates oceans,
driven by stormy south-westers, making way through the billows
and surges that threaten to drown and engulf his laborious progress.”
Most of the poems here are short and controlled in rhythm and tone, Reading favouring brief stanzas like the Haiku (in ‘They sprawl around the pool . . .’) to present his observations and comments in concentrated forms. In the past, he has experimented with much longer and more ambitious structures (the 100 100-word sections of 1983’s C, for example); here we are given enough material to see the point of the argument, and enough space to mull it over afterwards. For example: ‘Those Alligator Mississippiensis’, Reading tells us,
‘delicately copulating in a lagoon
in Aransas, south-east Texas,
their fondling, fumbling under
the surface with sensual claws
and jaws, the joyous writhing
needs neither intellectual
nor moral smartarse envoi.’
The poem describes its object, and its experience, as briefly as possible before launching its attack which is couched in terms of Reading’s own attitude to the redundancy of another possible response. This in turn is made ironic by the implicitly pretentious final word of the poem, as if Reading is fighting a further battle with his own desire to intellectualise his experiences.
Peter Reading is, nowadays, a poet slightly grudgingly accepted into the canon. Recent books by Neil Roberts, Sean O’Brien and Antony Thwaite have discussed his work; Isabel Martin’s definitive Reading Peter Reading has marked out in detail the scholarly territory; and Bloodaxe have already (in 1995 and 1996) published his two-volume Collected Poems, bringing together 18 volumes of poetry published over the previous quarter of a century, with five further volumes published since. This is a remarkable rate of productivity, made partly possible by Reading’s willingness to rework and retry his central themes, styles and experiments.
For he is above all an experimental poet, playing with the formal traditions and rhythms of English in liberating ways. Reading has almost single-handedly demonstrated the possibilities of different metrical forms in English, and of the production of works which are densely, complexly interrelated to each other. A little later in Faunal, having witnessed the amorous alligators, we come across ‘That Nine-banded Armadillo’,
scuttling into the brush
and Prickly Pear of a pathside
in Aransas, south-east Texas,
requires no fancy moral
or intellectual envoi.”
We’re on safari with the poet muttering in our ear about how disgusting our fellow safari-goers are, with occasional gasps of wonder at the beauty of the natural world. When a flock of parakeets appear on ‘Beethovenstraat’, Reading celebrates the “epiphanic event” with “Ein ander Amstel, alstublieft”. The experience is sometimes a bit like being with a drunk the same one-track, repetitive conversation, verging always on some kind of unpredictable violence.
Reading’s world is a world in which repetitive, avoidable violence, suffering and pity predominate, like watching endless, specially selected newsreels demonstrating the hopelessness of modern human life. At the same time there’s a redeeming cleverness here, making itself evident in moments of sharp humour, sarcastic asides, and in the ultimate salvation of formal dexterity, the lucid purity of rhythmic language and the poet’s ability to make us think about ourselves, and specifically about our responsibilities to the world being described.
No one is innocent in Reading’s eyes, least of all Reading himself. He shows us this in the tiny poem called ‘[Untitled]’:
“In the library
all seem to have some purpose.
I, per contra, plot
a visit to the NatWest,
followed by intemperance.”
Again, drunkenness seems to offer momentary relief, until we recognise the sly insinuation of our own moral pomposity (what’s he doing in the library in the first place? Why is the visit to the bank plotted? Why ‘intemperance’, with all its self-accusing moralistic undertones?).
Reading is ultimately too clever to be pinned down to any particular set of values. The range and virtuosity of Faunal suggests a poet in full flow, sure of his themes and of the machinery he has to hand to address them. If he is at times heavy-handed (the long list of derogatory terms which opens ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, for example, and the same poem’s failure to broaden its reference outside its specific political context), this is the poet’s response to the heavy-handedness that really counts humanity’s willingness to brutally exploit and destroy the fauna of the planet, including members of its own species. Poetry, for Reading, is always an act of defiant creation in the face of this relentless truth.