Book Chapter Details
Mandatory Fields
Barr, Rebecca Anne
Anglo-Saxon Culture in the Modern Imagination
Resurrecting Saxon things: Peter Reading, species decline and Old English poetry
Boydell & Brewer
Optional Fields
Reading, Peter Anglo-Saxon poetry Poetry 'The Ruin'
The reception of Peter Reading’s poetry has been marked by controversy, vitriol and distaste. Despite a prolific output, his status in the academy and the world of popular poetry has been uneasy. This is partly a result of his overt rejection of those worlds, but also due to the unremitting unpleasantness of the poetry, characterized by ‘repetitive, avoidable violence, suffering and pity’.[i]However, the publication of the Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1995-2003) and Isobel Martin’s critical study of his work, has provided a crucial and potentially redemptive insight into the cohesive nature of Reading’s aesthetic strategies and thematic concerns. Central to this tentative respectability is the revelation of Reading’s engagement with Anglo-Saxon and Old English poetry. In Reading’s use of alliterative forms, experimentation with syllabic metrics and renderings of sources such as Beowulf, The Wanderer, and The Ruin, critics have discerned in this most modern of poets an unexpected preoccupation with Anglo Saxon poetry and poetics.  For Reading, these texts provide ‘a complete avoidance of the everyday…ways of approaching unordinariness.’[ii] ‘The resurrection of these Saxon things’ offers the poet a powerful means of bypassing the contemporary quotidian, archaism speaking with more vitality than modernity’s degenerate diction. These pronouncements seem to confirm Old English as form whose ‘strange likeness’ is a resource for reinvigorating poetic language.[iii] This chapter examines the function and effect of Old English in Reading’s poetic representations of contemporary existential and environmental crisis. Unlike poets such as Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, and Simon Armitage, for whom Old English participates in a tradition of ‘English Literature’, Reading appropriates Anglo Saxon as a vigorous counter-tradition to the aestheticized misrepresentations of ‘bourgeois’ poetry. Through a consideration of his background as a visual artist and  a discussion of his work to date, including -273.15 (2007), this chapter will show how Reading’s adoption of the elegiac intensity of Old English is part of an imagined history of linguistic depreciation. In this reading, the ‘resurrection of Saxon things’ acts not a transfusion of poetic energies from the past, but as a sign of the diminished power of language. The eruption of fragments of Old English texts in a dystopian modernity serves to confirm Reading’s vision of cultural and poetic eschatology. By constructing his own corpus as an auto-cento in which poems are re-worked, reinscribed, and often pared down into illegible fragments, Reading implies not only the impossibility of originality but the ultimate fate of all poetry. Reading’s utilisization the authoritative pessimism of Old English texts thus incoorporates a vision of poetry’s linguistic desuetude:  ‘Our runes, like theirs, will be uncipherable: /impartial Time will wipe the slate clean, wordless.’[iv] The power of Old English lies, paradoxically, in its admission of its own erasure. [i] John Sears, Review of Faunal (27 June, 2002). [ii] Peter Reading, Poetry Review, 1985. [iii] Chris Jones, Strange Likeness: The Uses of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry (OUP, 2006), 5. [iv] Peter Reading, Untitled (2001), in Peter Reading: Collected Poems, 3: 1997-2003 (Bloodaxe, 2003), 149.
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