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
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.