Cut-Ups

Robert Crawford

  • Perduta Gente by Peter Reading
    Secker, £5.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 436 40999 2
  • Letting in the rumour by Gillian Clarke
    Carcanet, 79 pp, £4.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 85635 757 X
  • Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman by Grace Nichols
    Virago, 58 pp, £4.99, July 1989, ISBN 1 85381 076 2
  • Studying Grosz on the Bus by John Lucas
    Peterloo, 64 pp, £4.95, August 1989, ISBN 1 871471 02 8
  • The Old Noise of Truth by Joan Downar
    Peterloo, 63 pp, £4.95, August 1989, ISBN 1 871471 03 6

Till recently, I’ve dodged most of Peter Reading’s work. He seemed so much the darling of the TLS and of a metropolitan circle whose powerfully disseminated views it is often essential to evade in the interests of finding a position which affords a degree of independence. Seeing stray poems by him in magazines, I thought of him as having a gift of designer outrage, whose appeal to the sophisticated might be suspect. Was he trying to rewrite The Waste Land with a Black and Decker? Now, looking at Perduta Gente against a background of his earlier volumes, I find my original intuitions both complicated and reinforced. Those partial to the conspiracy theory of the sinking island of English letters may take comfort from the fact that the selection of poems in Essential Reading (1986) is edited by Alan Jenkins of the TLS. And that book contains a few examples of what are (in part at least) knowing winks: after describing a catalogue of sufferings in C, Reading concludes that ‘this, rendered in catalectic tetrameters, might do for the TLS or other reputable literary periodical.’ Heading the blurbs on the back of the new book, Perduta Gente, there’s Alan Jenkins again (in the Observer this time). But literary life is full of cliques, always has been, always will be, for better and for worse. Ultimately, Reading is his own man. What his TLS-ability signals is less his being suavely hyped than his being grounded on the side of the sophisticated. His work is obsessively self-reflexive – ‘but am I Art?’ is its central question.

Almost from the start he investigated how to make verse out of texts that (often explicitly) comment on themselves and on other texts. An early poem, ‘Plague Graves’, signals a debt to Hughes and speaks of litter being destroyed when

                          Sheep maul
beyond recognition alarmingly quickly
the sandwich-paper memorials left
by charabanc trippers, dissolving all tangible
trace of us.

Very soon in Reading’s development we get other bits of paper, ones we can read, supposedly copied into the text in fragment form, traces which are commented on – ‘Quite nice,’ says a voice in ‘Early Stuff’, deflating some lines of cemetery poetry which rhetorically assert the triumph of love. Reviews of his writing come to be incorporated into his verse. He attacks what he sees as the pseudo-poetry encouraged by the ‘Plashy Fen School’, whose Grasmeraholic, off-Georgian members send him notes. They are so excoriated for these that one begins to sympathise with them, wishing they might write to him: ‘Dear Mr Reading, FUCK OFF. Yrs, The Plashy Fen School.’ But they don’t.

Like the independent Ian Hamilton Finlay, and like Geoffrey Hill, to whom the early Reading of such phrasing as ‘congregations/are still here mulched into the cider orchard’ pays his dues, this is a poet who likes to investigate the strains and alliances between violence and the language of art. He is fascinated by mixtures of discourse – how they manipulate their subject-matter, their readers and their writers. If literary theorists were more alert to contemporary poetry, they would swoop on Reading with glee. He delights in playing with fantasies about the Death of the Author. He loves posing as an editor who is mixing up a brew of clashing styles, a brew in which style itself is often at odds with or awkwardly bonded to its subject. The start of the poem ‘Editorial’ from Diplopic, with its finely-tuned use of the verb ‘compose’, might serve as a model for his mode:

Being both Uncle Chummy’s Letter Box
of Kiddies’ Column and Supa Scoop besides
(Your Headlines as They Happen), and having the shakes
uncellophaning fags this crapulous morning,
I compose: BOY (13) CLUBS DAD TO DEATH,
CHILD (10) SCALDS GRANNY (87) TO DEATH,
SKINHEAD (14) STONES KITTIWAKES TO DEATH
AS RSPCA ASKS ‘WHERE’S THE SENSE?’

Reviewers sometimes see Reading as a kind of social worker (or social worker manqué), who reveals the underside of our dole-full, opulent society. It would be possible to write interestingly about him as bard of a society in cancerous decline, harkening to the Muse of Death, like the George MacBeth who saw England as The Cleaver Garden or the Blake Morrison who heard The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper. Yet what sets Reading apart is that he has constantly signalled that he is fascinated as much by cut-ups of the text as by cut-ups of the body, as much by style-victimisation as by atrocity. It is this Post-Modern display of design-consciousness as much as his display of social inequalities and batterings which makes him such an arresting, self-aware artist, and an authentic voice of late-Thatcherite England.

Perduta Gente, following hard on the heels of last year’s Final Demands, confirms that Reading – fascinated all along by a polyphony of sometimes interacting, sometimes clashing voices of commentators and critics – has moved nearer to an art of visual collage. The voices have become distinct graphics. Bits of newspaper stories, handwritten sheets from a tear-off pad, leaks from a typewritten report on nuclear contamination, are photographically reproduced as part of the ‘edited’ text. Earlier Reading poems, such as ‘Fiction’, played with the ways in which writing structured and produced ‘fact’: now the poet graphically enacts what he previously discussed. Style remains his vital preoccupation. He is as interested in the texture and symptoms of tabloid journalism as he is in the subject-matter which is reported. Ads for and accounts of London apartments make up the left-hand page of a parallel text, the other half of which is an account of a ‘lone hag gippo’. But each half of the text invades the other. At the end of newspaper cut-ups detailing the sale of barns for six-figure sums to ‘buyers seeking a quiet country life’, the reprocessor of the text has stuck the cut-out letters of the word ‘doss’, while whoever it is who produces the text of the right-hand page mixes the ‘gippo’ vocabulary of ‘pisspot’, ‘turd’ and ‘skedaddled’ with the academic polysyllables of ‘fenestration’ and ‘etiolated’. On these pages in this poem-album, as so often before, Reading is mixing textures of discourse, juxtaposing them, modulating one theme rapidly into another, compressing and overlaying motifs and forms of expression like Sibelius in his Fifth Symphony. At his mixer’s console, Reading revels in virtuosity. His poem begins with an end, the provocative word ‘bray’ tripping us forward from Culture to culture, the words ‘tenebrous concert’ glancing back eerily from culture to Culture:

   South Bank: Sibelius 5’s
   incontrovertible end –
five exhalations, bray of expiry,
     absolute silence ...

Under the Festival Hall is a foetid
   tenebrous concert
strobed by blue ambulance light.
 PVC/newspapers/rags

Since Reading on the first and last pages of this book imitates these ‘five exhalations’, it’s curious that there are actually six in Sibelius’s original. Yet, usually, as one would expect of a writer so intent on discourse-blending, Reading has a splendid ear and eye. He hears, transmits the contemporary through his diction. So he writes the word ‘strobed’ and chooses ‘Sibelius 5’s’ rather than ‘Sibelius Fifth’s’ or even ‘Sibelius Five’s’. In its diction and construction this poetry is formally consonant with the scratch-video; simultaneously, it is aware of having access to the poignant, often useless bank of Great Literature.

Peter Reading is not concerned with pity but with style and accuracy. The maximum of energy comes not from setting a rose or a pocket-calculator beside the formal notation of a verse structure – all are bathed in human ideas of sophistication, elegance and civilised values. Far more power comes from setting the formal notation of a verse structure beside (even the photograph of) a piece of shit.

This was the technique of Reading’s C, where poetic formalism confronted the subject of cancer. Reading is relentlessly literary in his obsessions. His fascination with painful and offensive subjects is an empowering disguise. How else could he get away with writing a book with such a literary, even academic title as Stet? Reading is an aesthete who saves himself by picking up a lump of dirt. Dirt allows him to escape the fatal (Plashy Fen) wound of literariness in his poetry at the same time as he obsessively investigates how poetry works, and where it may fail to work. Serious imitation of this technique would be futile. Any imitator would be submerged in Reading’s constructed voice. This poet is only just succeeding in avoiding imitation of his own earlier writing as he produces a plethora of books. But that ‘only just’ is enough. Bleak, similar, each volume is as yet a technical advance on its predecessors.

Reading’s is a Post-Modern technique developed from the Modernism which reminded its readers of the need for merds as well as Titians. To put it another way, where Duchamp and his followers brought a toilet bowl into an art gallery, Reading asks us to contemplate oil paintings hung in public toilets. He reminds US that art, fascinating and inescapable, depends on a biology that is eroding fast. He sees the end of the world through the words of Dante and the Sun. Perduta Gente ends with the cut-up newspaper versions of the syllables ‘dis tress’ and ‘con tam’, one overprinted imperfectly on the other. Exegi monumentum aere perennius – for Reading, a religious poet without God, monuments are a load of crap. Obsessively, he continues to make and unmake them.

While it is only fair to salute the irradiated brilliance of Peter Reading, it comes as something of a relief to turn to Letting in the rumour. Gillian Clarke’s sensitive collection is a reminder of the pleasures to be given by poetry that seeks neither to plumb ultimate depths nor to ascend to the ozone layer, but exists alertly, like a wind-generator ‘At One Thousand Feet’, where

Nobody comes but the postman
and the farmer with winter fodder.

A-road and motorway avoid me.
The national grid has left me out.

For power I catch wind.
In my garden clear water rises.

Grace Nichols calls her new book Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman. Or rather, she calls it Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman, and Other Poems – which is odd, since there isn’t a poem in the collection called ‘Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman’. ‘Grease’ (‘Grease is obviously having an affair with me’) is definitely about the real stuff as opposed to the John Travolta variety, and works because it’s wry and faithful to its subject, without straining after the big effects that phrases like ‘the geography of my thighs’ or ‘cosmic spite’ announce are as yet unavailable to her. With lines like

The smell of Pretoria
The breath of the Pentagon
The eye of the Kremlin

you have to make yourself feel worthy in order to keep faith in the poem. The test of poetry which works is that you should never have to feel worthy to read it. Nichols is intelligent, funny, sly. She knows people want from her ‘Poems about the “Realities” of Black Women’. I’d feel easier if her language convinced me that such ‘Realities’ never correspond to media expectations. Nichols has a sharp eye for ‘England of the meagre funerals’, but too many of her poems fail to refresh the language.

The well-made poem is alive, snug and published from Cornwall by Peterloo Poets – but it lacks pep and strangeness. There are plenty of local satisfactions in the collections by John Lucas and Joan Downar. Lucas gives us the downtrodden Greek who goes ‘home to his parents again/ to dream the pebble under his apt tongue’, but he also gives us words such as ‘pillowwards’ and offers rather a lot of academic references (‘Laforgue ... plots/ The semiotics of melancholy’) without the abrasive edge needed to carry them off. These poems are assured and afford moments of satisfaction, but few of excitement. Though Joan Downar’s poetry occasionally sounds effects that seem a little handed-down, she constantly offers finely-calibrated reactions to both violent and calm, both home and away experience. The Old Noise of Truth is mature, considered and rewarding. Its precise, musical attention can be sensed in the description of Indian women who

                      wrap their legs in soft
dark cotton. If you look closer you can see
the odd stripe, the tiny unaggressive
pattern, a diamond, a blown flame.

Though it would not be rendered obsolete, work such as Downar’s might suffer from being aligned with the stylistic and innovative power of Peter Reading. Sometimes deceitful, certainly complex and scary, his work sounds a stunning new noise of truth that may be partial, but is instantly unforgettable.