[Isabel Martin: Reading Peter Reading (2000)]
On first reading Perduta Gente, I was attracted to the fierce feeling of the writing and the overarching themes I saw, and having been politically fired-up and engaged in my twenties, this book appealed to my polemical, activist self – there was an element of glee: yes, tell them how it is, shock them out of their complacency!
But on re-reading the poetry, in particular, a number of times, I went from a kind of political reaction to its themes to a feeling of immense sorrow. For me it was no longer a complex, clever, compassionate tirade but a lament, and indeed, I found myself teary-eyed. But I wasn’t just responding emotionally to the harshness of the pictures, becoming more sympathetic to the characters or the message, this sorrow felt a lot older than my life-time or any contemporary perspective on the world. I felt there was a more mystical process happening in my living into the music of Reading’s words, and I was intrigued by this.
So for this talk I thought I’d take a more phenomenological approach and explore a little the power and effect of the form and language Reading uses in the poetry of Perduta Gente.
[Peter Edwards: Peter Reading, Poet]
Language: keys to a bigger historical picture
One of the things that initially drew me to Peter Reading's work was his viscerally inhabited, unequivocal language; in a world of business speak, political platitudes and chatter, I found this so refreshing! Here he was using the range and versatility and allusions of the English language; here he was making ingenious use of an expansive vocabulary.
In the opening poem of Perduta Gente, look at the richness and sweep of what he evokes through his careful, deliberate placement of words, how these words are keys to a bigger historical picture:
Under the Festival hall is a foetid / tenebrous concert
Tenebrae, from the Latin meaning darkness, are the ritual Roman Catholic services of matins and lauds (hymns of praise) over the last 3 days of Holy Week, at which candles are extinguished one by one.
The use of the adjectives tenebrous and foetid (another latinate word) evoke for me an image of medieval religiosity: monasteries, monks chanting, damp, dark places, the filth and pestilence of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.
This is juxtaposed in the next line: strobed by blue ambulance light.
A contemporary image, the word ‘strobe’ eluding to discos (and pre-empting the techno raves of the 90s),‘recreational’ drug use, but with the blue light, drug overdoses.
PVC/newspapers/rags / insulate ranks of expendables
Ranks of expendables – I think of soldiers of course, war, both the First and Second World Wars, but all wars, in which soldiers are used as cannon-fodder.
officers lug to the tumbril
A tumbril is an open cart on which corpses were piled, such as during times of plague, or on which prisoners were taken to be publically executed, particularly the guillotine during the French Revolution. So this line conjures both plague and civil unrest, the gagging of voices, the lost held accountable for their plight, a kind of public execution.
exhaling, like ostlers, its scents
An ostler was the horseman at the inn who took in the horses, cleaned out the stables etc. This association, and the dropped ‘h’ makes me think immediately of Industrial England, cockney London, those cramped, squalid, bronchial times, as portrayed by Dickens.
So here in this poem there’s this historical sweep that places the present in all time, in all moments of Western civilization.
And this historical placement and experience is something that occurs throughout the book, layered through vocabulary, metre, literary allusion, paraphrased and borrowed lines and language.
A powerful effect Reading uses is the repetition of words and phrases, composed like notes, or chords, that reinforce the circular repetition and universality of the experiences portrayed. Whether in the city, in the country or by the sea; whether in Russia, Germany or England; whether 1000 years ago, 2000 years ago, or now, the horror, suffering and indignity experienced as a ‘lost people’ is essentially unchanged.
The effect of this repetition is that when the words or notes re-occur they feel familiar to the ear; you recognise them, and in that recognition you start to take it on as your own experience.
The word dole, for example, re-occurs again and again: dole diuturnal (continuous grief). It also means the benefit, ‘being on the Dole’, dole-bludger, being in the doldrums. And Reading creates a neologism in dolent, a combination of the words dole and lament. Even the sound of it is onomatopoeic, dole; it’s definitely a minor key.
The poems finish on this note:
drone of the crazy invisible exe-
Woe vnto woe vnto woe
vnto woe vnto woe vnto woe
These last lines reverberate like a CD skipping or a stuck record; bells tolling; inconsolable sobbing.
Alliteration of the accentual metre
The alliteration of the accentual metre, that Reading intersperses in his poetry, invokes a deeper root in Old English, which Reading underscores by picking out lines which might come from Chaucer or Langland.
Bankrupted, batty, bereft
manifest mendicant mountebanks
vanished the vigour I valued
The effect of this alliterative accent is that the words work on you at a cellular level—this is me being completely unscientific. The rhythm has a satisfying, unconscious ably familiar pull to it, not least because English is naturally accentual. But I felt, for myself, that it spoke to an ancestral line in the language, that intuitively I recognised this voice, these are my roots. And it summons up something older, pre-Christian. I think of those Old English poems like Beowulf. I’m suddenly thinking too of Fiona Farrell’s translated Celtic poem, the fierceness and longing and lament of time passing, worlds changing – there’s something of this reminiscent here in Peter Reading’s work.
The elegiac distich: unforgettable cadence
I spent a bit of time playing around with metre and rhythm, unpicking formula as I hadn’t looked a lot at technical prosody before.
The elegiac distich (the term Isabel Martin uses), which is a metrical form found in Classical Greek and Latin verse, not commonly employed in English, helps build the unforgettable cadence of Reading’s work.
Thematically there’s also a link here. The lines those having precognition suffer madness beforehand, answer back to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the figure of Cassandra who foresaw her own murder but was dismissed as mad, hysterical. As another related aside: the East German writer, Christa Wolf, wrote a book called Cassandra in the 80s, which was a feminist re-visioning of Cassandra’s story juxtaposed with her journal and essays that explored the Cold War and society’s Cassandra type-casting of those who voiced dissent and increasing anxiety around nuclear armament and potential nuclear annihilation.
The classical elegiac distich is made up of a dactyl hexameter, also called the heroic hexameter as it was used to tell the stories of heroic deeds – six dactyls: long, short, short, with the last often substituted by a spondee: long, long. This line is followed by a dactyl pentameter, which is in turn separated into two hemiepes, each 2 ½ dactyl feet: long, short, short; long, short, short; long.
And here it is, in Perduta Gente, inverting the notions of classical and heroic, but fittingly evoking a lamentation that echoes and whines down the centuries, with a particular pommie ring to it:
Gizzera quiddora fiftyfer fuggsay, bankrupted, I been
fugginwell bankrupted, me;
dolent, the wail from the Tube;
The rhythmic riff of the hemiepe (long, short, short; long, short, short; long) is threaded throughout the poems in repetitions, variations and permutations of usually a triple run of words, like a refrain:
gagged, disregarded, unsought
dosshouses, derries and spikes
scumbags and alcos and bums
Bankrupted, batty, bereft
which also ties it in with the Old English accentual metre – perhaps why it strikes such a recognisable chord.
Congenital English pessimism
In terms of literary allusion, Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Woman, much missed, how I call for you, call for you’ is often used to demonstrate the unusual dactyl metre, and I have always found this particular line irritatingly persistent, it arises unbidden at any time of day. Well, now I have Reading, and lines such as ‘Gizzera quiddora fiftyfer fuggsay’ which accompany me spontaneously like a catchy tune.
Hardy was renowned for his gloom and Reading saw himself within this tradition, what he terms “a congenital English pessimism”:
“We register our own degeneration when we observe external decay, and view our personal disintegration as a metaphor for universal entropy.”
If you ask me, this planet is fucked;
not just me, love, the whole planet, fucked.
Other literary influences
Other literary influences and resonances you could search for here are Victorian poets Hopkins, Tennyson, Swinburne, novelist Charles Dickens, and James Joyce in the experimental language play of Finnegans Wake, which Reading greatly admired.
But of course, for literary reference you can’t go past examining the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, an allegorical journey of the Christian soul through Hell and the nature of sin, penned in the 13th century, which Peter Reading effectively rewrites - flagged by the title, Perduta Gente, which has been plucked from this poem. The Bible, the King James version, is also an essential secondary text, with passages borrowed.
The significance and resonance of the number three is another related mine of possibility. Reading loves mathematical patterns and numerological complexity, as evidenced in his other work, such as C. But all this is beyond the scope of my talk today.
So, in conclusion, one way by which to enter this particular book is to read the poetry itself through a number of times, allowing the music of the language, its refrains, harmonies and discords to work on you at a subconscious level, in a way that bypasses, though compliments and enriches, the cerebral experience—to let it work on you as a lament for humanity.
- Bridget Freeman-Rock