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Jeremy Reed: The Prizes and the Disappointments

by

 Geoff Stevens  

 

 

There appear to be some areas of confusion, fans would say mystery, about Jeremy Reed. For instance we are told that he was born in 1952 from one source, and 1954 from another, whereas Andrew Duncan asserts that the true date was 6th March 1951.1 He was brought up in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where his childhood was “solitary and dark-sided. He was to go on to Essex University and obtain a BA hons 2 or, if other sources are to be believed, a PhD in Literature.3

In the 1970's his poems started to appear in small-press publications and periodicals; he had 13 or so pamphlets produced by the small publishers, and his first substantial collection, Bleeker Street, was published by Cape in 1980. Reed has been a prolific poet ever since.

I would like to look at the positive and negative aspects of his work and how it has changed over the years. I'd also like to consider whether ‘over-producing’ has affected the overall standard of his poetry, his attitude to poetry, and the response he has got from both his work and his stance as a poet.  

Looking at his earlier work one is immediately impressed by both his vocabulary and his descriptive use of words, “pumpkin-heads pocked with rust shale, their cyclopean eyeballs gone rusty from staring unlidded at the ocean(‘Buoys’, By the Fisheries, Cape 1984).  His subject matter leans heavily on nature, “wet blackberries wear diamond pins of light(‘Barn at a Tilt’), but shows interest too in John Clare, Houseman and Christopher Smart.  At this point he is not afraid to handle rhyme “...your round toe-capped snout/ raised at the height of a rat-trap from sand / shelving to stone where the conger's snake-head / stokes in its rock lair, and decapitates / an unsuspecting wrasse. What are the dead / to the sea's predators…” (‘Dogfish’).  Seamus Heaney said that By The Fisheries was “full of rich and careful writing, dense with pleasure in words that pleasure the world”.

Reed's personal appearance and lifestyle was also getting noticed and an interview with Val Hennessy (ca. 1984), later to be included in A Little Light Friction (Futura 1989), revealed that his West End bedsit was no bigger than a wardrobe, his voice was a strange whispering one, and his dress was of black leather trousers and bomber jacket set off by black nail varnish. His teeth were said to be primrose yellow and it was noted that Andrew Motion had called him “that effete little pseud”.  He was beginning to get noticed for more than his poetry, indeed his appearance in public had aroused violence and verbal abuse from gangs of youths. Reed was to take Motion's remarks to heart, and in 1992 he had the chance to return insults when he was reported as saying that “The likes of Peter Porter and Andrew Motion would be better off knitting. They've done more to make poetry into a non-event than the current poetry editor of Chatto & Windus”.

His 1985 collection, Nero, was the joint winner of the Somerset Maugham Award for that year.  Nature—gulls, foxes, rabbits, beetles, fish, flowers—continues to monopolise his subject matter, but he devotes a chapter to Baudelaire, and there is the title poem too. He was becoming interested in iconic figures of a certain notoriety or seediness. “Our brains are crucibles of Dante's hell”, he proclaims (‘Baudelaire's Abyss’).

In 1987, Penguin Books took poems from By The Fisheries and Nero, and after adding a sequence called ‘After Montale’ published the whole as Selected Poems. The poems written in memory of Eugenio Montale are essentially nature poems, although Reed's liking for the exotic is revealed to a minor extent in such lines as “the mock Byzantine goldleaf / of your old hotel in Venice (‘Xenia 1’). Kathleen Raine pronounced that he was “the most gifted poet since Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne, “the most outstanding poet of his generation.  Perhaps Reed's future interest in pop stars began about this time too. Icelandic singer Bjork said she found his work “the most beautiful gorgeous outrageously brilliant poetry in the universe”. Other critics were to differ, finding his poetry technically glib and prone to the repetitive use of certain dramatic effects. By this time, however, both The New Statesman and The Literary Review saw fit to publish his work. To me, Selected Poems is a wonderful volume, especially the poems taken from Cape's earlier publications. It is full of well-crafted poems, exciting metaphor, and unexpected descriptive phrases.

His next Cape book was Engaging Form (1988), which consisted of much more of the same: “turnip field steaming under summer rain, Timothy grass and cow parsley / silked by the wind, nettles that are bottle-green, adderish, tetchy”. Andrew Duncan in an article in the magazine Angel Exhaust 4 saw a decline in the use of metaphor, which he said was being replaced by stripey adjectives, and that “the gap between testing language and locating narrative prose had widened”.          

With Dicing for Pearls (Enitharmon 1990), although the poems aren't his best in my opinion, there is a change of subject. He begins to suggest that other things exist besides the glories of nature. It's all a bit secretive, a nod and a wink towards darker things. “The drugs have damaged me, / the thumbprints that have walked over my eyes / I see now as deepening, he says in Liturgic. And in Metabolic, it is “little blue life-savers / regulating a just liveable calm”.

Peter Reading 5 found that in his new book Nineties (Cape 1990), “Reed's previous twee nature notes have hardened into more purposeful observations that are incorporated into wider themes”. He went on to say that “a muscular sensuality pervades Reed's poems, frequently burgeoning to powerful eroticism. He dismisses the prosody as being “simple, uninventive; for the most part apparently intuitive iambics”.               

In The Poetry Review (Spring 1991) Reed spoke out against the inherited values in British Poetry, the influence of Heaney or Hughes, and its limited subject matter. He insisted that whole areas of life were absent, and gave clothes, rock stars, cinema, sub-culture, and the gender-split as examples. He followed this outburst with the issue of Black Sugar – Trisexual Poems (Owen, 1992), which was described by Peter Reading in The Sunday Times as “agreeably lascivious”. But Duncan said that Reed “showed little grasp of feminine sexuality in particular and his lesbian poems have offended”.       

1993 saw the release of Kicks, which included a few short prose pieces, but was mainly poetry. This volume from Creation Books saw a move away from the nature poems to the dark and exotic. There is sometimes a use of half-rhymes, too, that titillate the senses—“digesting  elephant steaks or zebra, / his stomach open like a corolla,(‘Taxi To The End Of The World’)arthritic joints stiffened, their graveyard flesh / marketed for a drink, hookers whose wit / I sit and nurture with obscene relish,” (‘The Game/Le Jeu’). The ordinary and everyday is deserted for surprise scenarios—“ ‘These red elbow length gloves with these red shoes / matching the scarlet of my toes, / are all I'll wear’, she says; ‘the rest is…’ ” (‘Tennis’). Where would one get a more provocative invitation to read further than with “He inserts a mauve contact lens and checks / his reconstructed features, collagen / implants, liposuction; he's angular / and out-profiles Michael Jackson? (‘Zamora Institute’).

The Readers Companion to Twentieth Century Literature said at this juncture in his career, that “in an era of poetry broadly characterized by understatement, austerity, or sporadically successful association of subjects and objects normally considered to have little of interest in common, the work of Jeremy Reed is rich charged and more traditional in its imagery and concerns.” The cult figure is introduced more purposefully: Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and even he himself become the subjects of the poems—“Mostly he's misconstrued,” he says of himself, “The imagery / is loaded, nerves wired to a lightning storm”.

Sure enough, he followed up with Pop Stars from Enitharmon, with poems on Marc Almond, Syd Barrett, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies, Marianne Faithful, Brian Jones et al.  Bowie is a “pantomorphic chamelion / changing colours like the gecko”. Jimi Hendrix is “The fuzzbox virtuoso”. Jagger is from Egon Schiele whose “negroid lips / made the wide ovoid of fellatio / around a phallic microphone”. The audience had changed; the target market had been re-directed.

Reed was unaccountably missing from the 1994 list of New Generation Poets. To celebrate, and to coincide with the South Bank's launch show of their hopefuls, resplendent in sequins, he launched his latest collection with a reading from a rooftop in Soho.

Another Enitharmon volume, Sweet Sister Lyric, appeared in 1996. Not so strongly focused as Pop Stars, the poems are more straightforwardly presented and lack the image impact of that publication. They are nearer to prose—“He spends his days tuned into cyberspace, / a keyboard junkie zooming in and out(‘SimCity 2000’), “Billy has water lilies for white shoes / and stands on the deep lake all afternoon” (‘Prozac’). They lack the fireworks I had come to expect from him.

His next book was rich in a 20th Century glamour iconography extrapolated into the future. Patron Saint of Eyeliner (Creation Books 1999) has the cult figure, the exotic, a little science fiction and the trademark imagery: “Hell is a hexed computer screen. The microwave / pixillated with black angels”. A few nature poems creep in, but are given the new treatment. Chrysanthemums—“They smell of train journeys in late summer... the yellow ones... the size of a grapefruit”. There are rhymes too, “The words travel her breath / as torchy consonants, her sequins drip / like red flame sheathing a tropical fish. / She coathangers a right hand to her hip”. (People Come and Go). St. Billie (Enitharmon 2001) was Jeremy Reed’s tribute to Billie Holliday, a subject well suited to his style and dark use of language.

The new century had Reed making his tribute to Elvis Presley, with Heartbreak Hotel (Orion, 2002), but I found many of the poems were too matter-of-fact, or too fictional in some cases, and lacked a lot of Reed's knack of making his intense language and metaphor hit the mood right on the head. The atmosphere wasn't there. It seemed to lack the insider's knowledge he usually convinces his readers that he has, and we get competent poems without that little extra excitement. Duncan seems to have a point when he accuses Reed of name-dropping cultural figures as a lazy way to gain personal exposure, though to obtain sales could well be the main objective.  I'd like to think that he writes about people he is personally interested in, though I do think he may well have overdone this area of his poetry output.

Way back in 1987, Mike Imlah, then poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, wrote a scathing review of Selected Poems, and said that “The trouble is, he is over-productive”. And there could be something in that. Reed himself has boasted that he usually completes two poems each day before noon. But some poets write a little, and others a lot. In the latter case, the selection and revision stages become more important. It's Reed's nature to be very productive, he has a desire to get it all down on paper, and it would be a mistake to try to become a six poems a year man.

Publisher Gary Pulsifer puts forward that Reed is “as much rock star as poetand that his work is under-appreciated in Britain. But as we have seen the establishment poets do not always appreciate his flamboyant appearance. Motion has said that Reed is thought of as the David Bowie of the poetry circuit, and that he sounded like a fish under water. The Readers Companion to 20th Century Poetry insists that “he is known for his visually dynamic poetry readings: holding aloft one gloved hand, he recites his poems in a curious singsong manner, occasionally through a human skull”. But his public appearances are too few to make his name widely known as a performance poet, and his television and radio appearances are non-existent. With recordings of his work also being scarce, it seems that the rock star tag has little foundation. The reading of his poems on a Creation Records sampler was excellent, his voice atmospheric and decidedly unique, and it begs the question why he has not tapped the recorded word market.

Where we haven't seen Reed is holding creative writing classes, visiting schools, or on the local council’s list of well-known poets to invite to their literary events. More's the pity; he would be a breath of fresh air amongst the usual Bloodaxe crew, poet/comedians, and representatives of inclusiveness. He is a full-time poet. His main interest is himself as poet and his work, and surely that is how a true full-time poet should be. He appears to still have the urge to get as much of his output into print as he can. This is borne out by the fact that his poems continue to appear in small press magazines today, whereas most successful poets desert that non-financially profitable area of publication.

Reed's strengths are his metaphor, his imagery, his subject matter, his own image, and his loyal fans. His weaknesses also lie in much the same areas. His subject matter is too far from middle road comfortable society for a lot of people, and while he has gained support from outside the traditional poetry reader with his pop cult poems, there have been too many of them and the idea is beginning to become stale. His physical image, his dress on and off stage, his use of cosmetics, either attracts or horrifies, and his base of fans is loyal but, except for a few individuals, does not have media muscle. In scholarly areas he is mainly ignored, while the establishment bodies such as The Poetry Society, and The Arts Council, blow hot and cold. It is a shame, as their chosen few are mainly slaves to the system, turning out what is expected from them by publishers, the national education set-up in all its aspects, and local council arts bodies who, when they occasionally require a poet for some function, prefer to take one off the list.

 

copyright © Geoff Stevens

 

Geoff Stevens was formerly an Industrial Chemist. He has been Editor of Purple Patch poetry magazine since 1976. He runs two poetry venues monthly, and has hosted four national small press poetry conventions. His latest book is The Phrenology of Anaglypta from Bluechrome.         


1  Angel Exhaust magazine issue9/10, 2000.

2  Contemporary Poets, St. James Press 1996.

3  Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Literature, Helicon 1995.

4  Angel Exhaust magazine issue 9/10, 2000.

5  The Sunday Times, January 1990.

Texts consulted include: By The Fisheries (Cape 1984), Nero (Cape 1985), Selected Poems (King Penguin 1987), Engaging Form (Cape 1988), Dicing For Pearls (Enitharmon 1990), Nineties (Cape 1990), Lipstick, Sex & Poetry (Peter Owen 1991), Kicks (Creation Books 1994), Pop Stars (Enitharmon 1994), Dust (A Creation Books Reader 1995), Sweet Sister Lyric (Enitharmon 1996), Patron Saint of Eyeliner (Creation Books 1999), Writers' Awards 2001 (Arts Council of England/ Waterstones), Heartbreak Hotel  (Orion 2002), Creation Books Sampler (1994, C.D. recording, including eight of Reed's poems read by himself),  British Poetry 1964-84 by Martin Booth, (RKP),  International Authors And Writers Who’s Who (various years),  The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Literature (OUP 1996),  Illuminations (issue 3, 2001), Temenos Academy Review (issues 1 & 2, 2001/2), Passion Magazine (issue 1, 1994), The Poetry Review  (Spring 1991).