‘A tiny light/seen in the mind’s eye as a phoneme’: the Poetry of Peter Ackroyd

  • Jeremy Gibson
  • Julian Wolfreys


The three volumes of poetry written by Peter Ackroyd — Ouch (1971), London Lickpenny (1973), Country Life (1978) — appeared over a seven-year period. Subsequently, they resurfaced in 1987, albeit partially, like the erased phrases of writing found on stone walls in Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee, as a selection entitled The Diversions of Purley and Other Poems, a slim volume of fifty-three poems, some in prose. The poems of these hard-to-find publications appear densely allusive. A first, or even a second encounter will not, however, yield the meaning behind such use of allusion or reference, supposing that some ulterior meaning is at work in the frequency of allusion. We find ourselves in a textual archive without a key to the ordering or purpose of that structure. The archive of apparent reference obtrudes itself everywhere across the already fragmentary texts, seeming to demand or command: ‘read me’. Yet they remain not-read, even when the source is known, recognized or identified. Thus, the purpose of allusion, reference, parody and, in short, all playful troping, all the while on the surface of the text, if not in fact constitutive of the very texture of the text itself, remains undecidable, demanding in this undecidability that we continue to try to read. Yet it is precisely because the archive is not so easily resolvable into a purposeful unity that its play demands it be taken seriously. It is as if Ackroyd’s poetry, rather than awaiting passively the scholarly attention of a careful reader, searches for another kind of reader altogether, whose interest is in the act of masquerade, and not in what might lie beneath or behind the performance. That which Ackroyd places in the archive seems to seek a correspondent, someone who will receive these wayward transmissions; the identity of the addressee remains to be known, however. And if we rely on reading, nothing, we will find, is less reliable.


Stable Identity Break Glass Poetic Language Country Life Poetic Text 
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Copyright information

© Peter Gibson and Julian Wolfreys 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeremy Gibson
  • Julian Wolfreys

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