The Poetic Process
Neil Roberts shares what it takes – and costs – to be a poet, in his new biography of Peter Redgrove. A Lucid Dreamer: The Life of Peter Redgrove by Neil Roberts. Jonathan Cape, 2012, ISBN: 9780224090292
I first got interested in Peter Redgrove’s poetry in the early seventies, when I picked up a copy of his 1972 collection, Dr Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit. The poem that caught my attention was The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach, which imagines a blonde woman in a white dress immersing herself in mud:
The mud spatters with rich seed and ranging pollens. Black darts up the pleats, black pleats Lance along the white ones, and she stops Swaying, cut in half. Is it right, she sobs As the fat, juicy, incredibly tart muck rises Round her throat and dims the diamond there?
I was entranced by the energy and humour of the language: the poet steeps himself in strong, sensuous diction as the woman steeps herself in the mud. I couldn’t know at the time that this was an epochal poem in Redgrove’s development, in which for the first time he begins to explore, and turn to creative account, a troubling sexual obsession with mud and dirt.
I started reading more of his poetry, and realised that I had discovered a major contemporary poet whose achievement was seriously under-recognised. I found Lazarus and the Sea, written when he was a student, in which Lazarus imagines a religious union with the Earth that was thwarted by his resurrection:
The knotted roots Would have entered my nostrils and held me By the armpits, woven a blanket for my cold body Dead in the smell of wet earth, and raised me to the sky For the sun in the slow dance of the seasons.
Again it was many years before I discovered the biographical origins of this poem. When Redgrove was 18 years old, having just triumphantly left school with a scholarship to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, he had a serious breakdown brought on by National Service in the army, was dubiously diagnosed with schizophrenia and was treated with the later-discredited insulin coma therapy: subjected 50 times to a coma by withdrawal of sugar. When he started to write poetry and asked himself what authority he had, he recalled that he had ‘died’ and been reborn 50 times.
The reason why I did not recognise the biographical significance of these poems – and nor, to my knowledge, did anyone else – is that Redgrove has transformed the personal material into works of art that work completely successfully without any reliance on their autobiographical origins.
In the late seventies I published an essay in which I compared Redgrove to Ted Hughes. Redgrove wrote to me about this essay and thus began a correspondence that turned into a friendship. Again there was a biographical background that I knew nothing of. Redgrove was very sensitive about being compared to Hughes. They had met at Cambridge and whenever he was asked about Hughes – most notably by Hughes’s biographer – he portrayed his friend as the “senior poet” from whom he had learned much about what it takes to be a poet. What he never said was that, when they were students, Hughes was the one who was struggling to write poetry, whereas Redgrove had made a brilliant start, writing poems such as Lazarus and the Sea at the age of 21, publishing his first poem in the TLS and founding the magazine delta.
All this was a sad contrast to their later careers, and one of Redgrove’s most painful literary experiences was the review of his first collection by Al Alvarez, who dismissed his poetry as a “vulgarisation” and “poor man’s version” of Hughes. For the rest of his life Redgrove felt overshadowed by Hughes, although his best work is the equal of his friend’s, the quality of his poetry is more consistent, and whereas Hughes’s work declined after the early eighties, Redgrove went from strength to strength, writing much of his best poetry in the last 25 years of his life.
In the nineties I wrote a critical study of Redgrove’s poetry. This had little impact, and after he died I heard someone say that biography is a better way than criticism to get public recognition for a writer. My university, Sheffield, has a vast archive covering the last 30 years of Redgrove’s life and, with his widow Penelope Shuttle’s encouragement, I started work on the biography. I learned a lot from interviews with people such as Peter Porter, D.M. Thomas, Alan Brownjohn and the artist Dennis Creffield, and from members of his family, but my most valuable resource was the extraordinary archive, where Redgrove kept copies of every letter he wrote or received, and where his private journals, often cryptically but obsessively, record the psychological struggles that underlie his poetic achievement.
These struggles date from his childhood, from the conflicted relationship of his conventional father and rebellious mother, and her enlisting him, at a shockingly young age, into the marital war by confiding in him about her affairs and abortions. His obsessive idea that the foetuses of his aborted siblings might have been buried in the family garden underlies one of his earliest poems, Picking Mushrooms, and one of his last, Spiritualism Garden, both of which can be read in the Collected Poems published by Cape alongside A Lucid Dreamer.
Later in life Redgrove was given invaluable support as a poet by Philip Hobsbaum, whom he met at Cambridge, and who founded the group that he attended along with Porter, Brownjohn, Martin Bell, George MacBeth, Edward Lucie-Smith and others in the fifties and sixties. He was helped to address his psychosexual obsessions by the unorthodox Jungian analyst John Layard, to whom he dedicated The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach, and above all, in the second half of his life, he formed a fulfilling personal and creative partnership with Penelope Shuttle.
As my comments on The Idea of Entropy and Lazarus and the Sea show, the point of literary biography isn’t to help with the interpretation of poems: these, if they are any good, work without knowledge of the poet’s life. But I hope my book does illuminate the poetic process, what it takes – and costs – to be a poet, and how often painful and destructive experiences can be transformed by a poet of Peter Redgrove’s calibre.