A Lucid Dreamer
The Life of Peter Redgrove
London: Jonathan Cape, 2012
Hardback. x+341 p. 40 black & white photographs and illustrations. ISBN 978-0224090292. £30.00
Reviewed by Paul Bentley
University College Plymouth St. Mark & St. John
Despite being held in high regard by the likes of Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Douglas Dunn, among many others, Peter Redgrove has never quite achieved the recognition in England that his work merits. Redgrove came to prominence in the 1960s, when his peculiarly unsettling poems, hinting at psychological disturbance, were linked with those of Hughes and Sylvia Plath – the new depth poetry represented by these poets supposedly seeing off the empirical-formalism of Philip Larkin and the Movement. But the wave Redgrove rode at this time left him in the wake of Hughes’s and Plath’s spectacular success, and so the association in the end was to his detriment. With The Wise Wound (1978), written with fellow poet and partner Penelope Shuttle, Redgrove was to come more fully into his own in terms of finding his métier. The book’s subject though, menstruation, in the end only reinforced the image of Redgrove as an English eccentric – or scientist of the strange, as Redgrove preferred, having come to project himself, with a disarming touch of self-parody, as a version of the Hammer horror film figure he was so fascinated by.
Neil Roberts’s A Lucid Dreamer : The Life of Peter Redgrove reveals the degree to which Redgrove’s image as a poor man’s Ted Hughes affected him, especially as Redgrove had been an early champion of Hughes before Hughes was known – before, that is, Plath took Hughes in hand. In this sense Roberts’s book tells a very different story to the one the poetry tells: whereas in his work Redgrove plays up to his batty image with genial humour – if anything, this image seems creatively enabling – Roberts reveals the extent to which Redgrove fretted over his reception. Redgrove’s mixed feelings about Hughes’s fame – he regarded Hughes with a mixture of awe and envy – are in turn linked with his difficult relationship with his own father, whom he perceived as overbearingly masculine. At the heart of Roberts’s narrative is a searching account of the emotional and psychological problems, rooted in early family relationships, which Redgrove continued to wrestle with throughout his life. As Redgrove’s biographer, what Roberts describes is the human story and cost behind the poems, poems where any such cost had always seemed to be triumphantly transformed within the visionary reach and jouissance of the work. (One of the most common criticisms of Redgrove’s poetry is that it is too high-spirited, too ecstatic.) Glimpsed through the poems, Redgrove’s life had always seemed like a kind of social-psychological prima materia, powerfully alchemised through Redgrove’s art. It is, then, revelatory to read of the trouble Redgrove’s ‘Game’ as he called it – a mud-bathing fetish – in fact caused him, both practically and psychologically. Redgrove’s erotic interest in mud is an open secret in the poems, but in ‘The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach’ and the The Mudlark Poems sequence, mud-bathing is presented as a profoundly renewing act. Roberts’s book, which stresses the debilitating anxiety Redgrove felt about his ‘Game’, stands as a necessary corrective to the image of the poet-magician, transmuting everything into psychological gold. As such it is chastening.
A nigh-incestuous closeness with a mother, a difficult relationship with a father, who Redgrove felt embodied a version of stifling middle-class respectability he would struggle against for virtually all his life, mental breakdown during National Service, a quack diagnosis of incipient schizophrenia followed by insulin shock treatment, the abandoning of his scientific studies at Cambridge followed by a Rimbaud-inspired deregulation of the senses, alcoholism, fighting, depression, marriage breakdown, sexual fetishism, occultism, psychoanalysis – the stuff of Redgrove’s life might seem a kind of cliché, being everything we might feel a poet’s life should be. While not short on striking anecdotes – Hughes telling Redgrove he would tear off his head after Redgrove had asked who he thought would win in a fight, the young Redgrove bursting with excitement into his parents’ bedroom to tell them he had his sperm under the microscope, Redgrove and the by then disreputable Jungian analyst John Layard fondling each others’ penises to break the ice – Roberts’s narrative nevertheless maintains an even-handed and judicious tone and perspective which serve his subject well. Robert’s painstaking research – in attempting to get the record straight Roberts has sought out and interviewed estranged family members – works as a foil to Redgrove’s own unreliable memories, highly charged as they are with fantasy. This is a notable strength of the book: though Roberts, through his interest in Redgrove’s work, became friends with the poet, he is never content to take Redgrove at his word; rather, through his meticulous probing, his testing of Redgrove’s recollections against the testimony of others, Roberts takes the measure of Redgrove’s fantasy life, and so proves a consummate biographer.
The publication of A Lucid Dreamer coincides with the publication of Redgrove’s Collected Poems, edited by Roberts, by the same publisher. At the outset of his biography Roberts states that the book is not intended as a study of the psychology of poetic creation, but in issuing the life and the work together, Roberts and Redgrove’s publisher implicitly pose the question of the relation of art to life. In Redgrove’s case, it turns out not to be the one-way super-highway of psychological transformation so many reviewers had assumed it to be on the evidence of the poems. Redgrove insisted that his life was an image of society also – of his social class, his time, and Roberts’s book is finally most valuable in explaining how this is so. In situating Redgrove in relation to the ideological pressures that were both mediated and disrupted by his family life, Roberts’s achievement is to show that, even through such deeply committed – even heroic – creative endeavour as Redgrove’s, one’s formative experience remains difficult to transcend. The self-styled magus turns out to be human after all.
Cercles © 2012
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