Peter Redgrove Essay - Critical Essays

Redgrove, Peter

Redgrove, Peter 1932–

Redgrove, an English poet and novelist and founder of the poetry magazine Delta, was closely associated with "The Group" along with George MacBeth and Edward Lucie-Smith. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The] tendency of Redgrove's work to drown in its own spume is unmistakable. His essential failing is that he has attempted what is virtually a philosophical task equipped only with the procedures of lyric. He finds his truth through imagery, but his imagery is such a rich mixture that it cloys, without an astringency of mind to balance it. His work is most successful when its basic vision is braced against alternative viewpoints. For instance, the theme of "mentality", the perception of a joyful energy coursing through the universe, underlies all the poems in The Force, but it is most convincingly expressed in poems like "I See", "Look Out", "The Widower", and "Decreator", where it survives debunking, or is tested against sorrow, or meets stolid uniformity. Similarly with Redgrove's emotional sympathies, his whole apprehension of the tenor of life: in the nature poems this becomes a clamour of exultation, but it rings most true when focused upon a person, as in "Earth", or set against the domestic realities, as in "Foundation", "Early Morning Feed", "Old House" or "A Bedtime Story for my Son". Domestic humour, comic self-depreciation, these leaven his best work: what belies the pure, direct statement that he obviously aims for elsewhere?

It is often vitiated by a repetitive vocabulary. His diction has all the qualities that make for a firm texture, for "hard" writing; it is concrete, drawn from everyday language but often surprising in its context, rich in sound values: but it is always drawn from the same area of language, always infused with the same sort of energy. Because it is so uniform, it is limited in its scope, to the point of inaccuracy…. (p. 58)

In the lack of any intellectual or formal organisation, Redgrove's forceful and original view of human life remains a register of emotional convictions. His theme of "mentality" dwindles to the repetition of a small cluster of blunted words. Redgrove is an attractive poet, of generous sympathies and undoubted verbal power: but our response to him is limited by the narrowness of his development. He has not matched up to his own intentions. He has tried to do something quite new in English poetry, to fuse the traditional feeling for Nature with a knowledge of the biological processes and the theories of the structure of the universe. This is the material for a major work, but to its making he has so far brought only an obsession with already outworn verbal devices. If he now reads like a lyric coda to the Book of Rugby Songs, that is precisely because the quality of thought rarely breaks clear of the scrum of boisterous verbiage which comes milling into every poem. He should have been a poet sui generis, who created his own form; to date, he has put all his energy into dynamics, and he looks like ending up as a poetic sub-species, a rather traditional figure in the background of English Expressionism. (p. 62)

Roger Garfitt, "The Group" (discussion of several poets; copyright © Roger Garfitt, 1972), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 13-69.

In The Country of the Skin [is] a strange autobiographical work that is very much the ground-base and complement of [Redgrove's] poetry. In it he is preoccupied with doors, not, it seems, with Blake's recognition of mystery and unknowability, but through some intermittent hiatus in himself, some doorless wall that descends at times between his inner and outer relatedness to life.

Doors open, they also shut in. But the emphasis for him of the continuous polarity is towards their opening….

The publishers call this book a novel, which could be misleading (especially as a note from them tells us it marks their resumption of a fiction list after a number of years). It is much more a fantastic bildungsroman, with a highly unrepresentative Werther as hero….

The result is something surrealist, extra-realist, intra-venously realist, at once. Also something carefully planned, admirably short and very well written. One feels more shut in, though, in reading, than liberated. For the writer is trapped in presenting experience in terms of constant metamorphosis and there are grave limitations to this identifying impulse. Particularly it lacks the quiet exploratory relational impulse of the novel, concerned with the otherness of other people. Also any proclamation of a total identifying principle must mean madness.

But if one sinks one's preconceptions and expectations about novels, and opens the doors of one's own skin and senses and thought-apertures, a strong compelling reality invades and remains. (pp. 72-3)

Marie Peel, "Novel Beneath the Skin," in Books and Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1973), June, 1973, pp. 72-3.

Peter Redgrove is chiefly concerned with life and living forces…. Redgrove is an urbanite, whose nature poems are often inspired by modest yards and small city parks. A surprising number of his poems result from observations made during casual walks, where the only plants and animals he encounters are those which have succeeded in coexisting with man. But Redgrove's cultivated garden becomes a microcosm whose birds, worms, spiders, and flies obey the same laws which govern man. Nor does his domesticated setting lead this scientifically-trained poet to consider organic nature as tranquil or serene. On the contrary his meticulous description of the brutal existence of tiny creatures may be startling to readers more accustomed to the savagery of higher animals…. His microscopic vision is balanced by a reaction to the larger effects…. (pp. 330-31)

Because he is interested in the total interconnectedness of the life-cycle, Redgrove's garden is the scene of a good deal of plain ugliness, as he observes the decay of corpses and the decomposition of the bodily elements which will yield nourishment and energy for new life. Instead of isolating his graphic descriptions of decay, however, he faithfully records dynamistic sequences by repeatedly coupling images of decay or filth with images of growth or energy. Though he understands and accepts the need for death and decay, his loyalties rest naturally enough with regeneration. New life perpetually awes and delights him…. (pp. 331-32)

Julian Gitzen, in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1973, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Summer, 1974.

The Terrors of Dr Treviles is composed as a series of short sections, which means that only a small effort is required in reading or writing. The 'occult' and the sublime have become rather cheap commodities recently, as this novel will testify. It is self-interested without being adequately self-conscious, and is a "romance" only in the sense that a number of images and allusions are pushed up to and beyond the point of no return. It also contains a number of boring verses which must have been written by Miss Shuttle, since I see that Mr Redgrove is described as being "one of the most exciting British poets and novelists now active." (p. 471)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 12, 1974.

[In The Terrors of Dr Treviles, A Romance] Dr Gregory Treviles is a psycho-therapist who believes in using the total imagination of his patients in helping them to help themselves. In doing this he injects, as a kind of imaginative transplant, images from his own poetry and dreams. For true poetry can make one find the truth in one's own fantasies and so move on to new wholeness….

The freshness for the reader is in having a scientific imagination electrically at work where one usually has a literary one…. [The] central correspondence of the book concerns the body's molecular structure and the exciting possibility of molecular therapy arising from greater knowledge of this.

All these ideas open the gates of the mind with a fine flourish…. But to sustain the exhilaration of a true romance of science it seems to me the story should be set in a world where this knowledge is already part of our consciousness, a world in which the molecular revolution has already taken place. Then potentially interesting characters … could have an effective role in the action. But we soon realise that they are only on the fringe of Gregory's imagination and that the book is primarily an offering by the authors, a dual testament-cum-allegory (at times perhaps dual therapy) to help create such a world. It is also incidentally a fascinating storehouse of scientific information….

The end suggests a waking up on Treviles's part and a great weariness with the mask-like function which his vision of imagination as therapy inevitably gives him. Which makes one wonder whether it is not time for Treviles's creator to write a scientific-cum-religious book that faces the issues of pattern and randomness that assault him so continuously. Everything may be related to everything else, but it is not the same as everything else and sometimes, it seems to me, one has to use comparatively limited rational categories to bring this out. But argument of this kind, though I think it is fundamental to the book, quite misses the ease and power, the light and shade, the visual beauty and exactness of the presentation and writing throughout. There is also a good deal of acute satire of academics. More than once the [author] deftly [places himself] in [his] own work. I think the revolution for [him as a novelist], though, will occur when [he does] not want to do this. (p. 70)

Marie Peel, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1975), February, 1975.

Implicit in Redgrove's work is an assertion, paralleled by lots of other tendentious assertions in lots of other poetry, that his poetic, his idea of what poetry is, runs thoroughly and without compromise against the grain. At the heart of his endeavour is the idea that poetry should see beyond science to natural laws and forces, a provision of natural energies, which men exploit without due reverence. Men lose touch with the elemental fundament, and with a capacity for sensuous apprehension of the world. Redgrove's poems are about that reverence, and his salvation through the effort of holding on to it. There is a sense, virtually of worship, for principles of life and nature which, once "discovered" and harnessed, assumed the status of "man-made" and hence became, through the hubris of knowledge, ignored or at least relegated to the category of "known."…

Personally, I admit to a certain suspicion of poetry too eager to assume the majesties of natural insight. It can be worked up to such a pitch of profundity that it appears more than celebration of the natural world—a claim, on the poet's part, that he knows all the secrets. Peter Redgrove may well see himself as being in that game. If he does, it is, I fear, a vanity which, like all the vanities in the immense granary of poets' vanities, is likely to be no more than the overstatement of his beliefs to himself, and the shining of his own sun on his possible harvests. A move like this is probably necessary. The crop must be gathered….

His poems are cunningly made. His mastery of several types of poem should leave us in no doubt that, for him, and probably for the rest of us, his meanings and beliefs are productive. They must be: they generate good poems. His belief in the sensuous understanding of life leads naturally enough to sensuous understanding and practice of language. (p. 76)

Redgrove is one of the very few contemporary poets who actually blazes at his readers. The wrenching up of images from the psyche, the turbulence of creativity visible in his poems, is matched only by Sylvia Plath's or Ted Hughes' work. It has that galvanic strength, sometimes even a similarity of phrase and cadence. Redgrove, however, is more masterly a dramatist…. But despite the thunder of sheer performance in [some] poems …, the impression is not one of bravura. What we confront is the sight of imagination allowed to work, on its own principles, to capacity, to a fullness of utterance, and not to impress but to achieve a necessary condition of expression. That, we may feel, is to be expected of any poet. Sadly, while it may be what we expect, it is not always what we get….

He [also] can leap into the obscure, or the tirelessly difficult; an unmistakable quality of language, however, is almost always sustained, so it may be that these passages are simply what I personally am unable to understand, never having had much inclination to study the arcana Redgrove has obviously spent many hours poring over. But he can sound like Walter de la Mare written by Dionysos: a dark, sinister sexuality, some wildly irresponsible libido, lurks in the dark rooms or leafy foliage of his poems. There is a slight taint of a withdrawal, of a deranged withdrawal, into strange worlds of his own devising, or the devisings of ancient lore; and such departures, in my view, are generally insults to the realities, more topical than elemental….

What could be damaging to Redgrove at this stage of his writing—now that a substantial selection of his five books of poems [Sins of My Skin: Selected Poems, 1954–1974] is available—is the view of him as a licensed visionary by those who, whether they know it or not, or whether they like it or not, are opposed to his vision, which is, after all, the substance of his poems. (p. 77)

Douglas Dunn, "Ways of Booming," in Encounter (copyright © 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1975, pp. 76-80.

Redgrove's poetry has frequently been called surrealistic, but I imagine this is a word that he himself would not welcome. He seems not to work by means of the chance encounter, the purely associative linking together of things. There is reason and a coherent vision behind even his most startling juxtapositions…. He is not interested in presenting the merely unlikely, however fruitful the resulting confusion might be. Extraordinary reality is not surrealism.

He is not one of those mid-20th-century poets who write as though modernism had never been. Any critic wishing to claim him as yet another of the true heirs of Thomas Hardy would have his work cut out. He has rejected the metres of the last three centuries more thoroughly than most of today's significant poets: the author of Sir Gawain, and perhaps Langland, seem to be his only begetters. Traditional rhyme, too, is something he rejects with unusual consistency, that is, the rhyming of words; he makes his thoughts and images rhyme and can construct a whole poem out of a pattern of echo and repetition. (p. 682)

Patricia Beer, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Patricia Beer), November 20, 1975.