18 June, 2012Issue 19.5LiteraturePoetry

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Bruised in Order to Ferment

David Sergeant

BritishPeter Redgrove
Collected Poems ed. Neil Roberts
Jonathan Cape, 2012
528 pages
ISBN: 978-0224090278


Peter Redgrove’s Collected Poems is obviously intended to serve as his calling card to posterity: the initiator of that process whereby his place in the pantheon will be gradually chiselled out. The most obvious comparison is with Ted Hughes, whose work attracted mixed reviews when he was alive, but whose gigantic achievement is now being slowly confirmed, following his death and the publication of Collected Poems and Selected Letters. Critical studies and a biography of Hughes by Jonathan Bate will follow in due course.

So will Redgrove’s poetry tread a similar path? It seems unlikely. Redgrove has suffered from comparisons with Hughes throughout his life. Both went to Cambridge, emerged as poets in the late 50s and early 60s, ended up living in the West Country and were interested in the supernatural, the unconscious, and the occult—Larkin’s “myth kitty”. As Neil Roberts, Redgrove’s biographer, has pointed out, the comparisons are inapt, given the substantial differences between their work. Redgrove’s poetry, Roberts implies, should be taken on its own terms. But reading the Collected Poems, it’s hard not to wish that Redgrove’s poetry had been a little more like Hughes’s. At its best, Hughes’s work possesses a narrative directness which operates in perfect harmony with his formidable linguistic talents: picture the horses of metaphor drawing the chariot of thought. Redgrove’s poetry often seems overwhelmed by an equally formidable talent: picture the horses of metaphor tangled in their traces, biting each other’s backs, and trying to run off and play with the rabbits.

Which is not a bad parody of how a Redgrove poem works. Similes and metaphors succeed each other with a bewildering speed and in a discordant profusion. So being a gardener is like

… a door opening in the sky, it was like a door opening in the water,
It was like the high mansion of the sky, and water poured from the tall French
It was like a sudden smell of fur among the flowers, it was like a face at dusk
It was like a rough trouser on a smooth leg. Oh, shame,
It was the mother-world wet with perfume. It was something about God.
(“The Case”)

These are exceptional in not being very interesting: they try to convey importance and surprise by being surprising and portentous. More often, and more frustratingly, Redgrove’s language is brilliantly acute, but individual instances succeed each other at such switchbacking speed that the reader is thrown out of the poem. A spider struggles “as a man might struggle / Out of his boots and his trousers soaked in the river”, but three lines later it is “Giving birth to itself in fits, like a belly-dancer” (“Excrementitious Husk”). In “The Dynamite Doctors” the eponymous explosive produces comparisons with medicine, cookery (its raw form is “the melted stew / Like greasy gravy or mutton tallow”), the apocalyptic (“Like an angel of death with hair burning”), and the mechanical product (“In its droplets like a stick of bombs”). All are apposite, a couple are gorgeous, but put together they draw attention only to their being apposite and gorgeous—and not to any particular end, which goes missing.

At the opposite extreme, at least seemingly, is Redgrove’s habit of harping on individual words:

The last juices and saps of the fruits
Crystallising inside the stone gaze
Of the insect-mask, countenance of sugars.

It sings softly, in search of sugars.
The maiden sings softly,
She whose red blouse

Is blowing on the line,
Its buttons glittering like sugar … (“The Heart”)

These repetitions can invariably be justified. Here the sensuous importance of sugar in the bluebottle’s life is reflected; elsewhere repetition can reflect a doubling of self (“Wooden Pipes”) or the world’s sameness within multiplicity (“The Man Named East”). But this doesn’t make it any less tiring. In the end, it has exactly the same effect as the imagery barrage:

There is the dry trumpet from the rustling leaves

Of some bird chopping at the oak-line
Full of green caverns with the dew
Running over every twig forming

An eye wherever it can,
Walking up from the sleep of water,
Shaken into the sudden light,

Tall water-being shaped by fretted trees,
And the hoarse bird trampling over the leaf
Under the green caverns with its dry trumpet … (“The Apple-Broadcast”)

The sentence continues like this for another 11 lines. Even when words aren’t being repeated, the poem feels repetitious because of the constant changes in direction—in the same way that a new dish presented to a man glutted at a banquet will not seem new, however brilliantly cooked, but just another example of food.

Perhaps Redgrove’s bonkers compositional process is relevant here. According to Roberts’s biography, Redgrove’s poems had their origin in jotted-down fragments and ideas, which were later converted into pages of imagery, which were then turned into prose drafts, which were only then turned into poems. And all this would be happening for “literally […] hundreds of poems, at different stages of composition, at any time.” Curious are the ways of poets—and no doubt one man’s process will seem like poison to another—but still, it’s hard not to relate this panoramic and hyperextended composition to poems where holistic force and intent are often lacking or which reduce, when looked at closely, to a meagre germ.

Also telling is Redgrove’s sheer copiousness. The Collected Poems (500 pp.) is not “Complete” but an expanded “Selected”—he presumably wrote too repetitiously, and too unevenly, to make a true Collected Poems viable. When I first learnt that Redgrove’s editor at Cape, Robin Robertson, got the final say over which poems were included in collections, I was shocked that such tyrannical editorial power might still exist. Having read the Collected Poems, and having learnt that for one collection Redgrove submitted a typescript of 280 poems, the product of only two and a half years writing, I begin to pity Robertson. First, who has that much to say—in prose, let alone in poetry? Second, what model of poetry allows for such profusion without discrimination? An absolute faith in dreams, in unconscious insight, makes anything which tumbles into these categories important. John Clare—a finer poet—had the same problem in relation to the natural world. How to leave anything out when it’s all an instance of the Great Important? At least with Clare the world depicted is the one we all live in. Redgrove seems to have been a decent man, but too often his poetry has the exclusive self-focus of the psychoanalytic patient.

All this makes a bulky Collected Poems the very last thing that Redgrove’s reputation needs. To the casual reader the poetry is so consistently rich that a slim selection would last for months—for the same reason that foie gras is served in slices and not in hulking blocks. More to the point, the poems in which Redgrove’s strengths combine without being compromised are few. But when this does occur, the result is magnificent and unlike anything else in the canon. Often these poems are short, curbing Redgrove’s propensity to profusion, and focus on a single conceit “‘On the Patio”, “Spring”). Sometimes a few metaphors are kept successfully in the air, revolving happily round their subject like balls round a juggler’s heart, as in “Nude Studies VI: The Horse”, where horses, music, and liquid combine to exquisite effect. Moreover, much of Redgrove’s poetry is funny, especially when this humour emerges as a side-effect of his distinctive perspective, rather than labouring as the central conceit of the poem (“Pheromones”, “At the Cosh Shop”, “Sniffing Tom”). Similarly, his poems are strongest when underpinned by a strong narrative that mingles plain speaking with rhetorical fireworks. In the slightly overdone “Staines Waterworks”, for instance, the bravura final section (last line: “Trumpeting Staines water triumphantly from spinning conches to all taps”) is perfectly set up by the plain, three line section which precedes it: “The final test is a tank of rainbow trout, / The whole station depends on it; / If the fish live, the water is good water.” These moments of clarity often occur at the poems’ very end, as the frantic poetic pumping condenses into a drop of clarity: “He is / Setting down the words in rapid shorthand // In a small fat pocketbook with gilded edges” (“Song”); “The poet should take first breath in case of poison” (“Geodic Poet”); “He is suspicious of the brightest boy / And the dullest, equally” (“The Secret Examination”); “It was a room / In which a bible brought in at once sprouted mildew” (“Nude Studies III: The Speleologists”). In one of the best poems, “In the Lab with the Lady Doctor”, these elements combine with a dream narrative that unfolds like a paper flower, leaving the reader sighing for what might have been. It is a poem of successive blows and brisk fermentation, in which the poet strips and tells us how “The marks of striking hands patter across my chest / And already the dark bruises are rainbowing like pieces / Of peacock tail”, and which ends:

I feel like a fruit
Which has been bruised in order to ferment
Some delicious rare liquor; I say so; they applaud again.

Roberts quotes Redgrove complaining to Robinson that the collection in which this poem appeared was not “a Gaia book”, in that it “favoured the ‘facetious’ poems over the environmental ones: in these there is a mocking element as with short sharp jabs”. Those “environmental” poems—”slightly wilder, less disciplined”—were published by a small press, and examples are included in the Collected Poems. But not for me this “representative” Redgrove, but the highly selected: to be carried round in a jacket pocket and sipped at, in nips, like brandy.

David Sergeant is a junior research fellow at Somerville College, Oxford.