LIDIA VIANU -- PETER REDGROVE
Ideally criticism is more literature
Interview with PETER REDGROVE (2 January 1932 - 2003), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU. Your poetry is ‘an agony of imagination,’ to use the first line of your poem Old House. Your clarity – which is a major Desperado feature – is of a special kind. You do not narrate explicitly, as most poets do today, and you do not confess directly. You encode everything you have to say in agonizing images, all on the point of bursting with intensity. Your power is in the image. This was very much the case of T.S. Eliot and the stream of consciousness. The Desperado age migrated towards accessibility. You mix encoded emotion with flashes of directness. What do you think of the poets who have almost given up images in favour of orality? What is the use of their poetry? What is the nature of yours?
PETER REDGROVE: I am a thinker by things. An injudicious mingling of Rimbaud and Mallarmé, as I inspect my brew. I move in the crossings of my poetry (of Bloom on Stevens) towards synaesthesia and back again, the sixth sense.
LV. Like T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath, you find a meaning in Lazarus. The connection does not go farther than a superficial remark, because, unlike them, you see Lazarus physically recording his death: ‘...I knew the soil in my limbs and the rain-water/ In my mouth’, ‘...The knotted roots/ Would have entered my nostrils and held me/ By the armpits’ (Lazarus and the Sea). Death is a recurrent obsession in your poetry. Your brother died young (Memorial). As you say, ‘He’s ashes/ Like this cigarette I smoke into grey dryness.’ Cremation appears again in Warm Stone for N. Yet your poetry is strong and liberating, not oppressive. Is death the mere dystopia of your imagination? Is it a haunting fear for the poet?
PR. We rehearse for the big death through the little death of orgasm, through erotic living. Death as transfiguration. Lazarus, like Dracula, knows the thresholds and how to pass them. The Desperado desperately wants to do this, does it in one way or another.
LV. A Desperado poet takes refuge from the elliptical concentration of Eliotian poems into a hyper-clarity. You resort to a sophisticated conversational (in)directness, meaning that you communicate by means of a certain rhythm of images. You offer an intuitive, not merely verbal clarity. Actually, you avoid verbal, prosaic accessibility. Is it a concern of yours not to communicate in poetry unless it is by means of images?
PR. Well said.
LV. Your poetry is, in good Desperado tradition, though you may not accept the term, dystopic in sensibility. There is always a hidden menace at the far end of the room which encloses your poetic mood. Expectant Father states: ‘ Darkness stands for death, and how afraid of sleep I am;/ And fearing thus, thus I fall fast asleep.’ Your imagination is not a solar one, yet the all-round impression is one of positive strength. Your major experience is the joy of creation, which fights the dark images, or those which are too much in earnest. Do you consider yourself a tragic/ hopeful/ ironic poet?
PR. Surely the Desperado mode is high comedy. It’s not so much dystopia as unfamiliarity, and the belief that it will all make sense through poetry. There is poetry that magnifies ordinary life, and poetry that transfigures it. We hold to our purpose, desperately.
LV. Sweat is a poem of tenderness. You are a tender poet, in spite of your sharp images. You are also a poet with ‘a quest’ (The Case). Is poetry a gift or hard work for you? Is it enough to feel, or do you have to carve at the words painstakingly till the meaning of your quest comes to life?
PR. The meaning of my quest can be found in The Black Goddess. I do, I suppose, carve at the words until the quest becomes visible.
LV. I wonder what your relation with Eliot is. I detect an echo from him in The Case: ‘It mixes dying with flowering.’ Otherwise, your poems are far from Eliot’s theatrically encoded emotion. Your emotions are direct, claiming simplicity. Was Eliot a master or a pattern to be rejected? Would you consider The Waste Land a major experience? Do you consider Eliot the father of modern and contemporary poetry, or should we stop at modern?
PR. Eliot and Langland were the first people who made me want to write. Four Quartets; and the plays, for metre. In a somer season made my hair stand up. A master.
LV. The Moon Disposes has one line about death as life: ‘The dead are beautiful and give us life.’ It is a Desperado temptation to play with the feeling, not the fear of death. Eliot may have started it, with his obsession with death imagery in most of his poems. Peter Dale, Bernard O’Donoghue, George Szirtes, Alan Brownjohn, to name just a few Desperado poets whom I have interviewed, cram experience into the thought of death and take refuge in it, as in a strange, appealing land, a dystopia of their own imagination. Yeats preferred to ignore death, on the other hand. What exactly does the idea of death, as a poetic idea, mean to you? What emotions do you attach to it?
PR. I died fifty times in resooce to insulin shock treatment when I was a boy.
LV. Your poem Or Was That When I Was Grass, like many others, reminds me of John Donne and all metaphysical poetry. One line goes, ‘...I began to remember the man// I had fed on as a maggot or was that when I was grass...’ Are you aware of any connections between you and metaphysical poets? Would it be right to say that most contemporary (Desperado) poets have a metaphysical love of life?
PR. Well put – we have a metaphysical love of life.
LV. Eliot devised cultured poetry and, since The Waste Land, it has become an everyday habit of poetry. Poets allow their memory to quote at random and with deliberate approximation. You do not quote much, but enjoy the atmosphere of the mind. Into the Rothko Installation begins with a description of the joy of art: ‘Dipping into the Tate/ As with the bucket of oneself into a well/ Of colour and odour, to smell the pictures/ And the people steaming in front of the pictures,/ To sniff up the odours of the colours, which are/ The fragrances of people excited by the pictures.’ Your poetry is pictorial to a large extent. Do you see images when you feel like writing a poem, or does it come as a mood that has to be conveyed by words?
PR. My Incubator will tell you.
LV. The Who’s Who 2001 states you are also an analytical psychologist. Your poems are indeed attempts at plunging into the depths of consciousness. You have a whole cycle about your own childhood, too. What did you study and is there any connection between your professional and poetic interests?
PR. Trained by world class against John Layard. The Wise Wound and Alchemy for Women came out of practical work.
LV. Paternity is a source of illuminating tenderness. Being a son to your parents brings less emotion to the lines, and more awe when faced with the tricks memory can play. I could draw the conclusion that you like it when you are in control of emotion and not the other way round. Are you a sober poet, in your opinion? An introvert whose words betray secrets that otherwise would weigh the poet down?
PR. Fairly sober, as poets go, but excitable.
LV. Angela Carter wrote, ‘Redgrove’s language can light up the page.’ Which very well expresses the strength at the core of your poetry. Does this forceful feeling come from the soul, the mind or both? Are you an intellectual poet or do you prefer being looked upon as a creator of experience?
PR. Discoverer of experience.
LV. What kind of criticism of your poetry do you approve of? Should criticism be literature, too, or must it be scientific appraisal of the original text? Do you approve of critics with a jargon?
PR. I like criticism to expound. See The Dreamer, the Lover and the Poet by Neil Roberts (Sheffield Academic Press) which expounds my work. Ideally criticism is more literature. Fellowship.
LV. Your poems contain a world. When you look back, what would you have liked to write about but is not there yet? What have you kept in store for the future?
LV. Would you include your work in any trend or do you feel you are on your own?
PR. You may or may not trace certain trends which it is sometimes said I started. Look out for stepped verse, as in my new book due next year From the Virgil Caverns. Also The Black Goddess contains numerous starting-points.
LV. I think the Desperado age brings together authors who are only similar by their dissimilarity. I mean by Desperado a strong creator – which you are – who takes the law in his own hands, makes his rules and wants his work to be unlike everything ever written. The Desperadoes need to be unique, and are unafraid to claim what is theirs, namely the right to keep coming up with heaps of unheard of devices. Your own poems are fireworks of devices never used before in that particular way. You are, in short, a very original poet and a very strong one, also willing to oppose uniformity. The question is, would you accept being called a Desperado?
PR. Too much ego. I do not wish to be unique, rather member of a fellowship that is understood as a community and read so.
It was a dark and stormy night
And the Brigands sat round the fire –
‘Tell us a story’
And the story ran as follows...