|home | features | exhibitions | interviews | profiles | webprojects | gazetteer | archive|
Neil Roberts on Peter Redgrove, schizophrenia, Jung, mud and Falmouth School of Art
Neil Roberts is Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield University, author of A Lucid Dreamer: The life of Peter Redgrove and editor of Collected Poems by Peter Redgrove
For readers who are not familiar with Peter Redgrove's work, please can you summarise his status and achievements as a writer?
I believe that Redgrove was one of the three or four most important English poets of the later twentieth century. His achievement is comparable to that of Ted Hughes, who was a friend and (at least in Redgrove's eyes) rival. He is one of the few poets (in this respect like Blake) capable of convincingly conveying an altered view of reality, in Redgrove's case based on scientific understanding, openness to alternative systems of thought, and exceptional sensory awareness.
He was very prolific and, unlike many prolific poets, his output is of a consistently high quality, especially in his later years. When I have introduced students to his work the response has almost invariably been very enthusiastic, and I am mystified by his lack of recognition.
Redgrove grew up in Kingston, and his father was an advertising executive in London. After a difficult year, when he was excused from National Service because of 'incipient schizophrenia', he went to Cambridge University. Can you say how he benefited from being there, and who in particular was important to him during this period in his life?
He went to University to read Natural Sciences, but rapidly became disillusioned by scientific orthodoxy, though he always remained interested in science--he was a lifelong reader of the New Scientist for example. This disillusion may have been prompted by the 'Deep Insulin Coma' treatment to which he was subjected when he was diagnosed with 'incipient schizophrenia'. This treatment involved daily induced comas over a period of two months. It was later discredited, and since Redgrove appeared to recover, and there is no evidence of his having psychotic episodes in later life, it seems unlikely that he was ever schizophrenic, though his breakdown during National Service was very severe.
University was however vastly important to him. It was at Cambridge that he began to write poetry, and joined a poetry group run by Philip Hobsbaum. Although Hobsbaum was younger than Redgrove he was very influential, encouraging him by believing in his genius and giving him, through his group, a supportive but rigorously critical context. When they left Cambridge (Redgrove without a degree) and both moved to London, they recreated what became the Group with a capital G, one of the most important British poetic movements of the 50s and 60s, which included Peter Porter, George MacBeth, Fleur Adcock and Alan Brownjohn.
Redgrove also met Ted Hughes at Cambridge. He himself, in later life, maintained that he was impressed by Hughes's achievements from the start and considered him a 'senior poet'. This can't be true, since Hughes was struggling to write poetry when at Cambridge, and Redgrove had a much stronger poetic profile, including a poem published in the Times Literary Supplement. After they left Cambridge, however, Hughes began writing the poems that made up The Hawk in the Rain, by which Redgrove was genuinely impressed. I suspect that he predated this because of Hughes's later much bigger reputation, and he didn't want to seem to boast that he was the more advanced poet when they were students.
After University he married a girl from Kingston, Barbara Sherlock, and he worked for a while as a copywriter. He had a spell as a Gregory Fellow at Leeds University, then moved to Falmouth to take up a post at the art school in 1966 when he was 34. What kind of post was this? How did the students and staff take to him?
He was appointed as a Lecturer in Complementary Studies. This was an initiative resulting from the Coldstream Report on the teaching of art which recommended that art schools should include an element of liberal education.
The Falmouth School of Art was, when he joined it, a small and very 'sixties' institution, in which all the staff and students knew each other and relations were very informal. Redgrove saw his role as developing the students' imaginations, which he did by introducing them to Jungian psychology, magical traditions, poetry and music.
Over the years he increasingly developed a creative writing strand in the degree which was the cause of considerable conflict with some of his colleagues who believed that this was usurping the place of the visual arts. He was very happy there in the early years when the Principal, Michael Finn, gave him a free hand.
The reports by students that I have seen are very enthusiastic, and more than one successful artist says that he or she learned more from Redgrove than from their regular art teachers. Others inevitably found him too off the wall and irrelevant. He had good relationships with his head of department (there were only two of them in the department) Lionel Miskin, the head of painting Francis Hewlett and the School librarian Derek Toyne.
Over the years however, when Finn and other allies left, the nature of the School (like that of all educational institutions) inevitably changed, and Redgrove came to feel increasingly isolated. He wanted to introduce a degree in Creative Writing, which was blocked. Lionel Miskin was replaced as head of Complementary Studies by a critical theorist whom Redgrove found less sympathetic. Eventually, in 1983, he took early retirement with an enhanced pension.
In 'A Lucid Dreamer' you mention correspondence with surrealist Ithell Colquhoun and with poet Kathleen Raine relating to the occult. What were Redgrove's views on religion, and the occult? Did he practice any ritual magic or similar?
Redgrove was very open-minded about all kinds of thought-systems, but also had a strain of scepticism deriving from his scientific training. He had difficulties with the word 'occult', saying contradictory things depending on whom he was talking or writing to. I think he feared that being branded an occultist would damage his reputation. At the same time he was very wary of the 'guru' mentality and the tendency of occult groups to be dominated by charismatic and manipulative men.
I believe the truth about his attitude to the occult lies in his sexuality. From early adolescence he had what he called a 'paraphilia' or fetishistic obsession with mud and dirt, centred on the soiling of clothes. He called this his 'Game'. He alternated between feelings of shame about this, and a belief that it was his 'greatest treasure', opening him to new modes of vision. It is reflected in poems such as 'The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach' and most directly in the prose poem 'Dance the Putrefact'. Indulgence in the 'Game' was, as far as I have been able to find out, the only thing he regularly did that he might have regarded as an 'occult practice'. If you know about this you can often tell that when he talks about the occult this is what he really has in mind. He also from time to time used Tarot and I Ching for guidance, and there was a period when he was very interested in Kabbala, but I think this was in a spirit of open-minded inquiry rather than committed belief. He was sympathetic to Wicca, though he never joined a group because of his feeling about leaders and because he thought it (and indeed most 'occult' movements) humourless.
Humour is a very important feature of his poetry and personality, and perhaps his most enthusiastic 'religious' response was to the 'Obby 'Oss Festival in Padstow, which he loved because it incorporates humour in its pagan celebration.
More broadly on the topic of religion, Redgrove was vehemently anti-Christian but I have personally witnessed him meditating in a church, and he went to Truro Cathedral to give thanks when his second daughter was born after a difficult labour. I think he believed that the Cornish churches preserve traces of an earlier more sympathetic form of Christianity (though Truro Cathedral is of course Victorian!). He particularly liked churches such as the one on the beach at Gunwalloe.
He started his relationship with Penelope Shuttle in 1970, and they collaborated on a number of works, most notably 'The Wise Wound' which I understand was his best-selling book. Why do you think it was so successful and popular?
Until the 1990s menstruation was almost unmentionable. It was only in that decade, for example, that sanitary towels began to be advertised on TV. It is of course literally tabu in many cultures, and traces of this in post-Enlightenment European culture are one factor in the oppression of women. In The Wise Wound Shuttle and Redgrove asked the simple but far from obvious question, why should a natural and healthy function be the cause of so much distress and regarded as if it were an illness? Their argument is that the illness is caused by the tabu and that 'naturally' menstruation, far from being distressful, is a positive emotional and imaginative resource for women.
Redgrove was surprisingly much more obsessed by menstruation than Penelope Shuttle was, and although her contribution to The Wise Wound was crucial, I think it is fair to say that it was primarily his project. He believed that the cycle influences men who live with women as well as women themselves. For the rest of his life, every month he constructed what he called a Menstrual Mandala, a circular chart based on Penelope's cycle, in which he recorded various aspects of his life.
Redgrove stopped his work at the art school in 1983, and offered his services as a psychotherapist for a while. He was interested in Jung (having received Jungian therapy himself) and the notion of healing, not only himself, but Western Society in a more general sense. Is this true? Does his book 'The Black Goddess' (1987) encapsulate his thinking in this regard?
The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense is a remarkable and unjustly neglected book. It had its origins in a lecture Redgrove gave at the Lincoln Clinic and Centre for Psychotherapy called 'Healing, Creativity and the Black Goddess', so you are right to say that the idea of healing is at the centre of Redgrove's thought - healing himself and through that having a healing effect on the culture.
He was wary of the fashion for shamanism, but his conception of his role as a poet could, like Ted Hughes's, be described as shamanistic. The central theme of The Black Goddess is what he called in an alternative subtitle 'the unseen real'. This is more accurate than the actual subtitle 'The Sixth Sense' because he believed that there is more than one unacknowledged sense, and that these are not a matter of vague intuition but can be scientifically verified. He was especially interested in what he called the electromagnetic sense, which accounted for his weather sensitivity. Although I say he believed that this could be scientifically verified he was still very critical of orthodox scientific method. In particular he believed that the exclusion of subjectivity from scientific thinking makes science blind to large areas of reality. In his early years in Falmouth he had therapy with John Layard, to whom he attributed the saying 'Depression is withheld knowledge'. He believed that science was complicit in withholding the knowledge by means of which people could overcome depression and lead more fulfilled lives.
How did being in Cornwall affect Redgrove's poetry and writing, and what were his feelings about Cornwall more generally?
Redgrove's response to Cornwall was complicated and contradictory. Especially when he started to feel alienated by the School of Art he used to complain about being stuck in Cornwall, remote from the centre of the literary world, He was very sensitive to the weather (a major theme of his poetry) and he also used to complain that the climate in Falmouth made him depressed. Yet, when he left the School of Art, he was offered very good terms to take up a three year creative writing residency at the University of St Andrews and turned it down. It was obvious that Cornwall was too important for him to be able to leave.
You don't have to read much of his later poetry to see how its history, geography and culture imprinted themselves on his imagination. Living in this Celtic corner of Britain, surrounded by prehistoric villages, pagan wells, ancient churches and dramatic contrasts of landscape and weather was deeply inspiring to him.
There is an account of the FSA during Redgrove's time (including images and reminiscences of Redgrove himself) on the website of his former pupil Dennis Lowe http://www.zen171398.zen.co.uk/falmouth3.html
Buy A Lucid Dreamer here: