Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Peter Redgrove: Dreaming in a Wakeful World

Peter Redgrove, sometime in the 1970s 

John Greening discusses Peter Redgrove and his poetry. Based on a talk given to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Falmouth Poetry Group on 17th September 2022. 



Peter Redgrove (1932-2003) would have been ninety this year. According to his biographer, Neil Roberts, he did have considerable concerns about posterity, wondering what future readers would make of his work and anxiously negotiating the fate of his archive with both Sheffield University and the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. But while I don’t think there’s any imminent danger of him being forgotten, the fiftieth anniversary of the Falmouth Poetry Group (which he founded with Penelope Shuttle) seemed a good opportunity to reassess his importance and to place him amid the poets of 2022.  My talk was the equivalent, if you like, of that ‘What3Words’ app which provides your location in an emergency. As to ‘what three words’ – read on.




We already know where to place Peter Redgrove geographically. In Falmouth, surely, which is ‘only the same town from day to day/ In the sense that a book is the same from page to page’, where ‘the tourists run like tides through granite houses’ and ‘the whole world’s water at some time or another /Flows’. Yet, arriving in Cornwall from Cambridgeshire (as I have) can feel like moving from one side of the brain to the other, from science parks and far horizons, straight roads, clear visibility and a constant will to move on, to a mistier place of high hedges and twisty lanes and lingering legends, where everything is hidden yet manages to mysteriously connect with everything. I suspect this also struck Redgrove when he settled here – and it appealed to him. Of course, he was Cambridge-educated and a scientist, so the left hemisphere of his brain would have been highly developed. But such a narrow analytical focus could never have satisfied a poet, especially one who was always wanting to embrace the world, to grasp things in their entirety, to know ‘the whole’, like that ‘whole music’ he imagined ‘at Pod’s Kitchen’. I’m not sure whether he ever read Ian McGilchrist, who tells us in The Master and his Emissary that the brain’s ‘right hemisphere sees the whole, before whatever it is gets broken up into parts in our attempt to ‘know’ it.’ Ironically for a poet often associated with the weird and the magical, I believe it was Peter Redgrove’s strength in the rational area that gave his poems such a distinctive authority.


I’ve been wondering whether we have any equivalent among today’s younger poets. There’s plenty of new poetry about the individual in society, about identity and a thousand worthy causes, and there’s much interest in language itself, irrespective of meaning, poems that play games with themselves, but Peter Redgrove’s poems never do that. They may be obscure, but their games are played out with the stuff of the world. If he is a Romantic, he is one like Goethe, whose fine excess is built on an understanding and observation of natural phenomena. That’s rare today, not least because fewer and fewer poets pay attention to the detail you need to master before you can allow yourself those risky leaps. How refreshing it was recently to come across Zaffar Kunial’s poem about a foxglove, which opens his 2022 Faber collection England’s Green. Most emerging poets don’t seem to recognise the meanest flower that blows, let alone distinguish between types of tree or mineral or cloud or understand the scientific processes of the natural world as Peter Redgrove could. There’s something of Goethe again in that endless curiosity, the poet’s determination to know everything – as well as in his fascination with the occult, a tendency guaranteed to set the critics twittering, as Goethe, Yeats, H.D., Hughes, Plath and indeed James Merrill all discovered.


I think of Redgrove’s own take on the Faust legend, that extraordinary long poem – fifty years old now – which is about… well, what exactly?  A visitation, a possession, a phenomenon? The title sounds marvellous: ‘Dr Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit’.  You can see why it might have led someone to pick up the book it gave its name to, as happened to Neil Roberts, introducing the future biographer to his subject. The opening lines are even better, full of Redgrovian tropes – weather and books and the sea, colour and violence and spirit, fear and awe and heightened senses:


I am frightened. It makes velvet feel too tall.
Its crest peers in at the library window and I cannot open the books,
They hug themselves shut like limpets months after it has gone.
The roses have learnt to thunder,
They spread petals like peals of red thunder echoing,
The sky looks like blue boxes of white powder being smashed by grey fists […]


There is much discussion today about how woke (or not) any particular writer is, but perhaps it’s their wakefulness we should attend to. Once we lose touch with the dream, we’re in trouble (as Les Murray once warned) and lines like these come straight from that hypnagogic zone which has been so fruitful to poets – fruitful, but potentially overwhelming. The best way to keep your dreams in proportion is probably to live your waking life to the full, which Peter Redgrove certainly did, although (again like Goethe) he wasn’t keen on travel. Falmouth, and the Falmouth Poetry Group, became his Weimar, a place where like-minded creative people were drawn to its resident genius.


Another poem from the 1970s that demonstrates what I mean is ‘Tapestry Moths’. Other poets might simply describe a wall hanging, conjure a medieval scene, offer a U.A. Fanthorpian monologue; but Peter Redgrove shows us part of the woven imagery actually detaching itself and flying away. His own imagination takes wing, too, yet his ideas are based on the experience of a specific stately home, and on sound biological truths: that moths do adopt a camouflage. The opening lines are not notable for their elegant syntax; there’s nothing graceful about the rhythms; the words lurch out of any grammatical structure with what feels like (but isn’t) an improvised intensity grabbing hold of one image after another. Yet somehow they grab hold of the reader too:


I know a curious moth, that haunts old buildings,
A tapestry moth, I saw it at Hardwick Hall,
‘More glass than wall’ full of great tapestries laddering
And bleaching in the white light from long windows.
I saw this moth when inspecting one of the cloth pictures
Of a man offering a basket of fresh fruit through a portal
To a ghost with other baskets of lobsters and pheasants nearby
When I was amazed to see some plumage of one of the birds
Suddenly quiver and fly out of the basket
Leaving a bald patch on the tapestry, breaking up as it flew away.
A claw shifted. The ghost’s nose escaped. I realised

It was the tapestry moths that ate the colours like the light
Limping over the hangings, voracious cameras,
And reproduced across their wings the great scenes they consumed [...]


Hearing these opening lines, it’s hard to imagine anyone else among contemporary poets taking such a leap of imagination; and the same is true of a later sequence, set in a different kind of great hall. ‘Staines Waterworks’ (from My Father’s Trapdoors, 1994) begins with what feels like a coda – just one of the ways the poet unsettles us. Another is his deployment of ‘So’ right at the beginning, decades before people started using it as a conversational opener. The coil of water out of a domestic tap is related to that earlier sea-spiral spirit but the later Redgrove is more concerned to let us see his workings, to show us what is being compared to what. The Faustian spirit could be anything, but this (just listen to it) is definitely water. It is poetry that runs cold and fresh even after thirty years:


So it leaps from your taps like a fish
In its sixth and last purification
It is given a coiling motion
By the final rainbow-painted engines, which thunder;
The water is pumped free through these steel shells
Which are conched like the sea –
This is to release from the long train of events
Called The Waterworks at Staines.

The poem’s second part continues:

Riverwater gross as gravy is filtered from
Its coarse detritus at the intake and piped
To the sedimentation plant like an Egyptian nightmare,
For it is a hall of twenty pyramids upside-down
Balanced on their points each holding two hundred and fifty
Thousand gallons making thus the alchemical sign
For water and the female triangle.


There are a further six short sections – Redgrove is very fond of such sequences, which are elsewhere inclined to ramble. ‘Staines Waterworks’ is set in Penelope Shuttle’s home patch near Heathrow, although (as always) its roots are in Redgrove’s own brain. But what makes this banally titled poem successful is the poet’s enthusiasm for the science of the process, holding our attention with documentary details while allowing the irrepressible imagination to bubble through. And that metaphor is an apt one for Redgrove’s poems. Water is repeatedly used to represent creative power (as it has done since the spring of the muses). Think of a much earlier poem ‘The Force’, for example, from the 1966 collection of that title, which describes how farm-house electricity is pumped from ‘a beck-borne, wooden wheel … within/A white torrent’, how ‘The mountain’s force comes towering down to us.’ It is a gift to domestic life, but also a threat. Redgrove was a great drinker (and not so much of water – though he knocks back a glass of a storm downpour in ‘On the Patio’) and he must have been aware of the parallels. Twenty-five years on from ‘The Force’, everything is being filtered, processed, guided through the works. Perhaps it was a reaction to his new editor Robin Robertson forcing him to restrict, contain, control. He undoubtedly writes at his best when there is some constraint, when he isn’t offered the luxury of up to 200 pages, for instance, as he was by Routledge & Kegan Paul in those nevertheless glorious mid-career volumes. Funnily enough, Peter Redgrove has something in common with another Peter, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, born two years later, much of whose dense, challenging work is equally hard to digest . But then there are those sublime pieces where ‘Max’ is no longer writing in the grand style: the homespun melody of ‘Farewell to Stromness’, the hilarity of ‘Mavis in Las Vegas’ or ‘Orkney Wedding with Sunrise’.


I’ll talk about his sense of humour shortly, but there’s no question Peter Redgrove could produce an unpretentious, understated lyric: a beautiful watercolour of a horse looking over a drystone wall, for instance, or ‘Blackthorn Winter’ from 1992, where we feel the two sides of his genius in tension with each other: the richly orchestrated description (the kind of verses he could produce on tap) and the simple gifts of a clear lyric line. Here is the truly lucid dreamer. This is the complete poem:


Blackthorn Winter

A blackthorn winter. The trees lighter
Than at other times, showing
The inwards of their leaves; the stars
Because of the bitter wind
Twinkle fiercely; the masses of air
Create a hollow echoing in the woodland;
Sunset’s slant light rebuilds ghost villages, echoing
In their shadow-plane out of moist deep foundations,
And celtic boundaries pulse in ceaseless wind-markings;

To smell the touch of the wind, to hear the contours.


‘Blackthorn Winter’ comes from a collection with another watery title: Under the Reservoir. It’s set in winter and the blackthorn isn’t in blossom, though we feel it won’t be long. For now it’s only the light on the leaves that suggests a flowering; elsewhere it’s just starlight and weak sun. Most of the senses are involved, but hearing especially. It’s the tiny original touches that make this poem so effective – ‘the inwards of their leaves’ (an adjective filling in for the unnecessary noun) – and the line breaks, which by this point in his career he can carry off effortlessly, even while allowing himself a slightly Germanic word order: ‘showing – line break –The inwards of their leaves – semicolon – the stars – line break – Because of the bitter wind– line break – Twinkle fiercely’. It’s a bold decision to use ‘twinkle’, but the cliché is disarmed by the juxtaposition of ‘fiercely’. There is so much going on in the sound here too, though it’s a dissonant atonal music: that repeated grunting ‘i’ – bitter/wind/twinkle and a vaguely metallic clatter, more of a tinkling than a twinkling. It’s followed by a whoosh of assonance: ‘a hollow echoing in the woodland’ – all those windy o-sounds. And after such openness everything closes in oppressively, like walking out of a clearing and back into the wood. The lines convey a very Anglo-Saxon energy, heavily stressed words clumped together: there are at least eight stressed syllables in ‘Sunset’s slant light rebuilds ghost villages, echoing’. It’s superbly observed too: the way a low sun can bring out humps and bumps in the meadows. The eighth and ninth lines take us deeper into thickets of prehistory, and Redgrove himself (was ever poet better named?) is lured back into his own rich verbal resources – ‘ceaseless wind-markings’, for example, makes us think of wind erosion but also of carvings on exposed ancient rocks; then there’s a space on the page, and that wonderful lucid final line with its revealing final touch of cartography: ‘To smell the touch of the wind, to hear the contours’. This is a poet who attends to the lie of the land.


Peter Redgrove writes his strongest poetry – lines without any best-before stamp – when he is economical, when he cuts back, but also when there is some concrete subject. Otherwise, a Redgrove poem can just be an abstract account of abstraction; always very musical, of course, and often very bracing. Undeniably it can sometimes be wonderful just to bathe in the gale-force of a poet’s ungrounded imagination. We certainly have few toe-holds in ‘Dr Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit’, and that’s true of the bulk of the Collected Poems, although it’s not like the obscurity of, say, the Martians or the Metaphysicals, where there is a ‘key’ to the imagery. Even reading Neil Roberts’s exemplary biography will not provide answers. We are at sea and that’s that. We have to accept the risk, which is part of the thrill. All this should make his work an especially exciting example for today’s younger poets, many of whom look to John Ashbery, Jorie Graham and further back to Wallace Stevens, aspiring to the same kind of lofty philosophical abstraction.


On the face of it it’s hard to think of anyone less like Wallace Stevens than Peter Redgrove, at least as far as lifestyle and personality are concerned: yet as poets they share a great deal. Even if we hadn’t read Peter’s ‘The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach’ or ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard’, we might guess that he was an influence. But I think the latter poem shows that his sense of humour is more convincing than Stevens’s – Redgrove certainly loved a pun, as some of the titles prove (‘Silence Fiction’ is my favourite). ‘Thirteen Ways’ is a terrific parody, and a brilliant piece of comedy in its own right though it was omitted from the Collected and all the Selecteds perhaps because some of the references to blackness – playful and thoughtful though they are – might be misinterpreted. It’s a pity, because the poem has so much wit and energy.


The blackboard is clean.
The master must be coming.

The vigilant mosquito bites on a rising pitch.
The chalk whistles over the blackboard.

Among twenty silent children
The only moving thing
Is the chalk's white finger.

And I must add my favourite, number five:

A man and a child
Are one.
A man and a child and a blackboard
Are three.


As true a remark about teaching as you will find.


Redgrove is in the end a comic writer, but that doesn’t mean a trivial one. It means he is capable of opening a serious poem about moving to Cornwall with the line ‘I must raise a teashop in this place with my own two hands’ – a very English kind of humour, which at the same time makes fun of Englishness. His poetic world is the one that the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and indeed The Tempest would understand. But is his poetry fit for 2022, a very different cultural climate from the era when he was publishing?


Climate is an important word, because I believe he has more to say than most poets born when he was born about our relationship with the natural world and the rhythms of the planet. At a time when we hear so much about changes in the weather, it’s hard to think of a poet more affected by it. I remember he and Penelope Shuttle appearing on a TV documentary about weather and creativity (long vanished from the archives, alas) in which he spoke of wanting to seek out thunderstorms. He has probably written more meteorological masterpieces than any other poet since Shelley, and several of them are in the collections he was publishing as I was getting to know his work. The Weddings at Nether Powers, for instance, I can remember buying in a bookshop (in Ledbury, I believe) soon after it came out in 1979, as much for the title and the intriguing cover as anything. One of the sequences in its 150 pages, ‘Living in Falmouth’, is full of wonderful weather – ‘soft grey sacks of rain’, thunder ‘high-pitched like cellophane’; and there is more in The Apple-Broadcast, published two years later (130 pages plus a cassette of the poet reading). This collection opens with a poem which I see as an oblique tribute to his friend and rival Ted Hughes, not only because he was the other great rain poet, but because of similarities with Hughes’s ‘October Dawn’ from 1957, also in couplets, and beginning:


October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out

To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition

Of ice across its eye….


There’s a good deal that could be said about that rivalry with Hughes, and the various occasions when comparisons were made, seldom to Redgrove’s advantage. The best known is when the most celebrated critic of his day, Al Alvarez chose to write a review in the Observer in which he compared Hughes’s second collection Lupercal with Peter Redgrove’s debut The Collector. The headline was ‘An Outstanding Young Poet’ – but as Neil Roberts points out, ‘Sadly for Peter, this prodigy was not himself but Ted Hughes’ and the Redgrove book was represented as a ‘poor man’s version’ of what the other poet was doing. What is likely to strike today’s reader of ‘On the Patio’, however is the freshness of the writing, and the relevance to our time. This is the whole of the poem:


A wineglass overflowing with thunderwater
Stands out on the drumming steel table

Among the outcries of the downpour
Feathering chairs and rethundering on the awnings.

How the pellets of water shooting miles
Fly into the glass of swirl, and slop

Over the table’s scales of rust
Shining like chained sores,

Because the rain eats everything except the glass
Of spinning water that is clear down here

But purple with rumbling depths above, and this cloud
Is transferring its might into a glass

In which thunder and lightning come to rest,
The cloud crushed into a glass.

Suddenly I dart out into the patio,
Snatch the bright glass up and drain it,

Bang it back down on the thundery steel table for a refill.


Here is a poet who knows what climate means, and one who is never complacent – which is why his poems can be a bumpy ride. He shuns comfort. He knows the truth is difficult. Wouldn’t it be something to hear what Peter Redgrove might have made of our climate emergency? He would see it in a way no one else has considered.


But other areas may be trickier. There are few major poets who don’t end up with some of their work quietly dropped from their Collected, who fail to fall in with the changed mores of posterity. It was true of Eliot, it was true of Larkin. I’m sure, for example, there’s a debate to be had on the way Peter Redgrove writes about women. Marie Peel was clearly not troubled by any of it when she edited that excellent early Selected, Sons of My Skin, but one or two reviewers have passed comment. Ruth Padel, for instance, pointed to certain lines about sniffing train seats and wondered how the Queen, who’d just awarded him her Gold Medal for Poetry, might have reacted to them. On the other hand, you won’t find any gratuitous swearing, no hint of racism, rather an embracing of diversity – and no dodgy political sympathies. Compared with other poets born in the 1930s, his concerns and his way of expressing them have barely dated at all. Peter Redgrove’s remains a ‘startlingly modern voice’. Could those be my three words to place this poet? I think there are probably better trios: weather/powers/audacious… or source/mineral/seascape. But you will doubtless have your own ideas.


I’d like to end with some music and a poem of Peter Redgrove’s about the creative force, something which fascinates me and which I have explored in my own long poem about Sibelius, ‘The Silence’. But on this occasion the focus is on the composer and performer, Franz Liszt. The poem is from a posthumous collection, The Harper (2006), and there’s nothing in it that isn’t relevant to 2022 or 1922 or indeed 1822 when Liszt gave his first concert in Vienna. Particularly striking is Redgrove’s new interest in stepped verse, which opens up all kinds of unexpected tensions in the writing. Visually it’s fascinating, and makes me think of all those waterfalls at Tivoli near Rome, where Liszt indeed did perform, so it could be that this was the image in the poet’s mind. Anyhow, it suggests more than anything that ‘the Force’ which Peter Redgrove wrote about in one of his earliest collections, was still very much active in his final years: