From the Virgil Caverns Peter Redgrove

Published by Jonathan Cape
Price £8.00

Virgil Caverns cover cover: Virgil and Dante

The wrenching up of images from the psyche, the turbulence of creativity visible in his poems is matched only by Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes' work — these were words Douglas Dunn once used to describe the late Peter Redgrove who died on June 16th this year.

Having only recently discovered Redgrove (his first book of poems came out in 1959 when I was minus 18!) I have since found it near-impossible to map his style of writing. Certainly his raw brilliance of metaphor and endless well of imagination bear resemblance to Plath. Indeed his first major poetic achievement Lazarus and the Sea drew on the same biblical story as Plath's renowned and much quoted Lady Lazarus (Redgrove's depiction was penned some three years earlier.)

Yet while like Hughes, in that his narratives are expertly interlaced with striking metaphor, it is perhaps Plath-like how Peter Redgrove holds the uncommon ability to overwhelm a reader, so much so that I have often read one of his poems, and have been caused to stop, break off, and recover before continuing. There are few writers that can have such an overpowering effect.

In attempting to map Redgrove it is words like ' visionary' that spew forth suggesting an almost Blake-like heeding to the realm of the subconscious. For a writer that I am sure many may not have even heard of these might seem to be grand comparables, but let me assure you in Peter Redgrove's case they are warranted. In contemporary British poetry, not since the early work of John Burnside, have I encountered much that treads so purposefully between the realm of what is interior and what is not known.

Despite this, many of the poems in From The Virgil Caverns (and indeed throughout Redgrove's poetry) display both ebullience and humour to everyday characters like dentists with their condom fingers or undertakers who approach like somebody who has seen everything. What becomes evident from these, and other poems, is Redgrove's unerring ability to surpass the mundane even when dealing with everyday encounters or reactions. Indeed, these people are conjurers, magicians, existing in the framework of the poets carefully managed, yet self-altered environment.

The use of triadic stanzas throughout, initially thought to be pioneered by William Carlos Williams, generally work well. Again, one thinks of Burnside's celebrated Asylum Dance in considering such effectiveness. In using this method of form the author does leave himself open to over fragmentation, (it doesn't work all the time) yet many lines are so emphatic that they deserve their own rope, particularly the sequences concerning Redgrove's previously stormy relationship with his father. The poems Father in Mirror and My Father's Teeth in particular are quite exceptional, and along with Arrivals they suggest an attempted reconciliation from Redgrove.

Familiar themes of water couldn't be resisted by Redgrove, though the wry humour of Elderhouse quickly justifies this, suggesting a cleverly-managed reverberation. He also renews his glorious elegies to the Cornish coast where he spent most of his life. Tsunami and Sea Visit sing magnificently, while Sleepers Beach is one of the best nature poems I've ever read in recent times, confirming his design of the natural world as “home to the human spirit”.

In his life Peter Redgrove published twenty-one volumes of poetry, and although he found successes in prose and radio plays, his great literary love always seemed to be in writing poems. Despite the consistency and quality of his work leading to From the Virgil Caverns, what is apparent throughout is a writer at the height of his range and lucidity. Moreover, Redgrove shows a great celebration towards the elasticity of language, a celebration (in this collection at least) that never veers towards vanity. The only great shame is that it is his last.

That said; small press Sheen intend to bring out a final volume of previously unpublished work from Redgrove in October. Also by Sheen is a memorial volume including the likes of Burnside, Andrew Motion and Peter Porter. There are not too many books that will come out this year that I would want more. The memorial volume itself accentuates the fact that, in poet circles at least, Redgrove was perhaps as respected as anyone. His unorthodox, enigmatic and visionary (there's that word again!) approach to poetry justifies the quote from Ezra Pound in explaining of how Peter Redgrove was out of key with his time.

During his life Redgrove had his critics who cited problems of access in his poetry. Some maintained that he saw the world through an exaggerated mirror, and perhaps on a first reading his work might appear to be equally baffling as it could brilliant. My countering argument is that Peter Redgrove's poetry has always had a quite unusual accuracy and is systematic in method. His poems have such depth, intensity and lexical mastery that it is not always possible to hook onto them first time around. He does not invent impossible ways of seeing the world, but instead, and quite breathtakingly at times, he creates new perspectives, grappling giftedly with his concept of the world and continually striving to develop its spaces between or beyond.

What Redgrove has left behind with his singular though sometimes enigmatic technique is half a century of poetic exuberance, his craft in From The Virgil Caverns as wilful as ever before, his rewards for the reader still as frequently placed. This book of course has surpassed the man himself. Yet it is my hope that eventually this writer of near-genius will receive the recognition that has always unrivalled his poetical achievement.

James Byrne


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