Fruitful, but troubled life of poet once described as 'an imaginative colossus'
Poet of Falmouth, the universe and everything, high priest of the energised instant, Peter Redgrove's themes were manifold.
They covered the skin and sky, the electrical connectedness of the moon, plants, humans and animals; talismans, shamans and the dreams and visions of inner space.
In a packed, fertile biography of Redgrove's life and work, Neil Roberts traces his psychically tumultuous career, from stumbling, tentative early years to the emergence of what Cornish poet D M Thomas called "an imaginative colossus".
Born to a dominant, conventional father who worked in advertising and a more louche, bohemian mother, who had affairs followed by abortions, he received a sound education at Taunton College in Somerset, followed by a grim, much-bullied period in the Army and the awful ordeal of insulin coma therapy, devised to cure his alleged schizophrenia.
From such a dismal state of affairs, he escaped to Cambridge University, where he entered the exciting nest of "The Group", poets that including Ted Hughes, Martin Bell, Philip Hobsbaum and George Macbeth. His genius was picked out and applauded, but some critics complained he was being washed away by words rather than canalising them. In 1954, he married artist Barbara Sherlock. It proved a fitfully happy union and the couple settled in Falmouth, where Redgrove was analysed by psychologist John Layard, who maintained that any sickness contained a positive personal message that one should learn to translate. Under Layard's tutelage, the mature poet emerged, every bit as potent as Larkin, Heaney or Hughes.
Not only did Redgrove throw off poetic constraints during this period, he bulldozed social boundaries, embarking on drinking marathons with his young friend, Malcolm Ritchie, leaping into gardens at night, breaking noisily into middle class homes and scaring the owners. Eventually Malcolm began an affair with the model Jean Shrimpton and Redgrove's marriage fell apart. Divorcing Barbara, he married Penelope Shuttle, a talented poet whom he was wary of introducing to his old mentor, John Layard.
By then the psychologist had eked out too many cringingly intimate details, including knowledge of Redgrove's covert fetish that was not that shameful. Apparently he liked to splodge his sex life with quantities of mud, burrow into the murk of creation, added to which was an attraction for "guest fathers" who provided the warmth, sympathy and male badinage that was also important to him – all of which makes this biography a Freudian roller-coaster. In time, Penelope was to learn most of Redgrove's guilty secrets, proving a supportive wife and parent whose gift complemented his own, their most celebrated co-publication being The Wise Wound, a pioneering study of menstruation.
Neil Roberts is a calm, concise chronicler, lucidly ordering a single-minded, inwardly restless yet predominantly stay-at-home career that enriched English literature. He appraises the poet as scientist, occultist, joker and honorary madman while laying bare peepshow peccadilloes that might raise an eyebrow or a scoff in less exquisite circles.
It is a biography from which one learns a lot and, on a personal note, I retain a last impression of Peter during a poetry reading in Truro. Wrapped in a big black woollen coat, he was leaning on a stick, strained and pale, and yet his shorn, sculptural head and keen gaze radiated a palpable authority, a menacing gentleness. Though in discomfort, he craned to hear every line, afterwards proffering kindly, encouraging remarks to the performers, serving poetry to the end.