The Science of the Subjective: An Interview with Peter Redgrove

by Neil Roberts

The late Peter Redgrove has been recognised by many of his peers and distinguished critics as an epitome of commitment to the creative imagination. Among comments by qualified judges of his poetry one might cite Anne Stevenson—‘There is no poet writing in English capable of such sustained imaginative flights as Redgrove’, Douglas Dunn—‘Redgrove is tremendously gifted… his exuberance is a form of artistry in itself’, or Katherine Raine—‘Peter Redgrove is one of the few significant poets now writing’.

Beginning with The Collector in 1959, Peter Redgrove built up an extraordinarily prolific and consistent body of work, including twenty-five volumes of poetry and ten works of prose fiction. No fewer than three versions of his "Selected Poems" have been published, the first in 1975 and the most recent in 1999. His work engages with the natural world (Terry Eagleton described him as an ‘ecological poet avant la lettre), gender and the unconscious, and is marked by an exploration and affirmation of unrealised human potential. He is unusual among poets in having had a scientific education, and the crossing of the ‘two cultures’ is manifest in his work. With his partner the poet Penelope Shuttle he wrote The Wise Wound, a study of the psychological and sociological aspects of menstruation which at the time of its publication, 1978, was a highly original contribution to a neglected and even taboo field. In 1996 he was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, an honour which is given only occasionally for outstanding merit, at the recommendation of the Poet Laureate, then Ted Hughes. Redgrove died in 2003 and his last collection, The Harper, is due from Cape in 2006. Redgrove’s personal archive is held by the library of the University of Sheffield.

This interview was conducted at Redgrove’s house in Falmouth, in late 1986. It is condensed from a conversation that lasted a whole day. At the time, Redgrove was completing his book, The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense (Bloomsbury, 1987), which is the fullest expression of his unorthodox take on science, and his commitment to dimensions of reality and perception that orthodox science does not account for. The interview was published in a special "Poetry and Science" issue of Poetry Review in June 1987.

NEIL ROBERTS: Most modern theorists try to define poetic language by distinguishing it from scientific or referential language, and I imagine you’d want to refute that idea.

PETER REDGROVE: Well, so many thoughts go through my head as you say this. I’m thinking what kind of scientific language are these theorists thinking of, or which particular instances? There’d be a difference in feeling tone of course to us now if we read Pasteur’s documents or Faraday’s documents. They would seem different to us from say Einstein’s account of his own theories. The scientific prose which appears – which is supposed to be – objective has in fact got a very strong feeling tone in it rather like a poem has, in its own way. This suggests of course that scientific prose is not simply as referential as it makes out to be. It contains personality and it contains history and as the paradigms change so the kind of attention we pay to a piece of scientific prose changes. Similarly with poems.

NR: Would you say then that all language is on a continuum, is of essentially the same kind, and there is no distinguishing feature of poetic language?

PR: This is my experience in reading. If one reads Darwin or if one reads Harvey on the circulation of the blood, these expositions are like different kinds of poems. The Harvey is like a meditation on wonderful internal hydraulics; the Darwin is a man alert in his world. I think a continuum is a very good way of expressing it.

NR: Do you think that there are any distinguishing characteristics of the kind of language that adequately acknowledges the inner or subjective reality?

PR: Poetic language in this way uses the same devices that dream language does – condensation, symbolism, displacement, these kind of characteristics of dreams. I certainly wouldn’t be the first to point out the likeness of poetry to dreams. As people still debate whether dreams are useful in any sense at all so people tend to debate whether poetry is any use at all. I take the position that Trilling does… I recently came across this… Trilling quotes Charles Lamb. He says the poet dreams, being awake. This is to say, a dream does possess you. In the kind of waking dream we call poetry you have, as he says, dominion. You have the kind of control that a navigator has, the yachtsman has over his yacht. He is obedient to the natural currents and winds and to the construction of his vessel but he has, within limits, a certain will. This is one of the differences between dream and poetry. Of course you have lucid dreams too, and you have automatic writing in poetry. It depends on what comes out, and what degree of attention anybody is paying at the particular time that we’re talking about. Contemporary poetry has a very strange fate in England I think as compared to America and possibly on the European continent. We seem to be party-going poets. Contemporary English poetry is very show-off really – it dresses itself up. The kind of inward absorption that you get with a magnificent poet like St John Perse, really wrapped up in his subject, is a great rarity in English poetry at all I think, since the Great Victorians or since Wordsworth perhaps; I think the egotistical sublime has gone out of poetry.

NR: You’d take it as far back as that would you? You don’t think even Eliot has the quality you’re talking about?

PR: Eliot is always present isn’t he? He’s always a critical presence in his own verse, he very seldom lets go in the interests of discovery. Even the momentary visions are ritualistic. He very seldom allows himself to be blown off course towards the Unexpected Isles. But I think Wordsworth deliberately seeks to learn from these spots of time, where he loses himself. That amazing passage, isn’t it in Book VI of the Prelude, where he loses himself in the Alps, and as he comes to, he remember that he’s seen something wonderful, something of the invisible world, which was too much for his ordinary senses, which are nevertheless enlarged by it. Now we don’t get many poets losing themselves in the psyche or in nature at the present time, do we?

NR: No. Do you think this is a cultural loss of nerve relating to what I said at the beginning, that poetry tends to be defined as non-referential, as pseudo-statement, as fictional, and so the poet becomes too self-conscious to be able to do that sort of thing?

PR: I think so, yes. The reaction the poet has come to expect is ‘Very amusing, but completely subjective, of course’. "Subjective" is one of those elastic words. It has come to mean not only ‘the only truth we can know’, but, as a corollary of despair to this, ‘untrue’ as well. The point of the poem is the process that you go through as you read it and what it does to you. So it’s not only what the poem is talking about, but what it’s doing to you and enabling you to see, and this is both objective and subjective at once. I think one of the reasons for the loss of nerve as the present time is that the scientists have given us a picture of nature which is competitive, alien, empty, mechanical, and a universe in which we are complete strangers, and in which – talking about continuums – there is no continuum between ourselves and nature.

This is the great romantic quest, that a continuum between nature and mankind should be proved… Science still proceeds on behaviouristic principles. Scientists, for instance, have to be very careful in testing drugs, or in doing any psychological experiment, not to allow suggestion to enter into it, no suggestion of the result, no placebo effect must be allowed in. But the placebo effect is a very wonderful thing indeed. It means you can take a sugar pill believing it will do you good and it will do you good. This is worth looking into I would have thought, but it’s the very thing that science keeps out: the power here – the Romantic idea – of the mind over the body, that the material world is responsive to the energies of the mind, or to immaterial energies.

We live in a situation where these things are systematically undervalued. The Enlightenment was concerned to display everything visibly, with every factor controlled – and this is when the idea of the scientific controlled experiment came in. The Romantics were in contradiction to this. They wanted to know what was invisible. They protested against the ‘tyranny of the eye’. There is so much in Romantic poetry about weather for instance. Weather influences us profoundly. It is an invisible and visible series of changes which alter our moods and alter our access to ourselves. We are inspired or depressed by the weather. It is both objective and subjective in its effects. Thirty per cent of the population are intensely weather-sensitive. There is a kind of feeling-knowledge of the world which arises from meteorological changes. There is a response, an invisible response which is not accounted for in medical science.

The facts are that very many diseases, very many sicknesses and illnesses, are intensified by the processes of storm. Heart palpitations sometimes synchronize with radio static from storms. You can watch, on a computer, the meteorological pattern say over the city of New York, and superimpose the deaths from heart attacks, and you can see that these two patterns follow each other, and there is a causal connection which appears to be electrical. We know that many people suffer from weather- sensitivity to a psychiatric extent – you get this very much in Cornwall, which has a great deal of weather, as they say. But what happens? How are these people treated? Well, of course, the tranquillizer and antidepressant. There is no study of medical climatology, there is no school of it in this country as far as I know. There is no school of bio-meteorology. This romantic thing, the weather, this daily demonstration of our response to the whole situation of the earth and the atmosphere, the temperature of it, the humidity of it and the electricity of it — we can’t deny this any more — is just ignored, because of course, to adjust this, to treat weather-sickness — well there are certainly herbal and homeopathic remedies for it, and another solution is to move, which may not be viable economically. What is viable economically and which pros up our system is to prescribe another of these invented drugs, at great cost. The alternative is to seek union with the invisible but actual world, as the Romantics did.

NR: You were talking about the effects that poetry has, and I imagine that that is a physiological effect in your view?

PR: Yes, I .A. Richards didn’t go far enough in this. If you record blood pressure, skin resistance, pulse rate and this kind of thing, when people are listening to poetry, if you can persuade them to do it – it’s a bit difficult – you find that here are profound changes. You can do it on the E.C. G., that’s the electro-encephalogram, the brain-waves, this is sometimes done, but it’s much better to do it on the skin, which is covered all the time by a kind of rainbow of electrical patterns, which run over the skin and seem to bypass what we call our conscious minds. If a person is reading poetry or having poetry read to them, or indeed any complicated emotional utterance, the results of this – they may be paying very little attention or they may give very little account of this in their conscious minds, but the body becomes alive with, if you like, the colour of the poem. It’s a very extraordinary and beautiful thing, that. I think we are very used to repressing this kind of event. If we relax of course we can feel into our skins and our emotions much more deeply, and poetry is providing an induction into this deeper life, without a doubt. It is — whatever else it might be doing — connecting us with our physiology, with areas of our physiology which we are inclined not to use in daily life, and which we of course are encouraged not to use by the paradigms of what I must call commonplace science…

As I said, poetry is both subjective and objective at once. Goethe says that the human senses are the greatest and most accurate physical apparatus there can be; and it was the greatest misfortune of modern physics that it recognized nature only as it was manifested through artificial instruments. Science is getting it both ways now by using incredibly sensitive biochemical processes in its most delicate chemical instruments. If you look at a picture of the earth’s magnetic field, generated by the bow-shock of its motion in the sun’s field, it resembles nothing so much as a great winged figure, folded in robes, it’s an angel shape. This is very, very Romantic, but this is the kind of imagery scientists who are closer to naturalists, I think – though of course it has its defence budget aspect, studying geo-magnetism – are coming up with. They’re coming up with a confirmation of the Romantic experience of a continuum between mankind and nature. That geo-magnetic field reaches right into the protoplasm.

NR: Would you say that all poetry, regardless of how the poet himself might define it, is essentially Romantic?

PR: It’s doing a Romantic thing. It’s taking you into a world which is enhanced. Even the most Augustan of poetry, which is concerned with, as you might say, social adjustments or the adjustments of one person to another, of one man to another if you like, one man of sense speaking to another man of sense, gives, by its articulation, a sense of body, of speech. When we are speaking we are altering the feelings in our body though circulation and respiration; we are taking thought of our speech, we are engaging in a kind of inner dialogue with our physical capacities. Poetry has to be spoken, is spoken; even when you appear to be reading it silently there is a voice going on. I’m thinking of the heroic couplet – the Augustan heroic couplet is a most bracing measure, one feels braced by is as by a walk in a stiff breeze. It’s physiological. As we read, as we do anything, but especially as we are closely engaged in something, so the atmosphere changes round us. Others know this. So we give off these strange substances which are called pheromones, these scents, these olfactory hormones. I like to think of a poetry reading… if you try and watch this, if you don’t smoke, and you can smell, you can actually smell an audience paying attention; this stimulates the reader, so there is feedback, and in a good reading or performance, the creation of a total atmosphere.

NR: When you look back at your earliest poetry, how much of the real thing do you find in it; is it something that you feel it took a long time for you to develop, or was it there from the start?

PR: It is always a terrible struggle to get the poem… to find again in the poem the experience that had made one need to write the poem. I’m not at present content with anything that I’ve written either in prose or poetry, because what anybody’s prose or poetry is reaching for is far too terrific to be grasped in the terms of our present culture. It’s as though – I’ve always felt this – we need another culture. We’re working in the wrong culture for poetry. This led to my work in womanism, I’m sure of this, because one of the missing things is the place of women’s influence in our culture. The things that women can give on the personal level by their companionship, their motherhood, and their sexuality are so close to the things I want to say in poetry. All of my poetry in that sense is love poetry. I’m looking for the missing half, if you like, of the Platonic body, trying to find this in my poetry. In the same sense as the world talks to me, so does my poetry talk to me, and I try to understand its language, as in a dialogue with a Sphinx. But I will not respond with the Oedipal answer that destroys her. I try to shape it so that the two, the inner thing and the outer thing, touch as they speak. This is the love-experiment I’m doing. My poetry is one continuous aspiration towards this. The early poetry has a… it’s not a violence, its an ardency of perception and surprise, which of course is one of the things that one may sacrifice as one goes onto reflect increasingly on the work. But the later poetry, I think, knows more of what is necessary to put in a poem so that it can be accepted as a kind of discourse which leads the reader gently into other states of mind than the one-dimensional non-sacred personality that we develop to deal with the world.

NR: There’s a great deal of fear of death in the early poetry, isn’t there?

PR: It’s natural to fear death. We must accommodate the fact that we are all going to die. I’m sure that the little deaths that we experience in sleep, in the transformations that occur in sex, the transformations that occur each night as we go to sleep, in our dreams, are ways of approaching the big transformation that nobody knows about, the best-kept secret, as it were, of death; so that it is right to rehearse the imagery of death, that the more imagery of death there is in the poetry the more the poet, and hopefully the reader, is prepared for the kind of transformations that occur in his life. One of the things that exercises me greatly in writing poetry is a very common experience that everybody has, and this is the contrast there is between the state of inspiration, or the state of joy, the state of alertness and responsiveness to the world, such as one experiences for instance waking up on a good morning or after making love in an exceptionally beautiful and satisfying way, or of having a beautiful dream, or when a poem is coming out – there is such a contrast between that kind of experience and the experience of dumbness, dullness, stupidity, frustration, and the narrowing of the chinks of one’s cavern, until everything that one values or believes in is gone. This experience of depression and recovery from depression is very common to our age…

The subject of my poetry is like that of George Herbert’s "The Flower" in which he says how his life sinks down to the roots, just as it does with a flower, but then there can be a change, a sudden change in the psyche, so that ‘I once more smell the dew and rain.’ Now, he says ‘smell the dew and rain’ His animal senses have become alive again. It’s not just a visual thing. There’s been a change in the weather, his own weather, or the outside weather. If you look at Coleridge’s Dejection Ode, you see that it’s almost the weather speaking those thoughts, it’s the weather which solves the problem of his depression. There is a change of weather. Perhaps human beings are the intelligence of their air and of their ground.

NR: In comparing poetry to dream are you implying that in some sense the poem is already there? That the drafting of the poem is a process of recovery as much as a process of production?

PR: Yes, I think so. I think that every person has a central poem. I don’t know what else to call it. The word poem is better nowadays than using the word spirit or soul. I think it’s easy to understand the statement that every person has a central poem. I think – this has a Wallace Stevens ring to it, so I may be quoting him – I think the poems that we retrieve are fragments of this central poem. I always think of those lovely Victorian pictures of various poets marching into the Day of Judgement or going to the Hall of the Muses after they’re dead with their books, or their souls, tucked underneath their arms. I think that we are trying to recompose that original poem, and I think what this in part consists of is a very deep and compendious image or experience of the real universe, in a state which is superior to the nature of the conditioned waking personality that we develop. The poem is a discovery, the personality is a construct. It is what we call our conscious minds which are the constructs. The poem comes from the interface between conscious and unconscious, and there is far more to that than the conscious mind is used to, as in Wordsworth’s ‘visitings / Of awful promise’ when in the Alps the light of his ordinary senses went out, and his ‘greatness’ switched on, as he tells us.

It’s true that as one goes on in poetry there is sometimes a sense of recovering something which one already knows – maybe a central poem. I myself believe that the foundations of this central poem were laid in the womb, during the process of our making, from molecule to organism to person: the whole natural continuum. Every live person, to be alive at all, is formed by the co-operation and harmony of a milliard influences, inner and outer, current and past. I argue in my The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense that the knowledge of this is retrievable, that it is poetry, that is the model or Tao of our proper relations with the universe, and that this issynaesthetic – but more of that later.

NR: And yet the poem is different for everybody?

PR: As everybody’s face is different, yes. The poem is different for everybody but it’s related in everybody. As the skeleton or the birth-process is, if you like. It’s true, and I think everybody’s work is finding that central poem and declaring it. We’ve become very metaphysical here. I’m thinking of Traherne’s The Praeparative at the moment, in which he talks about this womb-experience… I don’t think he’s usually understood in this manner, but it’s here, in theCenturies of Meditation, in these words. He says… he’s talking about illuminated experience… He says, ‘Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. By the Gift of God they attended me into the world, and by His special favour I remember them till now. Verily they seem the greatest gifts His wisdom could bestow, for without them all other gifts had been dead and vain. They are unattainable by books, and therefore I will teach them by experience’. ‘Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb…’ And that’s my belief.

NR: I’d be interested to know what you have to say about the Jungian idea that the unconscious is feminine in both men and women.

PR: Are you sure that’s a Jungian idea?

NR: Well, it’s in Neumann.

PR: Neumann says that the unconscious is feminine in both men and women?

NR: Yes.

PR: Yes, I see. He says that the ground of being is feminine. Yes, Yes, I seem to have said that just now (laughs). The ground of being is feminine. This is echoing T.F. Powys, isn’t it? He said the ground is goddess. But I also think that the ground changes. The unconscious is compensatory. If the conscious mind is masculine the unconscious mind will be feminine. Culturally our conscious minds are masculine, with a masculinist society. This means the ground, now, is feminine.

NR: So this is a culturally determined thing, it’s not a fact of nature that the unconscious is feminine?

PR: You’re asking me now to define the place of the male principle in the modern psyche, and I can only do this by allegory, as Graves did. I can only say that the masculine principle has taken the throne and has not known what to do with its power, and has to be ousted. We just don’t know what’s there now. We don’t know what the ground is now, really. It is not matriarchal. We’ve passed from patriarchy to patriarchy. Now there is something else coming, and who can say what it is? I certainly can’t, but it’s in the ground. And the ground of it I myself call feminine, yes. I call it black and I call it a goddess. That is to say, it seems to me that the important things that are growing from the psyche are feminine and are invisible. We were talking about the magnetosphere… there’s an image for you, the magnetosphere, the diagram of it being like a robed and winged figure, as it were clutching the earth to its heart. The magnetosphere is shaped around us, in space you understand. And that might be an image for the Black Goddess. It’s clearly a feminine figure. It is a spirit of the earth which is seen in another way as magnetism. And it’s black, because it’s not visible. But it also reaches into the protoplasm of each and every living thing that there is. We as organisms have a magnetic field which interacts with the earth’s magnetic field. It is once again the continuum. There is not just one Romantic continuum; there are several of them. There’s what I call the pheromone maser which is the equivalent to the classical magical aura, which is a free-floating cloud of organic molecules which surrounds the body, which is produced by the metabolism of the body, which is then irradiated by the infra-red of the body, so that you get a sub-visible fluorescence. It detects and decodes kinds of electromagnetic radiation beyond the visible; was first described in moths by pest-control scientists!

NR: Like most contemporary poets, you don’t write metrical poetry. Do you think it’s a loss that you can’t, or that somehow it doesn’t work for you.

PR: I think that people nowadays don’t sing or chant very much, that we’re trying to write a sort of poetry that comes from explanation, or the voice of one person speaking to another as a companion. We don’t ordinarily sing to each other. Domestic music doesn’t happen very much. The things that happen to us which are deepest to us are those things which are said in daily life and which suddenly become illuminating, or which… even lovers don’t often sing to each other nowadays at all, but they will speak, and they will speak with a particular searching or expository rhythm, which can’t be accommodated very easily in most exactly-regular forms of metric. I think that another purpose of prosody is to emphasize the shape in sound and therefore stimulate a sense less-used than that of the eye, which is what we use day by day most of all. It as it were caresses the ear like a touch. It alters time. In the poetry that is being written now I think what we’re trying to do is a further thing, which is not only to arouse the non-visual senses, but to weave them together with sight. George Whalley says that "synaesthesia" is almost a definition of poetry. In an age with no shared faith, poets must demonstrate from experience. I think we’re trying to get a synaesthesia by persuasion and demonstration, so we will use persuasive rhythms.

Now what happens in what is commonly called hypnotism, which I prefer to call (with pun intended) ‘trance-formation’ is that you work out, with your client’s co-operation, what is their… or you can tell of course, what is their most-used sense. And you ask them to pay attention to this, perhaps by means of guided imagery, you set a scene, and this will usually be a visual scene. So you’ll set this visual scene, you’ll speak to them about this visual scene, and then you will introduce into this quite deliberately what is their less-used sense. It may be the sense of touch, it may be the sense of hearing. You will introduce the sounds of the waves, you’ll give a metaphor for this. You will let the sand under their feet have a particular touch. And as you do this so you can see the process of inner attention deepening. And that is the process of hypnotism or the formation of trance. Now this is exactly the way in which poetry operates, I think. Charles Hartman says ‘A poem is an act of attention’, and that its prosody is the poet’s method of controlling the reader’s attention. A poem may be persuading into trance by prosodic but not necessarily metrical skills and at the same time subverting ordinary consciousness by bringing another sense in or an illustration from another sense. One will look at a stone, one will describe its shape, and then one will suddenly introduce a notion of its taste. What does a real stone taste like? And immediately it’s a different stone. And immediately the poetic process begins to operate.

When Rimbaud said that what we must have to become seers is a reasoned disorder of the senses, he was not talking so much about an upset or an explosion as a synaesthesia: the joining together of all the senses and their mutual illumination thereby. I think you could argue that synaesthesia was the central characteristic of poetry… The Vedas say that there is only one sense, and that the special senses that we use in the world are diminished versions, shielded versions of that one sense we knew as spirits, or in the womb. Blake says that all the senses are cursed except the sense of touch, through which a man may pass out to infinity any time he pleases, and I take his meaning to be that all the senses are basically a touch (of air, of volatile and dissolved substances) and that the experience of infinity is tactile and synaesthetic. It’s a characteristic of poetic experience, of experience of the hypnotic trance, of waking dreams. The characteristic of the central poem must be that it has a unity. In mysticism, in Middle English mysticism, there is a great deal talked about the non-visible or synaesthetic presence of God. Christ appears simultaneously as a beautiful smell and a wonderful touch; or as melodious food. This happens too in Hindu yoga, here the spiritual experience is often described in terms of simultaneous touch, warmth, odour, rather than visually, which is what we usually seem to think our religious experience ought to be. It’s a very intricate sensuous process, as poetry is. And this is why I consider the poetic experience and the religious experience to be in essence the same thing.

Biographical Note

Neil Roberts is Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of, among other books, The Lover, theDreamer and the Worldthe Poetry of Peter Redgrove (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), Narrative and Voice in Postwar Poetry(Longman, 1999), and is the editor of A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry (Blackwell, 2001). He is currently writing a literary life of Ted Hughes for Palgrave Macmillan and editing a collection of Redgrove’s essays and interviews for Stride Books, who are also reissuing all of Redgrove’s seven novels.