Cape £30

A Lucid Dreamer: The Life of Peter Redgrove, By Neil Roberts

Out from the shadow of Ted

Here's a sentence you don't expect to see in the biography of a major poet: "Once Peter defecated on the sunroof of a parked car."

Redgrove was in his early thirties at the time, a teacher at Falmouth School of Art and a heavy drinker. Tellingly, Redgrove is "Peter" throughout Roberts's matey biography, just as his wife, the poet Penelope Shuttle, is always "Penny". This is a substantial and detailed life of a 20th-century poet always overshadowed by his friend Ted Hughes (Roberts thinks unfairly).

After a few early shocks (a sibling death, a mental breakdown, affairs), Redgrove's outer life was uneventful, tied to the lecture room and the study. Working from diaries and notes, Roberts therefore adopts a psychological approach, dedicating the bulk of the work to Redgrove's feverish compulsions, first and foremost of them "the Game", a lifelong sexual fetish involving rolling in mud. There's lots more strange stuff: physically resembling the occultist Aleister Crowley and fearing and hating his actual father, Redgrove once seriously investigated the possibility that his glamorous mother had had an affair with the Great Beast.

Apart from the abundant verse, which poured out of him from his Cambridge days onwards, he is probably most famous for The Wise Wound (1978), a taboo-busting study of menstruation written with Shuttle. Roberts makes clear that the subject was more of an obsession for the husband than the wife. For the rest of his life he plotted his emotions and activities on a "menstrual mandala".

All of this might go under the heading "too much information" were not the poems genuinely groundbreaking. Readers of this biography will continually want to consult the companion publication, a huge Collected Poems edited by Roberts (Cape, £25), which is almost dizzying in its creative plenitude and intellectual scope.

Along the way, Roberts conjures up a host of fascinating literary figures, such as the poets Martin Bell, Jon Silkin and the critic Philip Hobs-baum. The narrow focus can come as a surprise; given that Redgrove knew Sylvia Plath personally, it's strange that her death seems to have left no impact, and the copycat suicide of Hughes's next partner, Assia Wevill, isn't even mentioned. Roberts seems keen to play down the two poets' association, perhaps for fear that mighty Ted might take over.

But there's no chance of that. This is a portrait of a charismatic figure who awed and even frightened people with his crushing gifts; yet Redgrove had a humble side too. Drawn ever deeper into the occult, the venerable writer took a correspondence course in Wicca and submitted essays which were rather condescendingly ticked and marked. Although he soon gave up the course, his lack of ego is endearing. As Roberts shows, he wasn't afraid to look foolish, which gives him a paradoxical grandeur. It certainly makes this biography mind-bogglingly entertaining.

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