7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 17

Forms of discovery

Clive Wilmer

Dr Faust's Sea-Spiral. Spirit Peter Redgrove (Routledge and Kegan Paul. £1.50) The Holly Queen Sally Purcell (Anvil £1.25) Double Flute Richard Burns (Enitharmon Press 85p) Peter Redgrove has been praised for using a scientific education as the basis for his "imaginative exploration of matter ". If it could be shown that he sees scientific method as an analogous with that of I should be inclined to endorse this approval. Precisely What we need at the moment, in my view, is a writer for whom poems are not autonomous and wholly self-justifying, but What Yvcvr Winters called "forms of discovery", penetrative and exploratory. But Reclgrove uses scientific material purely as illustration. Indeed the whole method of Dr Faust's Sea-Spiral Spirit is mere amplification. In the title poem, for example, he begins rather well but, after ten lines or so, he starts armplifying and carries on with detail after gratuitous detail to a paint where any sense of form or precise artitulation just evaporates. It is the method of a whole school of contemporary poets who find formless catalogues an easy substitute.. for properly structured argument. The villain of the piece, alas, is the Ted Hughes of Crow. Redgrove's 'A Taliessin Answer' reads like a parody of Crow, and Hughes's style, somewhat emasculated, ghosts every page of the book: I am the issue of this divine intrusion, My heart beats deep and fast, my teeth Glisten over the swiftnees of my breath, My thoughts hurry like lightning, my voice Is a squeak buried among the rending of mountains. This is just pretentious bombast. And what are we to make of the quieter diction? How about the phrase, "Mute parcels of impending forests ", describing — God help us — a pile of acorns! This is the worst kind of decadent periphasis.

As the passage I h'ave quoted should demonstrate, the versification is as blurred as the content. Generally he uses an endstopped long line that can only be read as prose (and rather primitive prose at that, as the syntax is so crude) unless the reader allows the strong line-end to tense the rhythm. One imagines the latter was intended, but the effect is a kind of monotonous incantation where variety of stress and, hence, all subtlety of meaning are simply annihilated.

After this welter of self-indulgence, Sally Purcell's first book, The Holly Queen, very handsomely produced by the Anvil Press, is a miracle of chaste perfection. Miss Purcell writes in a free verse that occasionally resolves itself into iambic patterns: Allow us, lady, a small time of warmth against the frozen Hand of Glory,

and some few kind illusions kept from summer's wreckage, a brief & sudden breath of flowers in this mortal winter.

This seem to be based on Pound's broken pentameter. The ghostly music of her poetry depends on the firm structural principles that underlie it; they are not rigid principles or even conventional ones, but they serve to determine clarity of form and rhythm.

The above stanza, from the book's opening poem, is the prayer of the creatures of Earth to the goddess Proserpina as she prepares for her autumnal departure. Almost all the poems which follow have mythical themes, often Arthurian, and take place in a time of spiritual winter. They usually deal with a quest for the source and meaning of life which it variously represented as an island or a grove at the centre of a wood. In this needy time, however, the discovery of the sacred place does not lead to renewal but to the clanstral self-worship of art: But this time unreality may win, tapestry and window change places,

and I reach that island where the unicorn dances.

The unicorn of course is a symbol of chastity and perhaps it is the main fault of these poems that they, are so wholly inviolate, Miss Purcell seems toexperience the seclusion as a burden, yet she visibly delights In the Icy splendour of it. The poems are often wildly beautiful, but finally they are gorgeous miniatures with no pathways leading off into our world.

One other flaw merits attention. Miss Purcell's work depends on atmosphere, on the particular aura that a myth generates. She has clearly felt the influence of Jung and of The Golden Bough and, this no doubt matters to her, but it is a fault of artistic taste to allow Circe and Apollo to intrude upon the essentially Northern landscape of Arthurian myth. Indeed, allusion Is generally a weak point; it is often gratuitous and a touch pretentious. The storm in ' Totentanz ', for example, "retired to lurk round a wall,/growling like Grendel ".

Though in style and manner he couldn't be more different, Richard Burns has a lot in common with Sally Purcell. Like her he has learnt much from .hing and from Ezra Pound. Like her too, he is seeking the centre of the wood, though his terms of reference are rather different. For him the poet is an Orpheus who "sings himself" and in so doing penetrates to the primal order of things. He is in quest of the "hidden universal language" tha will give voice to this order, his own poems being in effect translations from it.

Double Flute, his first book, suffers from a fault that afflicts most seekers after universal language — that he sometimes forgets the particular virtues of the language in hand. In his worst poems — the embarrassingly bad ' Noon ' for instance — he is like a violinist who fancies himself as an orchestra. A litle self-irony would not go amiss.

It is perhaps for this reason that he is at his best in simpler, more restricting, more easily apprehensible forms. Readers who feel closest to this kind of poetry will probably admire his ' Actaeon ' most, a spectacular Poundian tour de force. (He is Incidentally, a very accomplished technician, especially in lyric modes). My own preference is for the poems that argue their theme through a simple repeated stanza-form. Best of these are 'The Etruscan Circle' and the title-poem, a marvellous Rilkean meditation on an archaic Greek statue:

He plays himself: there is no other song behind those eyes, half closed in ecstasy, but the same trial through all the ages long, the erring spirit rising over entropy.

This is very fine indeed. Notice how the last line mimes his meaning, the rising Iambic structure eroded by the falling rhythm of the words. There is real talent in this book, but generally his poetry lacks the intensity it lays claim to, because we never seem to get beyond the singer to the meaning of his song, translated or otherwise. There is a void at the heart of these poems. For really he has it both ways. At one moment he is claiming that at the core of things there is a mystery that no words can encompass, and at the next he is trying vainly to do just that, What he lacks is that tact and chastity of speech that would halt the current of his language at the limits of the knowable, leaving the unknown to present itself as a latency.