Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
John Drexel

"What is the Language Using Us For?" 

New Collected Poems by W. S. Graham. Edited by Matthew Francis, with a foreword by Douglas Dunn. Faber & Faber, 2005.

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                        What is the language using us for?

Said Malcolm Mooney moving away

Slowly over the white language. . . . 

So begins the first poem in Implements in Their Places (1977), the last book of new poems William Sydney Graham (1918–1986; Sydney to his friends) published during his lifetime. This late poem served as my belated introduction to Graham when, one damp evening in the autumn of 1978, I think it was, I heard him read on a BBC Radio broadcast. As much as any other of his poems, this one may as well serve as the reader’s introduction to Graham’s work. 

The broadcast was live from London. Listeners were told that Graham had come up to London from his home in Cornwall, where he had lived for many years, largely out of touch with the British metropolitan literary establishment. The sixty-year-old poet spoke with a Scottish accent that, to my ears, seemed unaffected by his earlier years in London and then in Cornwall. (Indeed, his years in Cornwall may well have reinforced Graham’s Celtic identity.). The voice had a sly, whimsical tone, and yet the poems were delivered with the deliberate care of a poet who regarded his work as both high art and serious craft. The poems that it read were altogether different from the comfortable if ironic and understated “Little England” verse that was then the dominant mode in English poetry. Metaphorically rich, Graham’s poems teemed with surrealistic structural twists and unexpected turns of phrase, yet at the same time they could seem coolly formal, controlled, precise, as in “Language Ah Now You Have Me”: 

                        I know about jungles, I know about unkempt places

Flying toward me when I am getting ready

To pull myself together and plot the place

To speak from. I am at the jungle face

Which is not easily yours. It is my home

Where pygmies hamstring Jumbo and the pleasure

Monkey is plucked from the tree. How pleased I am

To meet you reading and writing on damp paper

In the rain forest beside the Madron River. 

(For the record, Madron is the village near Penzance, in Cornwall, where Graham lived; but there is no Madron River, much less a rain forest in the vicinity. The conflating of the real with the imagined is just one characteristic that marks Graham’s work.) Such poems invited the reader to share their secrets, yet at the same time held that reader at arm’s length. Their truths were occasionally literal, almost always metaphorical. These poems not only intrigued me; they got under my skin, and have stayed there ever since. 

The next day I went out to Austick’s bookshop and purchased that slim volume. I was all the more pleased when, a year or so later, Graham’s publisher, Faber & Faber, rewarded readers with a more substantial survey of his work, Collected Poems 1942-77. 

Graham’s biography, it turned out, was almost as curious as the man’s poems. The brief, rather cryptic biographical note inside the front cover of Collected Poems identified him as “a Greenock man” and declared “He served his time as an engineer.” (Greenock is an industrial seaport town near the mouth of the River Clyde, and the main entry port for Glasgow.) He was credited with seven books of poems, four of them published in the 1940s. The poems I had heard him read on the radio, and the poems I discovered in that last book, made me wonder why he hadn’t achieved a wider fame both in Britain and across the Atlantic. Here was someone whose best poems, by virtue of their inventiveness and their linguistic command, to my mind evoked comparisons with the work of Stevens or Montale, and yet he was hardly known. 

The reasons for Graham’s relative neglect—then and even today—lie partly in the poems themselves, partly in the circumstances of their publication and nonpublication, and partly in the stubborn peculiarities of Graham’s character and his almost deliberately unlucky career. Reading through the body of his work, one might sense undercurrents of self-doubt about what he was doing—was he to be a neoromantic, a surrealist, or a high modernist?—yet at the same time the poems clearly were the product of a single-minded determination. Throughout his lifetime, Graham strove to make and remake himself as a poet while always aiming to produce a poetry that might communicate at the deepest level, if only to a single reader. As he put it in “The Thermal Stair," his moving elegy for his friend the painter Peter Lanyon, “The poet or painter steers his life to main // Himself somehow for the job. His job is Love / Imagined into words or paint to make / An object that will stand and will not move.” 

An “engineer” Graham once might have been by trade, but he was, most of all, a makar by vocation. A poet in hiding, he traveled (to borrow his own idiom) in the disguise of language. To begin, briefly (and necessarily simplistically), for the benefit of those for whom Graham is still terra incognita, with a biographical outline: Born into a working-class family in a Greenock tenement, Graham did indeed “serve his time” as an apprentice engineer (that most Scottish of occupations) in the Greenock shipyards during his teens before attending, in 1938, the newly established Newbattle Abbey College, an adult education center on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where he studied literature and philosophy. Newbattle may have been a far cry from the Oxford of Auden and Spender and MacNeice, but for Graham it evidently served its purpose. (Incidentally, it was at Newbattle that Edwin Muir later tutored the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, a poet even more reclusive than Graham.) Soon thereafter, in Glasgow, he met David Archer, publisher and patron of Dylan Thomas, George Barker, and David Gascoyne, among others. Archer added Graham to his stable of bohemian notables and introduced him to Thomas the man, to whom Graham can be said to have hitched his star. For a while Graham lived in Glasgow as a recipient of Archer’s largesse, albeit in conditions of near poverty. It may be not insignificant that among his collection of reading material at the time was a pamphlet edition of Joyce’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle.” 

Glasgow, however, was no literary hotbed. Sometime around the beginning of the Second World War, Graham fled Scotland, spending the next fifteen years in a somewhat peripatetic existence. In London (see the poem “The Night City,” which recounts his arrival there) he frequented Thomas’s bohemian circle; one can easily imagine him traipsing among Soho’s pubs with Thomas and other boon companions. He spent part of World War II in Ireland (his mother’s family was Irish) in order to evade military service and, perhaps emulating D. H. Lawrence’s experience in the earlier world war, also made his first foray into Cornwall, where he took shelter in a caravan. His first book, Cage Without Grievance, was published by Archer in 1942. This was followed in short order by The Seven Journeys (1944) and the mistitled 2nd Poems (1945). After the war, an Atlantic Award brought Graham to the United States, where he taught briefly at New York University (1947-48)—his only stint as an academic. 

The White Threshold (1949) marked the high point of his recognition up to that time. Graham’s work had come to the attention of T. S. Eliot, who accepted the manuscript for Faber & Faber. It was also the first book of Graham’s to appear in the United States, where it was issued in a handsome edition by Grove Press. Graham’s true breakthrough, however—signaling his complete transition from Dylan Thomas acolyte to self-made modernist—came in 1955, when Faber published The Nightfishing. The title poem, along with “Seven Letters,” should have sealed his reputation as a major poet, if only anyone had noticed. However, another slim volume published by Faber that same year created more of a stir and quickly overshadowed Graham’s work, and indeed signaled a striking shift in the dominant mode of British poetry—a shift that mitigated against Graham’s own chosen path. That book, Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, heralded the Movement—a movement whose aesthetic precepts were antithetical to Graham’s own, and with which Graham’s nature did not allow him to compromise. For the next twenty years or more, it was almost as if British poetry could not allow enough room for both Larkin and Graham. 

That very year, Graham moved out of the limelight as quickly as he had moved into it. He exchanged London for the Penwith district of Cornwall—the farthest reaches of the remote peninsular county at the southwest tip of England, more than three hundred miles from the capital. His motive presumably was financial as well as creative; one could then live in Cornwall very cheaply as well as unconventionally. As for the benefits to his poetry: The Cornish landscape and seascape provided a strange and stimulating contrast to the industrial backdrop that had informed his early life in Greenock. With his wife Nessie Dunsmuir, whom he had known since his days at Newbattle Abbey, he settled (if it can be called that) near St. Ives, where his closest companions came to be not other poets but many of the leading painters of the St. Ives School, including Lanyon, Roger Hilton, and Bryan Wynter. Graham had found his milieu, and one might have thought, he was truly on his way. In a way, he was; but the full evidence of that would not be noticed for another decade and a half. The Nightfishing proved to be his last book for fifteen years. Although he continued, intermittently, to publish poems in literary magazines, he seemed to vanish from the British poetry scene. So completely did he lose touch with the London literary establishment—or rather, did they lost touch with him—that, when they were asked about him sometime in the sixties, his former publishers at Faber are said to have replied that they believed he had died. 

At this point, it is tempting to speculate that had Graham indeed died after The Nightfishing, or had he simply stopped writing, or, perhaps worse, continued writing in the same vein as he had done in the 1940s, today he probably would be remembered, if at all, as the author of “The Nightfishing” and a handful of other poems; as merely one of a large and largely ignored handful of briefly luminous poets of the New Apocalypse (such as Nicholas Moore, his exact contemporary, who indeed ceased writing after that decade), sandwiched (as it were) between the first flourishing of the Auden generation of the 1930s and the Movement. As it is, even in his posthumous life Graham has had to struggle for wider recognition. 

But although he seemingly went to ground in Cornwall, Graham did not stop writing. And, for all his difficulties, he most certainly did not die. Rather, he entirely remade his style, ignoring prevalent fashions and producing a unique body of modernist poems that address questions of language, identity, friendship, love, the relation between the living and the dead—poems that comprise the two last books he would publish during his lifetime, Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970) and Implements in Their Places (1977). The steady and determined advocacy of Michael Schmidt, Harold Pinter, and the late Robin Skelton, among others, and of painters in Cornwall (notably Michael Snow, who has served Graham well as his literary executor), helped bring Graham at last a measure of close attention and meaningful acclaim in the years before his death. In the 1990s, the posthumous publication of two more small collections (Uncollected Poems, 1990, and Aimed at Nobody, 1993), along with a major celebration of his life and work at the Ilkley Literature Festival, and increased academic and critical attention, have all served to rescue Graham from neglect. Yet in spite of all this, and perhaps even in spite of Matthew Francis’s definitive edition of his work, Graham’s poetry remains an acquired taste. And my own inquiries indicate that he still seems to be almost unknown in the United States.           

            In Under Briggflats: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-1980, one of the Movement’s high priests and prime exemplars, Donald Davie, proves an unlikely and generous champion, paying high tribute to Graham and his accomplishment when he notes that “a following is what a writer has when he has not achieved a public. And in the 1970s a following is all that twenty or thirty years of devoted and distinguished work had brought to Geoffrey Hill and W. S. Graham, Roy Fisher and Charles Tomlinson, C. H. Sisson and Jack Clemo.” If in the first decade of the 2000s Graham is more widely read than Fisher, Clemo, or Sisson, he is still a poet with a following, not a public. 


*  * 

                        What is the language using us for?

                        It uses us all and in its dark

                        Of dark actions selections differ.

 The poems that originally appeared in Malcolm Mooney’s Land and Implements, along with others uncollected during his lifetime and included in the first complete Collected, some twenty years after his death, give Graham claim to be regarded as a major figure among the late modernist poets. 

            What, then, of the poems themselves? Graham himself evidently retained a fondness for his early poems (and Francis has reinstated those that were not included in Collected Poems 1942-1977), and he might have taken exception to the view held by more than one critic, myself included, that his work is best approached in reverse—that is, by first reading his late poems and working back toward his early ones. The critic Calvin Bedient, writing in Eight Contemporary Poets (1974), after the publication of Malcolm Mooney’s Land but before Implements, expressed doubt about those late poems, claiming that “Graham has gone from strangeness to strangeness, in fact has become even stranger, like a troll dragging us farther into the forest.” Bedient seemed uncomfortable with Graham’s self-consciousness, the thematic narrowing and the increasing obsessiveness of his writing. But having lived with these poems for nearly thirty years now, I would argue that they seem more and more to be his finest, most important work. 

Grahams’s early poems might be read as the products of a highly romantic imagination overwhelmed by the excitement of his discovery that he is a poet. He luxuriates in a Stevensian music, as in “O Gentle Queen of the Afternoon,” an exquisite miniature comprising three five-line stanzas, in which “the dawn is rescued dead and risen” and where “No daylight comet ever breaks / On so sweet an archipelago / As love on love.” Not unexpectedly, many of Graham’s early poems read like deliberate imitations of Dylan Thomas. But, less expectedly, one also often clearly detects the presence of Gerard Manley Hopkins. (“You should hear me read ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland,’” Graham once wrote to Harold Pinter late in his life.) His debt to Hopkins, conflated with his uncritical adoration of Thomas, is obvious in this stanza from “Three Poems of Drowning”: 

                        Now endured sea-martyrdom crucified by the soldier sea,

Hoisted high to nails, crowned over the inventing host

And stuck through hammering, his all grief well over

The moneychanging, manfed water; he has left me

Changed by the stampede side of foam swept through. 

And in this one: 

Now in these seas, my talk of the foam-holy voyages

Charted in a bead of blood, I work. I answer

Across the dark sea’s raging bridges of exchange

Proclaiming my own fought drowning, as loud laid under.

All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home. 

In such passages, more typical than not of his poetry of the 1940s, even at the end of a decade’s worth of practice of writing poems, Graham’s love of the sheer sounds of words still overwhelms his concern for their sense. The poet drowns himself in a sea of words, and revels in the pleasure of that sensation, seemingly scarcely aware or caring that the reader may not care to follow. 

Yet even in this torrent of words, seduced by music and letting sound outpace sense, freighting his lines with archaic diction and convoluted syntax, Graham nonetheless displays a fine awareness of cadence and a talent for memorable phrase-making. From his earliest poems onward, his ear is subtly attuned to the possibilities of assonance and alliteration, internal rhyme, the shape and structure of the poem: “Of the resonant rumour of sun, impulse of summer, / My bride is born.” 

Early on, too, Graham discovered the device, prevalent in his later poems, of beginning a poem in medias res with a familiar command to his reader: “Listen. Put on morning. / Waken into falling light.” Listen (the appeal to the ear) and light (the appeal to the eyes) are words that recur in his poems throughout his oeuvre, along with their opposites, silence and dark (or, often, night). Flawed and dated as his 1940s poems may now seem, they were essential and necessary to Graham as he worked to become the poet he was to become. 

            The title poem of The Nightfishing is widely, and properly, considered Graham’s first major achievement. Some readers may tire of its relentless evocation of keels and gunwales and scuppers, its interpolation of realistic detail and philosophical musings, but one can easily see why it appealed to the Eliot of the Four Quartets. The poem has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I’ll merely commend it to the reader and move on. 

Without in any way slighting “The Nightfishing,” I would argue that more pertinent to an understanding of the great poems of his late period is “Seven Letters,” which also appeared in the same book. For in writing the poems comprising this sequence, Graham found the key to his great theme: the intimacy of private address regarding private matters, the difficulty of connecting perfectly with another person through the imperfect medium of language. 

“Letter II,” for example, begins in a manner whose traits are characteristic of his late poems: 

                        Burned in this element

                        To the bare bone, I am

                        Trusted on the language

                        I am to walk to you

                        Through the night and through

                        Each word you make between

                        Each word I burn bright in

                        On this wide reach. 

There is, for example, the launching directly into the poem in the middle of things, without any preliminary scene setting or explanation of context. Lines end on unconventional line breaks that would be assailed in a creative writing workshop. (No doubt certain readers are irritated by Graham’s occasional practice, elsewhere, of breaking multisyllabic words unexpectedly across two lines.) Note too the unusual weight that Graham gives to prepositions—to, through, between, in, on—often, again against conventional strictures, ending the line with the preposition. Here and throughout Graham’s late work, it is prepositions that define the relationship between writer and reader, I and you. And, most of all, there is the obsession with language and speech, the determination to make the poem a stay against the silence of death. 


*  *  *

                        What is the language using us for?

What shape of words shall put its arms

Round us for more than pleasure? 

Graham’s public emergence from his long silence in Malcolm Mooney’s Land came under the aegis of the Poetry Book Society. The book was the society’s Choice in the spring of that year, and Graham provided a useful if characteristically cryptic aid to the reader in the way of several numbered observations he wrote for the Poetry Society Bulletin that accompanied it. Number one was the declaration that “Thoughts of the process of making poetry are often the subject of my poems although I hope the poem is left standing in its own right apart from any take-awayable message the reader might discover.” Graham next confessed “I happen to feel most alive when I am trying to write poetry. So here I am battering against the door in case there might be somebody behind it.” 

And perhaps most tellingly, he admitted: 

I am always aware that my poem is not a telephone call. The poet only speaks one way. He hears nothing back. His words as he utters them are not conditioned by a real ear replying from the other side. That is why he has to make the poem stand stationary as an Art object. He never knows who will collide with it and maybe even use it as a different utensil from what he intended. Yet because I am human, I hope I am in it somewhere. 

          (In a letter to Robin Skelton in December 1972, he wrote: “What a mysterious, unsubstantial business it is, writing poetry. After one finishes a poem which seems to work one says Ha Ha now I’ll write another because I know how to do it but it is not so. There is the silence before one just as difficult to disturb significantly as before. What one has learned is inadequate against the new silence presented.”) 

Graham’s repeated question “What is the language using us for?” may serve as a prime example of the way in which, time after time, Graham’s poetry reverses expectations. Graham’s way of writing is conditioned by his way of looking, his way of questioning experience. Although their diction is leaner, plainer, and far more conversational than that of his early poems, the late poems paradoxically make few, if any, concessions to the general reader. Graham addresses the particular reader—often a particular reader—and scorns the notion of an interested audience for whom the poet is expected to tailor his verse in order to become “accessible.” For the general reader unwilling to meet Graham more than halfway, the result is bafflement or dismissal: the poet is merely playing games, deliberately thumbing his nose at the reader; at their least successful, certain poems (the seventy-four-section “Implements in Their Places,” for example) might come across as exercises in virtuosity. “What is the language using us for?” indeed. 

          In Graham’s elegies and letter poems, the reader attuned to Graham’s method may have the sensation of eavesdropping on a private conversation, catching some words but missing others. One is forced to fill gaps by guessing at references, contexts, unspoken confidences. The reader is aware that the lacunae in the poem are significant pointers to what is happing inside the poem, and that what happens outside the poem, unknown to the reader, is of importance to the poet in the making of the poem. Poems such as the two addressed to Norman Macleod can seem hermetic, solipsistic, self-conscious, and self-referential: “Norman, you could probably make / This poem better than I can. / Except you are not here,” he writes in “Sgurr na Gillean Macleod,” whose Gaelic title itself may strike one as an affectation. But such poems are almost always redeemed by moments of sheer beauty, as in this verse: 

                        I row. I dip my waterbright blades

Into the loch and into silence

                        And pull and feather my oars and bright

Beads of the used water of light

Drip off astern to die

And mix with the little whirling pools

Over the sea to Skye. 

One can see why Graham has been called a poet of place (by Douglas Dunn in the introduction to New Collected Poems, and by others elsewhere and in different contexts). But that statement needs qualification. Graham is never merely descriptive or pictorial. He writes from or in a particular place rather than about place. To borrow from a title of one of his celebrated later poems, a particular location to which he may refer is not so much a setting as a constructed space, one in which the poet attempts communication with a particular (never a general) reader. Location is not just a place in itself, but a metaphor through which Graham addresses the problem of dislocation. 

Graham’s concept of place may include particulars of landscape and weather, but it is not weather and landscape as Edward Thomas conceived it. The reader should not be surprised when the places encountered in a Graham poem are stylized and metaphorical, remote from everyday settings. “If this place I write from is real then / I must be allegorical. Or maybe / The place and myself are both the one side of the allegory,” he declares in “Clusters Travelling Out.” Prominent among his allegorical settings are the arctic icescapes of “Malcolm Mooney’s Land,” “The jungle of mistakes of communication” in “Language Ah Now You Have Me.” 

Yet, early and late (especially late), actual place names abound throughout his poems—particularly those of local places in the Scotland of his youth (such as One Hope Street, the address of his childhood home in Greenock; Cartsburn Street and the Cartsburn Vaults) and of the western reaches of Cornwall where he lived the last thirty years of his life. The exotic-sounding Gurnard’s Head and Zennor, and the names of derelict tin mines and of Neolithic formations that are part of the landscape in that part of Cornwall and that sound both improbable and highly musical. (And one can imagine Graham’s delight in the remarkable coincidence of the Neolithic dolmen called Lanyon Quoit and the name Peter Lanyon, a coincidence he gracefully works into “The Thermal Stair.”) Whether they be familiar or exotic, Graham always uses place names and geographic locations with a kind of unassuming nonchalance, trusting that the reader will not require a Baedeker to pinpoint and visualize the scene. “You know I live now / In Madron,” he writes to an unnamed reader in “Are You Still There?” “I ran down Gray’s Inn Road,” he remembers in “The Night City.” “I hear you have been endangering vessels / Off the Mull of Kintyre,” he says in “Surrealgraphs.” And when, in “About the Stuff,” he sites himself on “the hill / Above Zennor” and then says “I think I must / Get up out of the humming hill / Side and go down for a conflagrating / Pint of the Tinner’s cold ale,” he expects that you will know exactly where he is and where he is going and why. (Matthew Francis includes some helpful although not comprehensive notes to assist the reader who might be puzzled by Graham’s allusions to specific places and people and by his use of certain dialect words.) 

            I have scarcely touched upon the greatest poems of Graham’s late period, and thus, his most perfect achievements. Much already has been written elsewhere of his elegies “The Thermal Stair,” “Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch,” and “Dear Bryan Wynter,” as well as his private letter poems, such as that to Robin Skelton, “How Are the Children Robin.” He addresses his dead father in “To Alexander Graham” and, with heartbreaking tenderness, his favorite cousin from childhood, Brigit, in “The Greenock Dialogues.” Most moving of all in this vein are the delicate and disarmingly simple love poems for Nessie, “I Leave This at Your Ear” and “To My Wife at Midnight.” And of course one must single out the stand-alone poem sequence “Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons,” a meditation in the form of a dramatic monologue on the artist’s relationship with his art and his audience that belongs in all anthologies of modern poetry and that alone ought to ensure his place in the canon. 

            Will W. S. Graham ever gain more than a following and win a wide audience? I doubt it. But, as he would have recognized, that is not the point. He might not even have wanted an audience, but rather, simply a hearing. His poems need only one reader at a time. Will that reader be you?


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