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Peter Riley reviews

W.S. Graham, New Collected Poems
edited by Matthew Francis

Faber. Hardback, xxiv+390pp. £25.00 RRP. ISBN 0-571-21015-5


Things went on in British poetry around 1940 which have yet to come fully to light. Most of them can be traced back to Dylan Thomas in the 1930s, who at the age of sixteen was seeing his way towards a development of metaphor-based poetry which pushed figuration beyond the bounds of rational location, and set up poetry as a meta-language, something which, like a painting or sculpture, uses materials of the world to create an entity which stands independently, and which rather than a commentary on or reflection of, is ‘an addition to the world’ (Graham c.1945).

Thomas’s own reputation since the 1950s has obscured this. He has remained popular but largely on the strength of poems which do not fully evince this development, while Graham’s early work, which grasps the issue and carries it further, has remained little read. The principal condition is that perception is arrested at the surface of the poem — not permanently, and not damagingly, as is likely to be the case now where this arrest is cultivated, as it is widespread. The halt at the linguistic surface eradicates anecdote or reportage, but allows perception to infiltrate an imaginative space. Such may well be considered a commonplace of the study of poetry, the usual and best way of reading (say) an Elizabethan sonnet, or Keats or Hardy aside from the journalistic or subjectivising option. “Pastoral” is a word for it, and some version or some recognition of poetry’s fictive base is surely rarely absent from serious consideration, especially of pre-18th Century poetry. But at this particular juncture of mid-Century Britain the imaginative space to which the reader gains access is, perhaps for the first time, imbued with the features of the barrier, by which the figures of language, while retaining traces of their representative function, become themselves objects of attention performing their own acts and creating their own theatre without becoming fixed as symbols. A “constructed space” (Graham, poem title c1955) is formed which becomes fragmented and multi-faceted, in which the author’s space and the spaces of the world are cast against each other without being conciliated into a depiction. Access to it is partial or momentary, and the degree of visibility may vary along the course of a poem between transparency and complete closure. You might often call it a tantalising space, but the movement of the text is so emotively bonded by urgency of address and poetic artifice that we are transfixed before this restless surface where metaphors of body, earth and language mix and collide with each other such that we cannot, will not, and no longer want to, know exactly “where we are” in depictive, narrative or intellectual senses.

It is a remarkable development. Thomas himself was moving from symbolism into something he hardly reckoned with, and his course was wayward, at any time liable to veer back towards degrees of transparency, as in his most popular poems (and there is no reason to think of them as inferior). But there are comments from him as early as 1936 expressing his own semi-comprehending amazement at what he was doing, as something he felt driven to. He referred to one of his most difficult poems as a closed bag which the reader cannot open, but recognises the “worth” of what it contains (see Collected Poems 1988 edition p.210). This is an early recognition of the value of closure, of the poem as a parietal construct which the reader does not have to see “through” but contemplates for its own sake. But if there is “worth” there must be exchange, and the signal recognition of this British phase might be that the closure of the poem brought with it an immense opening, an offer of wider and nobler spaces than any reportage could reach, that it actually cast the poem out into the world itself, empowered by the authenticity of linguistic experience, the real transfer from the person direct. That the constructed space freed the poem from the constructed person.

It was also, in the hands of Thomas and a number of others, an attempt to re-enrich the texture of British poetry following the slow decline of “romantic” modes into charm or mock simplicity, without the abandoning of formal coherence and ancestral continuity implied by the intervention of developed modernism. It was to some degree produced under threat, for probably there has always been an easy poetry, vers de société, lurking underneath what is worth doing at any time, but in the British 1930s and renewed in the 1950s it was claiming the fortress of poetry, and gained it, and has held it ever since in this country.


Graham was a latecomer to these events. Before his first book appeared (1942) Thomas’s way of writing (with other derivations) had spread and developed among a number of British poets, some of whom were part of the “New Apocalypse” grouping, though Graham in some respects took it back to source. It had by 1940 become a clearly identified position in poetry, increasingly seen as an extremist one, as the far left in a dichotomising politics of poetry which ran through the later 1940s, and it was so incessantly and viciously attacked in poetical journalism that by the 1950s it seemed to cave in under the pressure. But in the first years of the 1940s it was a flourishing concern and Graham leaped wholeheartedly into it with no holds barred, producing poetical texts which probably have not been rivalled since for sheer head-banging impenetrability, or at any rate not until quite recently. Multiple mixed metaphors proliferate until there is no ground whatsoever under the reader, syntactical functions become precarious, sound and vision seem to rule over anything else the poem might bear. And the challenge to transmission is rendered all the more severe by an articulated rhetoric of extended address, an at times Miltonic breath building clauses up into verse paragraphs, a Jacobean sense of high-flown dramatic monologue. Not only are we faced with impossible figurations, we also don’t have time to pause. —

Even the harlequin at blithe meridian
Snared at her elbow furred with a driven frost
Takes my wind’s feathering dagger of crystal North
Over his legendary silt of brain.
His twelfth day dies. He herds peninsulas of dark
Brings round his sky the straying seeds of stars.
They roost in minnow-crossing circuses above his land.
And I move under climbing the coral sins
Their charmed way branching from his clown-bonny cairns
And stitch my floral spectre on his proud cataract
That spins the cascade-turning mills on his moral glade
And drains to farthest outlines of his vaulted fable.               (p.5)

and yet at the same time —

O gentle queen of the afternoon
Wave the last orient of tears.
No daylight comet ever breaks
On so sweet an archipelago
As love on love.               (p.18)

which is really no easier but seems not to need unravelling, because at inhabits the ecstasis of song.

But one important thing to note about this mostly very difficult poetic mode as practised by Graham and to some extent Thomas before him, is that there is no sense of subversion about it. It is not an act of protest, it is not mocking or deconstructing any official or authoritarian public usage, it is distinct from normality but not at war with it. Certainly with Graham it is conceived in a purer sense, as the language formed out of the meeting or confrontation of personal and impersonal spheres, the self and the earth in action within each other, and the only true speech of that theatre. It does not have any direct relationship with state power and it removes itself almost entirely from the mechanisms of political and structural regency. Indeed the tone is dominantly optimistic, confident, and bright, while acknowledging the full force of resistance. The juxtaposition and fusion of far-fetched images, the constant mutual displacement of concrete and abstract terms, and the full-throated music of it, bear a sense of the exploration of human experience rather than a critique of commercial or cultural falsity — the poet is not concerned with the false world at all; the authentic one entirely occupies him.

With Thomas himself the great screen of figured language is usually erected before a very basic comprehension of the somatic condition. Birth sex and death are the principal realities or events behind the obscurity of the text, to the extent that a theme such as “Death will get us all in the end” or “Sexual drive impels us” seems to underlie most of the poems. There is thus some element of subversion in the enterprise, of referring through the welter of metaphor to basic conditions of bodily existence which are concealed or set aside by everyday discourses. As this mode passed into the war years 1939-45 in the hands of newcomers (though mostly no younger than Thomas himself, who started very early) there is, understandably no doubt, an increasing sense of menace in the structure, as if the violent figurations disclose an uncontrollable sinister substratum. There is an inference too, of the poetry as a response to history in the present tense, to the current situation, figuring the horrors of the subconscious which generate the horrors of war. It is no longer the human biology or nervous system as such which the poetry engages with, but its aberration or perversion in a theologically fallen condition. We may in fact locate here an originary site of one of the great unproven dogmas of much contemporary experimentalist poetry: that there is an inverse causative connection between broken or distorted language and a broken or distorted body politic, and that by perpetuating the one you defy the other. I am thinking here of poets such as Dorian Cooke, J.F. Hendry, Thomas Goode, but not of other “New Apocalypse” associates such as Nicholas Moore who had no such inclinations. As far as I can see, Graham was the only poet taking up the post-Thomas style after 1939 who bore not a trace of this kind of diagnostic motivation, and never had anything to do with such historical opportunism. For him the historical moment of the poem was supplied by history through the authenticity of the record the poet maintained, and not subject to manipulation.

His earliest surviving extended work is The Seven Journeys (written 1941–2, published 1944) which would have been a remarkable début had he not published later writing earlier, in his first book, published in 1942. It is a valuable feature of this new edition that this work is made available for the first time since its original publication. Although the reader’s lockjaw occasioned by the sheer (intermittent) impossibility of the text may be the immediate concern, equally apparent is the wide scope of the enterprise: a series of seven “journeys” (the word “spiritual” inevitably creeps in here uninvited) — journeys of the soul, mapped as tumbling word-rapids, which establish the thematics of all his major works, and informally the ethics of his entire modality. It is all to do with quest, hope, adventure, in which all personally liveable departments of the human enterprise are implicated in a process of journey and return, the whole figuring love in its largest senses. And increasingly through his career, it is not a singular enterprise but an adventure of the multiple self, deeply engaged with paradox: every move forward is a return, every revealing is a concealment, every action is passive, every birth is into a death. And the condition of writing, or writing poetry, is itself the total embodiment of this paradoxical theatre of action and suspension.

Even when you cannot read a work such as this (and let’s not beat about the bush — these early works cannot be read in any normal sense of the word, and there is no recourse to theories of subliminal absorption) you can still gain a sense of what is involved, what is behind the text, which with Thomas is, as I said, something like a basic underground somatic scenario. With Graham it is more personal and less archetypal, more intellectual, and more deeply involved in a sense of totality, and it is held in a constantly dignified and calm measure even as it passes through quite riotous image fields. Each of the seven journeys has certain presiding images but it is nevertheless quite difficult to get any differentiation and each quest tends to end up as some kind of super-metaphorised sexual venture which reaches its climax and is returned from in triumph and/ or despair — this is certainly the Thomas inheritance. The most valuable sense to be gained from the writing is that even when the connectives escape you entirely, they can be sensed to be the outcome of careful consideration (whether meticulous or instantaneous) because the language does, if only just, cohere as language. That is to say, an entire aesthetics of language seems to be at work aside from sense (or within the torrential release of excess sense) which indicates a calm, and a concern, however perceived. This can be left as an intuitively recognised quality, but I believe there are very few moments in this poetry where it cannot be confirmed by careful explication. As with Thomas (according to his claim) the figures are not just intuitively released into the text (a laxity which he called “surrealism”) but ‘must go through the rational process of the intellect’. It is easy to receive a sense of impossibility from the text, but the recourse against this is to question every word of the poem one by one, as indeed you are invited to, and this questioning should get answered. So if it works, the figures are just, and can be worked into an understanding with a great deal of patient application. They can be referred to a sense of the real, which should also be available without constant halting in an intuitive recognition of the validity of the figurations as aesthetic constructs. Perception, halted at language, engages with percepts disconnected by language from any contingency, but still grounded on the human/ earthly condition and accessible to recognition. The sequence ends

The eye is a lake. The sky is Neptune hovering.
May was my law. Nineteen fortytwo.          (p.13)

Whether we are mystified or not there is a mastery here which there can be no doubting. So that actually, we are not mystified. Each of these four formulations holds a truthful movement of the mind within it instantly confirmed, each holds a story that we know. The question lies in the conjoining of the stories and here at any rate, for a short space, that total also is a story that we have lived. The last two words are the only kind of dalliance with “history” that Graham permits himself. (The making of forty two or forty-two into one word is typical of the meticulous detail worked into every grain of the writing, the interpretation of which remains open — whether it merely fulfils a cadential function and maintains an apartness from the prosaic, or evokes a pun on “fortitude”, or whatever.)

This big pseudo-narrative work in some ways defeats itself. Its revelatory moments or clusters, such as the above quoted, are intermittent and tend to detach themselves from the structure. But the early shorter poems up to about 1945, published in his first and third books, encapsulate his initial creativity again and again in meticulous and often serene conception without any concessions to explanation. There is also a fair dose of youth, obstinately refusing to relinquish its idiolects, as Graham never did to the end. But even the most turgid confection of declaimed over-reach is full of moments of startling clarity which tend to hang suspended in the poem like lights — ‘Man and woman / Lie at their best, lifeline crossed on lifeline.’ (p.80) — each adequate to itself and yet bearing a part in an argument or narrative or scene which may or may not be fully realisable to the reader. Generally they are, but they demand work of an almost collaborative kind; those who sit before the text demanding to be fed “exactly what he’s going on about” will get nowhere.

It is not a development of modernism, but a development of poetry. I don’t think Graham saw what he was doing as radically different from the creation of a Shakespeare sonnet or a Donne elegy. Various modern tendencies (imagism, surrealism, Hopkins, Sitwells, Joyce, etc.) might have led through Thomas to Graham’s work in the 1940s, but the central textual condition is an intensification of what any poetry seeks which doesn’t set out to be prosaic. As with Thomas the first person singular dominates, and is in a sense restored to poetry following a great deal of evasive construction of fictional personae in the early 20th Century, but it stands as a narrative entity, refusing to be reduced to a biographical construct while remaining the guarantor of authenticity, and the poem sets out into personally lived experience so configured that the act of creation encompasses an entire artifice of the world, all its various images and terminologies abandoning their discrete habitations and reaching and qualifying each other across rational boundaries. Words dislocated from normality and certainty are attracted to each other by their sonorities and implications, and become able to meet each other for the first time — the petrol passover..., eyes wheelwrighting..., crowbar struck light becomes the hooligan..., the lettering sand that she walks and reads..., the seesaw scupper beds..., over the scalp of the whisper..., the gean trees drive me to love... (phrases from 2ND Poems (1945)). It is a function of song, to cast words into reciprocal relationships with each other so that felicities of sense emerge as if by accident from echoic couplings or rhythmic movement, and if Graham’s texts do this in a particularly far-fetched way, it is nevertheless the same process. For what Thomas called ‘the rational process of the intellect’ is still it work, and the more rhapsodic the writing the more thought is actually involved in the text’s conjunctions, and the resulting acts of (however far sought) recognition.

The risk also has to be taken, that recognition will not be gained, and indeed sometimes a deliberate obstruction of recognition is made in order to maintain poetical distance. In the full extent of a poem (and in the better poems) the entire chemistry resulting from this continual interplay of access and denial realises a suspended or abstract condition, the “constructed space” of the poem, where percepts going out towards the world collide with forces coming from the world, where the language of the human venture collides with its contrary, the language of the world’s resistance heading towards the speaking eyes like a reader. ‘This is,’ as one commentator aptly put it, ‘a spooky poetry.’

It is an interior/ exterior scenario perhaps best thought of as a form of meditation, in which the condition of song gains access to a large condition of unfolding paradox. There are real personal events or discoveries behind each poem, they can be sensed, but from the start the condition of language has worked them into their contraries, each wish into its denial and/ or fulfilment. The reciprocity of words confirms the reciprocity of experience in love, as of poet and reader, man and woman, eye and landscape, across a vast and dangerous divide or sea called difficulty or otherness or resistance. Always there is a venture out into this risk, marked by the hesitance and assurance of a syntax which both holds the words together and lets them loose on each other — in some ways a grand rhetoric but also delicately disjuncted so that no move or image can quite be held to a singular function. And the venture out meets its return as a thing already known, beyond success or failure, as the poet’s percepts are delivered back to him by the poem as unknowns, and he ceases from the start to be the person who lived the event. It is a process already intact before a move is made, and a headlong venture into the unknown every time. It is at once elliptical and open — ‘Writing this so quietly writes of itself.’ ‘We fall down darkness in a line of words.’ (pp.43, 27)


It is important to come to grips with Graham’s achievement in his first five years of writing, because it established a kind of technical certainty which never left him, while his subsequent work took a possibly unexpected course.

If you participate in an “avant-garde”, if you conceive of what you do as “ahead” or “advanced”... but did he? I know of nothing from Graham, or Thomas or Hendry or Cooke or any of them at that time, which said “We are in the lead”. That didn’t seem to be the point, and what they did was not in opposition to some retrograde or retarded activity elsewhere, but was a self-validating venture into unexplored territory as an extension of the long history of poetry. But it is nevertheless a “forward” position, stepped out from social discourses, and if you do occupy such a position presumably you cannot stay still. You must continue to progress. And that should mean the writing getting more and more the way it is — the development and intensification of all its most resilient features: multi-mixed metaphor eliding into irrational metonymy, syntax breaking further and further apart until the search for any cohering connectivity has to be abandoned... all this kind of thing, would have to have been pursued. In fact nobody did this. It is (or was until recently) very difficult to know how this could have been done or where it would have led. But even among those who had only been “very slightly contemporary” the process through the 40s and 50s was one of normalisation.

The reasons for this are difficult to know. One of them was certainly the end of the war and the return of institutional normalities. Another may have been the power of literary journalism, which has always been loud in Britain, especially when allied with the intervention of the academy, which began in the 1930s with Leavis but suffered a second wave in the 1950s, mainly in the figure of Donald Davie. The restoration of 18th Century norms in poetry was vigorously pursued with results which persist to this day. What after all were Larkin and The Movement but a denial of the effusive ethics of poetry from 1795 onwards, in favour of “This is what life is really like” as if anyone thought for a second of representing observable “life”. Graham and Thomas knew perfectly well that “life” was like that, if you nominated it thus, which is why they went elsewhere.

But whatever effect the increasingly combative climate of post-war Britain had on most 1940s poets, I feel that Graham separated himself from that, and his course was neither reactive nor concessive. Certainly his poetry changed: normalisation, simplification, clarification, accessibility or whatever you want to call it — Graham’s poetry from before 1945 to the end of his life got easier and easier to read. By the 1970s (which is a long time — it was a slow and complicated development) in reading most of his poems we at once know exactly where we are and possibly even “what he’s going on about”. There is even sometimes an extreme plainness of diction and lack of allusion far beyond what the exponents of prosaic poetry such as Larkin would permit themselves, with none of that arch deployment of spoken tropes, nor the actually quite sophisticated mode of empirical representation through the novelistic other which Movement poets cultivated. Instead, there are stark simplicities.

But at no point is this felt as a retraction. It is rather a progress and a development of what he had already done. As far as he was concerned it was a forward continuation of his exploration into poetry and he was insistent that the earlier work was not superseded. He particularly refused to agree that his poetry had become “clearer” — the first poems were, from what we might call the poetical viewpoint, perfectly clear. Nor was it a reaction to adverse criticism or a desire to be better known. The process can be observed in progress before 1945, at which time there was no need for such moves — the post-war divide and subsequent poetical right-wing coups had not begun. There were of course attacks but Graham’s early poems were accepted by quite large circulation periodicals such as Horizon, Life and Letters, Windmill and Graham had no cause to feel himself inhabiting an insurgent or terrorist cell. The poetical climate through the 1940s maintained a generous attitude towards difference and experiment which has since been demolished. When T.S. Eliot accepted Graham’s The White Threshold for Faber in 1949 the texture of a lot of the poetry was still quite forbidding. 1250 copies were printed. A British poet now operating in a kindred mode would be lucky to see 100 copies reach readers’ hands. There undoubtedly was a wish for better acceptance nationally, and for some sort of income from his writing, for he was living most of the time in poverty, but there was no compromise to these ends. The process of normalisation was clearly Graham’s chosen course of adventure for the enrichment for his poetry.

And however much Graham’s poetry espoused a new plainness, a reduction in figurisation, regularisation of syntax etc., the original poetical conception was not abandoned. In characterising Graham’s early work above, I have tried as much as possible to do so in terms which would also be relevant to his middle and late work, in spite of the eventually great distance between them in manner. This is not always possible, but in many ways there is a constancy. Even in the starkly simple phrases which increasingly populate the poems there are always factors of suspension and irresolution, that sense of the world’s resistance to language built into language. And there is never some person chatting to you about himself and complaining about other people’s inadequacies and what a bore it is to be alive. Accessibility does not have to involve a descent to the level of institutional canteen chat. And while you cannot always say that perception is halted at the surface of the poem, you can often say that perception is admitted through that surface into a real-&-imaginative space, but can also choose to be halted if it wishes, and will gain from the choice.

Very gently struck
The quay night bell.          (p.105)

Thus begins Graham’s great poem in seven parts The Nightfishing (c.1950). No problems. But the whole tension of these two lines focuses on the verb — active, passive or participle? All three possibilities hold. There is or isn’t an agent or an act. A verbal uncertainty is answered by the substantive fact (the object exists whatever happened). A song rhythm, firmly three-beat with progressive diminution of the number of unaccented syllables, two questioning trochees answered by three tolls — a lullaby? ‘Hark, now I hear them’ — a dirge folded away somewhere in the depths of the phrase, pre-echo of the drowned men. It is the beginning of the whole thing, of a great intellectual/ sensory/ perceptual adventure and it is insisted that this is how the real adventures begin, in the moment of suspended utter calm and the unease or hunger of a sense of uncertainty. A wind off the sea moved the bell and it just managed to strike, perhaps three times, beginning middle and end. None of these considerations stop these two lines from remaining simple and straightforward.


Other parts of the same poem remain quite tough, for Graham’s progress was never singular or epiphanic. But it does continue quite steadily, taking us through the two books of Graham’s middle period, The White Threshold (1949) and The Nightfishing (1955) to his late poems in Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970) and Implements in their Places (1977). An experienced reader of Graham should be able to place most of the poems on a chronological scale by the intensity of metaphor, the involution of syntax, the invention of portmanteau words etc., all these conditions in the process of diminution. Each book has a distinct character both within this development and formally, which is why it is important that no collected volume should disperse the poems, as indeed this one does not. Each of the first three of these books seems to begin with a manifestation of how things have changed, such as the modified figuration and calmed sentence structure in rhymed quatrains of the start of The White Threshold, a mode absent from 2ND Poems: ‘Since all my steps taken / Are audience of my last / With hobnail on Ben Narnain / Or mind on the world’s crest...’ (p.59) Or the prosaic and fictive lines which begin Malcolm Mooney’s Land: ‘Today, Tuesday, I decided to move on / Although the wind was veering...’ (p.153). But further into each book things get more complicated, and the older metaphysical modes tend to re-assert themselves in the more substantial poems.

The White Threshold is obsessed with the sea, enacting an engagement with the image in small and large throughout, with a group of poems of drowning in the middle of the book. There is a tendency to think of Graham writing in a cottage near the coast in far Cornwall with the sound of it always in his ears, but in fact he was very much on the move at this time and did not settle permanently in Cornwall until 1955. Most of the seascapes refer to the area of his birth and upbringing on Clydeside, where the sea is more than ever a figure of barrier, beyond which the unknown possibilities of the past — and in reverse, through which the past looks towards the unknown future of the present. Pace Eliot, neither of these is simply ‘present in’ the other; they are at constant strife to attain each other through human creativity. The threshold of the title is of course the sea’s margin, figured in the condition of poetry: the line ending into white paper, and ventured across into space, cold, the unknown addressee, time lost... The poet’s soul launched into an unknown fate. All and any such entities are figured as the sea’s edge and as each other, while the sea’s edge remains entirely itself, never a mere sign of something else. You can never tie Graham to a unidirectional process of figurisation: words pointing to further assimilations are cut too rapidly into the flow and enfolded too tightly into any initial placement. But “scenes” do begin to emerge more clearly here, possibly even “experiences”. What is distinctive, though, is that however clear the ground seems to be (“knowing where you are”) the progress of perception is not through the text to the experience, but from the experience back to the text. The experience is enjoined because of its capacity to engender the text and for no other reason. It is not the reader’s experience, and in the reciprocity of Graham’s structures, it becomes finally not the poet’s experience, and what we are left with is a form built up of both and neither as the experience of the poem.

The long title poem of The Nightfishing is commonly thought to be Graham’s finest single achievement. It brings his meditations on the sea into a narrative structure, the experience of going out at night in a fishing boat, beautifully formed into sequences of preludes and postludes framing a central extended battle with the sea. The entire impasse of his poesis, the constantly repeated structure of venture meeting reciprocation and denial as integral powers of distance, of living forward into a facade of death, is realised as a story and a drama of the meeting of two symmetrical worlds, the land and the sea, mirroring and feeding on each other. But it remains an event of the person, and is not so much an allegorisation of a fishing trip as an appropriation of one to the self, for there is really no cast or crew beyond the speaking “I” and the singular “you” it engages with, who is constantly and shiftingly partner, reader, other. But for Graham that is the meaning of poetry as a kind of phenomenology of its own language, and quite legitimately a form of modesty. It is all still song — it turns into itself even on this grand scale. “Lyric tragedy” might be a term for the sense of calm engagement with the irrevocable terms of the totality we get at the end of ‘The Nightfishing’ —

Far out faintly calls
The mingling sea.

Now again blindfold
With the hemisphere
Unprised and bright
Ancient overhead,

This present place is
Become made into
A breathless still place
Unrolled on a scroll
And turned to face this light.

So I spoke and died.
So within the dead
Of night and the dead
Of all my life those
Words died and awoke.               (p.120)

Both of these books have groups of poems called “Letters”, those in The Nightfishing among his finest poems. They are personal declarations in which the discourse, turned to a particular addressee, comes face to face with real human difference, which in the I-centredness of most of Graham’s writing could be lost sight of. It as if the poetical urge is holding itself tightly in rein to keep within the terms of the addressee, and yet reach to the fullest declaration. For although I would insist that Graham’s progressive involvement with clarity (which it can and should be called, whatever he said) was not the result of public pressure from a metropolitan poetry scene which he despised, there is the possibility that it was in some measure the product of his engagement with actual human beings — members of his own family to whom he periodically addressed “letter” poems, and those he was close to in Cornwall from 1955, especially the “St Ives” painters of his generation. His friend Roger Hilton in particular had a quite conventional attitude to modern poetry which made him feel unsympathetic to Graham’s work, and a temperament which made him dismissive. ‘I loved him and we had / Terrible times together.’ (p.235). It is a factor of Graham’s development that poems are felt more and more to be addressed to a conceivably real person, even when not specifically dramatised as such.

But there are always counter features. A noticeable and quite disturbing one which becomes more prominent as the scene lightens is that of idiolectic vocabulary — that is, terms private or local to Graham, names of persons and places, technicalities or dialect terms. The theatre of the speaking “I” is essential to Graham’s enterprise, and that speaker makes no concessions to public or English eavesdroppers. This private or particular vocabulary my occur at any time even in his latest and simplest pieces, and it is clearly important that it should. It is the counterweight to the allegorising tendency of his mode, to be in mid flight suddenly cut back to a severe particular, to the real ground without which none of this would happen. Many poets deploy such terms but Graham has a tendency to use them as signifying terms, or to configure them into the discourse, so that, not knowing the particulars, we cannot know what is taking place. Towards the end of the mostly very straightforward and moving poem on the death of Peter Lanyon, The Thermal Stair, we suddenly get —

Peter, the phallic boys
Begin to wink their lights.
Godrevy and the Wolf
Are calling Opening Time.
We’ll take the quickest way
The tin singers made.               (p.165).

Godrevey and the Wolf are not a landlord and his pub but two lighthouses off the Cornish coast. The preceding lines don’t make this clear because the lighthouses are metaphorised before we know what they are — ‘phallic boys’ might invoke several alarming possibilities sooner than lighthouses. ‘tin singers’ are the old miners of the defunct Cornish tin mines, who made paths from the moors down to the settlements, singing as they walked home (with the possible involvement of The Wizard of Oz). But the writing has not really changed from the simple and direct mode of address of the rest of the poem; it has merely shifted into a local intimacy, continuing to address Lanyon in ways he would have understood perfectly. There is no intervening “poetical” figuration, it is just that all items of vocabulary remain Graham’s wither local or not; they derive entirely from his life, the where and when of him. Likewise the Scottish words (almost always single words rather than phrases) appear suddenly now and then and seem foreign to the run of the discourse; nor are they confined to words which anyone from north of the border would recognise — airt, branks, bing, pinhead, lintroot, saithe, wapenschaw... I am sure that if Graham had known Icelandic or Hebrew he would have scattered their words into his poems quite casually. So however accessible the writing becomes, or appears to, there will always be points of non-access, which perhaps serve to jolt the reader out of her vicarious doze. Editorial notes of course, can eradicate these blind spots (on which see later).

There is no need to labour the changing nature of Graham’s writing through the last two books, which is steady and easily seen in its progression towards a simpler and barely figured diction. The concept “verse” is increasingly important from about 1950, when Graham undertook a study of the poetry of Eliot and Pound under this heading, and it came to signify for him the identity of his writing. The balance, echo and shifting of syllables and stresses in the lineation could be said even to gradually replace figurisation as the definitive feature. There is certainly an intense and inescapable awareness of such factors on a very delicate level, to some extent replacing the onwards-rushing rhetoric of the earlier books. But if “verse” comes to indicate the entire process for Graham it also comprehends all the intricacies (and eccentricities) of diction and syntax, and the entire reciprocal interplay between writer and reader which only “verse” can perform, the foiled expectation and built-in denial of eduction which are not simply readers’ experiences but tokens of how the world works.

There is a fifteen year “gap” between The Nightfishing and Malcolm Mooney’s Land which has been made much of, but I do not myself see any signs of a total rethinking and consequent recasting; it seems much more that progress continues as might be expected. The greater change is to the last book, Implements in their Places (1977). There is a sense of relaxation and self-confidence here which can even become quite worrying as, secure in his sense of “verse”, Graham permits himself a range of indulgences: witty epigramatic fragments, anecdotal pieces, a private jocularity, and possibly a reduction of his basic method, permitting simplified word-play (‘when I was a buoy...’) and a cruder version of his contract with the reader (‘Whatever you’ve come here to get / You’ve come to the wrong place.’). But these are occasional items among some of his finest pieces, particularly two lengthy meditations on language and creative process, and the furthest development of his plain style in poems such as Loch Thom and the elegies on Roger Hilton and Bryan Wynter.

These must seem about as far away as it is possible to get from The Seven Journeys. But it would be a misreading to think of them as a completely different and utterly transparent poetry. They are among his best work. They are not problematic and one does not want to start creating problems out of them. But they have to be distinguished from what is probably thought of now as the normal accessible poem, the author’s self-chat scored onto the page. In Loch Thom the poet shows himself revisiting a ‘lonely freshwater loch’ he knew in his childhood.

And almost I am back again
Wading the heather down to the edge
To sit. The minnows go by in shoals
like iron filings in the shallows.

My mother is dead. My father is dead
And all the trout I used to know
Leaping from their sad rings are dead.          (p.221)

The surface at which perception may, if it has time, halt, is now the very elegance, poise, purity, beauty of the language, which draws us into the poem, and above all the skill in verse. There is a sense not of barrier but of suspension, of something raised apart from the world, reinforced by the absence of attitude and generalisation, self-deprecation or — justification or any kind of emphatic speech. Even the last three lines quoted do not actually enforce a plaintive tone — the reader supplies it, ad libitum. The rather strangely interposed word ‘sad’ could be ironic, even self-mocking, ad. lib.

I drop my crumbs into the shallow
Weed for the minnows and pinheads.
You see that I will have to rise
And turn around and get back where
My running age will slow for a moment
To let me on. It is a colder
Stretch of water than I remember.

The curlew’s cry travelling still
Kills me fairly. In front of me
The grouse flurry and settle. GOBACK

Everything is held in a “classical” tone which might be called elegiac, so calm and steady that it over-rides quite unusual metaphors when they occur, such as the image at ‘running age’, which is of a bus and quite complicated in sense, and again possibly sardonic. And the suddenly excessive stressed verb ‘Kills’ either does or does not recall all the “journeys” towards death or drowning and back performed so many times through Graham’s career, and the question arises as to whether the final words come from the same voice that spoke at the start, or again from a post-climactic, post-drowning, new-made self walking back home in the shoes of the dead, a reader-author construct. In any case I would insist that the sense of the experience even here, explicit as it is, (whether it actually took place or not, of which there is no guarantee) (and note that the person of the poem is ‘almost’ there at Loch Thom) is that it is represented, and entered into, for the sake of the structure which is realised from it, rather than being presented as the goal of the exercise. An authorial distance from the event remains ingrained in the writing, as an emblem of the gift, an act done for the world, as an addition to it.

And what of the overflowing heart? In an essay of 1946 Graham insisted ‘...a poem is made of words, not of the expanding heart, the overflowing, or sensitive observer.’ The emotion in Loch Thom may appear patent, but whose emotion, actually, is it? Graham was talking about the writing of the poem, not its reading, and it is a well known fact among professional singers that if you permit yourself to be strongly moved in performance by a song you are lost, your vocal control collapses. Distancing is an essential factor of the employment of technique, perhaps particularly difficult in poetry which is so closely tied to personal experience, and demands passion, but without it the reader is in fact excluded or reduced to a vicarious spectator. Surely here too Graham constructs a space which is vacant for the reader’s emotion to fill, guided by the poet, to be refined in the process in harmony with earthly reality. Does the grouse’s cry at the end of Loch Thom represent the poet feeling he is being sent home, or is it not, so oddly set in upper case as it is, a notice from the proprietor warning the reader to get out of the poem before it engulfs him?

An effective contrast would be with Larkin’s famous poem For Sidney Bechet (1954) where the emotion is indeed patent and declared with technical skill, but is claimed as a property of the authorial self (actual or constructed) by being set against the inferior or partialised emotions of “others”. It is thus only open to the reader who agrees to endorse the authorial self, and the sentiments involved are used mainly as leverage onto a personal claim to authenticity. —

Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping round their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. (Collected Poems p.83, my emphases).

So it has to be insisted that Graham never becomes an autobiographical or subjective poet, though commentators have shown themselves inclined to render him as one. He never speaks himself into an assertion of individuality or rights. He seems for instance not to have been a withdrawn personality, a dedicated “loner”, but his poetry cultivates that sense of the isolated individual for its own purposes, as a figure of the distances traversed by language, the lone traveller following the line of writing into an unknown future. Which is what serious consideration is like for anyone at any time. Nor are his poems philosophical propositions, though they can be represented as such quite coherently. They are not subject-bound and their implications are not controlled conceptually. Their central field of action is not perception, or the phenomenon of writing, but poetry itself, and thus, if you like, the entire human nervous system.

To locate the centre of Graham’s work most enthusiasts would go to the poem The Nightfishing. I would too, without forgetting the letter-format poems of the middle period and their development into the plain poems of the 1970s, especially perhaps The Dark Dialogues (c.1959), a remarkably sustained piece of writing which enfolds its action in a language of calmly impassioned address, and also out-Larkins Larkin (or the popular conception of Larkin) by taking on various senses of regret in connection with ageing and failure, but with dignity and with actual consolation in the achieved moment of emplacement in earthly and conceptual space.

This is no other place
Than where I am, between
This word and the next.
Maybe I should expect
To find myself only
Saying that again
Here now at the end.
Gantries and cantilevers
Of love, a sky, real and
Particular is slowly
Startled into light.               (p.174)

But you can go a long way back towards 1940 without fear of being hijacked, finding passages such as the opening of The White Threshold (written by 1948) and be caught up in an actually and fully poetical transport whether it yields all its details to the inquisitor on the spot or not —

Let me all ways from the deep heart
Drowned under behind my brow so ever
Stormed with other wandering, speak
Up famous fathoms well over strongly
The pacing whitehaired kingdoms of the sea.          (p.92)

If this seems unclear it is not because some author is concealing things from us, hiding what is going on behind codes and encryptings, ‘it is not for fun or to make it mysterious’. It is unclear because the various voices of the soul overlap each other. And isn’t that what lyrical-meditative poetry has always been? And isn’t that what the “soul” is, the overlapping of the self’s distinct and independent voices, which now finds its script only in such places as poetry?


After Implements in their Places there are a further 80 pages of poems in the New Collected, all except one previously published somewhere or other. It’s good to have them though they do not add a great deal. They are almost entirely poems of the 1970s to 1980, when he seems to have stopped, and so they participate in the spread of confidence and eased virtuosity of that decade. They tend to be ‘light in the construction’ as he called it. But there are serious gems, such as Letter X and Look at the Children. They also don’t amount to a full picture of Graham’s uncollected work.

It is a great relief that this new edition has appeared, replacing and expanding the Collected Poems of 1979, long out of print (though it never stopped floating around all sorts of second-hand and remainder outlets in the most mysterious way and at all sorts of prices). Whatever else Graham might be he is certainly distinctive, and for him to be commercially unavailable would be a frightful hole in the appreciation of mid-Century British poetry. He represents historically a major counter to the dichotomisation of the field into right and left or mainstream and avant-garde factions.

Eliot’s admission of Graham to the Faber stable in 1949 was in many ways the saving of him; it is impossible to think what he would have done, given his ambitious but uncompromising temperament, if he had remained confined to the increasingly vilified and overpowered domains of small-scale experimentalist publication. It gave him a sense of public space at his disposal and of reaching human ears, which undoubtedly lent great impetus to his sense of progression. But once a Faber poet always a Faber poet, and Faber will neither relinquish their control over his work nor issue a full and scholarly complete poems. What the present volume is is a reprinting of his books from first to last including the posthumous, with the very small addition (six poems) of uncollected and (one) unpublished. The section Poems from Notebooks is simply a reprinting of the selection Robin Skelton made for publication by Faber in 1993. The section Uncollected Poems is a reprinting of the book of that title published in 1990. I myself, and I am no assiduous collector, have copies of nine periodical poems which are not included, and know of four others, none of which is the more casual variety of poem he incorporated into letters. There are no textual variants given, though plenty exist, and Graham even re-wrote one or two of his early poems after book publication, but these new versions are not noted. Matthew Francis’s editing seems to me to be done as well as could be expected under what I take to be the imposition of these conditions.

Of course there are notes, for modern editions have notes. How much do we need notes? It could be argued that when Graham drops terms such as 1) chirper, 2) Albert Strick, 3) Kirn, into a poem he is perfectly aware of the limits, possibly total, on their transfer to any other human being, and this is part of his method. The discourse must remain entirely within his personal idiom, the residue of his experience, and some words will remind us of this rather sharply. The reader also has to be told, now and then, to keep off. The notes: 1) fisherman’s nickname for the herring. 2) a neighbour of Graham’s in Madron, Cornwall. 3) a part of the town of Dunoon in Scotland, then destroy this purpose. Which is to say that it is one thing to annotate, say, a Shakespeare sonnet in order to restore exactly the meanings and nuances available to a reader or listener of his time, and another to annotate a modern poem to render comprehensible what are meant to be blocks on transmission, or pure tokens of individuality. Actually I think notes are needed and I’m very glad they’re there, but in saying this I have to declare this feature of Graham’s style to be a weakness or a perversity, for such terms are not merely present in the poems, they are frequently wrought into the syntax as if they signify qualities, onto which Francis’ assiduously sought-out definitions are now our only leverage. Graham has a way of mentioning purely private and local things in his best late poems which don’t give rise to these problems.

Given that we do need notes, the most brilliant idea Francis had was to sort them into glossaries, saving a lot of space and fuss by treating Graham as something like a dialect poet with an uncommon vocabulary requiring a set of three little dictionaries (general, persons and places) at the end of the book. The notes themselves are generally less satisfying, seeming rather perfunctory, especially those which set out to solve difficulties. From the start Graham was provocatively and unrelentingly difficult, and the later changes in his style sometimes only mask difficulties which remain if the words are to be pursued to their depths. There could be literally thousands of such notes, and I can’t trace any rationale for the few we get — though it sometimes looks like one which I have noticed several times recently in editions of modernist poets, of explaining mainly what is fairly obvious, and passing by instances of real difficulty in total silence. So in the start of The White Threshold quoted above we get a note: ‘All ways: a deliberate splitting of the word to create additional meanings’ (if you’ve got thus far without realising that things like that go on you can’t have got very much out of it, and probably shouldn’t be reading Graham at all), but in the same poem the syntactical cluster ‘Let me... restore to never foreswear my air breathe in the lamblood-reddened deep’ gets no note. Nor does, still in that poem, ‘whipend moon’ get either note or gloss (are we to read ‘whip-end’? and if so doesn’t the contraction to one word destroy meaning rather than create additional ones?) and there are others like this in the book — terms which defeat me, for one, completely, and get no editorial mention: ‘the limekiln Shoney’, ‘Rab Noolas’, ‘Willie Peden’. I don’t know why not. Perhaps even Matthew Francis, who probably knows more about Graham than anybody else, doesn’t know what these are. At least, if we value Graham’s obdurate blockings of transfer, these are left intact.

And notes can be dangerous. The first section of The Nightfishing ends, as the boat sets out,

I’m one ahead of them
turned in below.
I’m borne, in their eyes,
Through the staring world.

The present opens its arms.          (p.107)

and there is a note: ‘arms connotes the embracing sea walls of a man-made harbour...’ This is perfectly right and yet I feel that so baldly stated it risks reducing the line to a singularity and discouraging all the other things it means, most of them perhaps more important than the localisation. There is an important principle here which I feel is integral to Graham’s achieved mode, that when a line such as ‘The present opens its arms’ is set in a poem it is thenceforth free to mean (or “connote”) absolutely everything it possibly could, to anyone at any time, like a net cast into the sea. It is a vast line, and sometimes you feel the poem urging you to forget all about Cornwall or Clydeside and boats and fish and everything. There are other notes which seem reductive like this.

But the weirdest note of all is probably the one to (note the title) Private Poem for Norman MacLeod, which reads, ‘The white / Pony of your Zodiac: an obscure reference.’ This seems to imply that all other obscurities in the book have been cleared up or don’t require it — but this ‘obscure reference’ is one of thousands! (and could perhaps be cleared up by consulting the poems of Norman MacLeod, from which it is evidently drawn). I also find it odd that the date of first publication of a poem is always given, but the date of writing almost never, for certainly some such dates are available and they can differ significantly from publication date.

But there are brilliantly helpful annotations too, such as Francis’ recognition of Irish Republican songs from phrases (‘the foggy dew’) which most of us would have placed in a quite different theatre. And I doubt if the topographical coverage will ever be bettered.

The section of notes, by the way, contains no references to the book’s pagination, and it can be quite a struggle to find a note when you think you need one (which may or may not be there in the end). I suppose this is the result of cost-cutting. On the other hand the book is fabulously designed by Wilmaset Ltd. of Birkenhead.

Oh, and there is a Foreword by Douglas Dunn, of which the less said the better. ‘Some would have us choose between Graham and Larkin... bores, attempting to make a name for themselves by “revising the canon”. God rot them.’ And what indeed can you do about that, but to consider yourself god-rotted and sign off.


Matthew Francis, editor of the New Collected Poems, has a book newly out from Salt (U.K.): Where the People Are: language and community in the poetry of W.S. Graham. It is a very thorough and solid coverage, with a strong inclination to nailing Graham’s poems to the bone. Personally I disagree with its author-focused approach, and its rendering of the text into the terms of linguistic philosophy. Or from my viewpoint perhaps it just lacks doubt, or is unwilling to relinquish Graham to any old reader; but it is the result of a long and painstaking study, and anyone serious about Graham will need it to hand.

A note from Matthew Francis

I am very grateful that my edition of Graham’s New Collected Poems has received a review as thorough and perceptive as Peter Riley’s, and for the generosity of his remarks about my contribution. However, he raises a few specific points about the notes which I’d like to respond to.

It’s true, of course, that the note on ‘All ways’ is unnecessary. One gets into the explaining habit after a while. And it’s equally true that there’s a lot I don’t understand in Graham’s complicated syntax. But even if I did, I think it would be inappropriate for me to provide interpretations at this level in a book of this nature — that would amount to trying to read the book for others. I’ve tried to keep my notes at the level of specific words and references.

Shony is to be found under People (‘A Celtic sea-god’) though I don’t know what his connection with lime-kilns is. ‘Rab Noolas’ is ‘Saloon Bar’ seen through the wrong side of an engraved glass door, as I should have explained. I searched long and hard for Willie Peden (the name is a Scottish one) but found nothing. It’s one of the items I was referring to in my introduction when I said: ‘There are many minor characters for whom I have not been able to provide supplementary information, and who may be either fictional or untraced real figures’. I don’t think my note about ‘arms’ is reductive — I was pointing out an aspect of the word that readers might miss, which was why I used the word ‘connotes’ rather than ‘means’ or ‘refers to’. As for Macleod’s Zodiac, the note is my memorial to a particularly frustrating search. I haven’t, admittedly, read all his poetry (he published quite a few collections, now hard to obtain), but I did get hold of The Distance: New and Selected Poems, and found nothing relevant to either Zodiacs or ponies there. I assumed if it was a reference to one of his poems it would be to a better-known one, and hence in the book. My guess, on the other hand, is that Macleod, in the days when Graham knew him in the US, used to drive a Ford Zodiac, and that the poem transforms this into a white pony to fit the Western imagery of Macleod’s poetry, but I could find no confirmation of this idea, and was reluctantly obliged to leave it out.

— Matthew Francis, December 2004

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