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
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.
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.
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
GOBACK GOBACK FAREWELL LOCH THOM.
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.
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.