One word says to its mate

Claire Harman

  • The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham edited by Michael Snow and Margaret Snow
    Carcanet, 401 pp, £12.95, November 1999, ISBN 1 85754 445 5

In the Tate Gallery St Ives exhibition catalogue for 1995 there is a comical photograph of the painter Bryan Wynter and some friends at Zennor in themid-1950s. They are seated round a bottle-strewn table. Wynter is smiling absently, Karl Weschke is looking down at his hands or the tablecloth, a woman lies slumped in an armchair and a young man holds his head in an attitude of total weariness. At the other side of the table, the poet W.S. Graham is holding forth. He sits bolt upright, stabbing the air with the fingers of one hand; it looks as though an electric shock is passing through his body. It seems as if no one in the room apart from Graham has said anything for some time.

The picture illustrates Graham’s ardent, aggressive manner and also his isolation. ‘A kind of Jock agin the world’ is how he described himself, only half-jokingly, in a letter written at a low ebb in 1949. His career began auspiciously in the early 1940s with the enthusiastic support of his hero Dylan Thomas, but the surrealism of his early collections, such as Cage without Grievance and 2ND Poems, seemed to mark him out as an oddity who could easily be ignored. The White Threshold in 1949 and The Nightfishing in 1955 made a conscious break with his earliest work, but just at the point at which he began to win recognition, he appeared to give up writing. Though he continued to publish in little magazines throughout the 1960s, there was a 15-year silence between The Nightfishing and Malcolm Mooney’s Land, during which, it is said, his publisher, Faber, assumed (possibly hoped) the poet had died.

Even within the brotherhood of the St Ives group, Graham’s poetry was little read or appreciated. The links between Graham and the painters Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter, Karl Weschke and Sven Berlin were forged by his understanding of their work: it was his dedication to art, rather than his own art, that impressed them. Hilton said he found Graham’s poems ‘too obscure’, provoking a remarkably restrained reply: ‘I thought I was making some headway in uniting you with another medium viz poetry . . . Allow yourself to encounter the mystery occasionally and don’t ask the thing from an object which it is not.’ The failure of his painter friends to ‘encounter the mystery’ did not sour relations between them, however easily offended Graham could be over much more trivial matters. It demonstrated what his work was about, as he defined it in 1970: ‘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.’ Graham’s later poems are full of images of imprisonment, from the ice-bound narrator of ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ to the solitary confinement of ‘Clusters Travelling Out’ and the visored knight in ‘Imagine a Forest’, vainly struggling to speak. Ironically, it was these later poems dramatising his predicament (including his powerful elegies to Wynter, Hilton and Lanyon) which at last brought him a sizable audience.

The Nightfisherman, a selection of Graham’s letters by his friends Michael and Margaret Snow, with 19 poems, photographs, drawings and his essay ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’, is the most useful and revealing book on the poet yet published and sets out the clearest record of his life. Graham was born into a blue-collar family in Greenock in 1918, and brought up in a flat which overlooked a shipyard, with a view of the Clyde and the mountains of the Trossachs. He followed his father’s profession and was apprenticed to an engineer in his early teens, but by the end of his training had begun to write poems and attend evening classes in art and literature, later enrolling at a WEA college outside Edinburgh to study literature and philosophy. The course included afternoons of gardening and lessons in country dancing, and probably did little more than introduce Graham to his subjects and fuel his anxieties about being an ill-educated ‘peasant’. Nevertheless he seized on Heraclitus, Hopkins and James Joyce in particular in his one year as a student and developed demanding tastes in music, literature and art.

Graham became a farm-labourer in Galway, travelled with a fair and worked on the docks in Dublin to avoid conscription in 1939, but failed his Army medical anyway and was sent to work in a Clydeside torpedo factory. He wrote The Seven Journeys at this time (it wasn’t published until 1944) and made friends with David Archer, the publisher and bookseller whose Scott Street Arts Centre in Glasgow was a venue for the avant-garde of the interwar years. Graham met Dylan Thomas there, who was sufficiently impressed to include a Graham poem at the end of one of his own readings. Thomas was respectful, friendly and offered ‘help about reviewers etc’, as Graham lets slip with pride in a letter to the poet and editor William Montgomerie. Even mild patronage from Thomas was enough to encourage Graham to dedicate himself, romantically, impractically and single-mindedly, to writing poetry. With the exception of a short period of teaching in 1942-43 and a disastrous spell as an advertising copywriter in 1950, he never attempted full-time work again.

Graham’s first book, Cage without Grievance, was published in 1942 by Archer’s Parton Press, the first to publish Thomas, George Barker and David Gascoyne. The poems were exotic and deliberately obscure, with no explicit themes but a mesmerising vigour and urgency: ‘I, no more real than evil in my roof/Speak at the bliss I pass I can endure/Crowding the glen my lintel marks’. There was a pastoral feel to the book, and some deliberately arty elements such as the use of Old English alliterative patterns (‘Children cartwheel from prison in procession’, ‘Who cough their stories in the curving siding’). Occasionally a line appears to confound expectations (the first stanza of ‘I, no more real . . .’ ends with the lyrical iambic pentameter, ‘I feel the glass collide with light and day’), but it is impossible to judge what effect was intended. Dylan Thomas may have been happy to intone the poems at his reading (they are remarkably sonorous), but their difficulty prompted unenthusiastic reviews, including Hugh MacDiarmid’s dismissive description of Graham as ‘an adolescent playing with the materials of great poetry’.

2ND Poems, published in 1945, continued in much the same non-representative, non-functional vein. Graham was preoccupied with encouraging the reader to read differently. The title of ‘Allow Silk Birds that See’ is made up of the first words of the poem’s first five lines, a trick which (if you happen to spot it) sets you off looking for further acrostics and perhaps a key with which to unlock the poem. It’s a wild goose chase: the ‘puzzle’ means nothing in particular.

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