What a carry-on

Seamus Perry

  • W.S. Graham: New Selected Poems edited by Matthew Francis
    Faber, 144 pp, £12.99, September 2018, ISBN 978 0 571 34844 2
  • W.S. Graham edited by Michael Hofmann
    NYRB, 152 pp, £9.99, October 2018, ISBN 978 1 68137 276 1

Many poets end up having a hard life but W.S. Graham went out of his way to have one. His dedication to poetry, about which he seems never to have had a second thought, was remorseless, and his instinct, surely a peculiarly modern one, was that the way to nurture his creativity was to have a really bad time. ‘The poet or painter steers his life to maim//Himself somehow for the job,’ he wrote in a posthumous address to the painter Peter Lanyon. Apart from a brief and incongruous spell as an advertising copywriter and the occasional stint on fishing boats, he refused to succumb to the distraction of a day job; he didn’t write reviews or journalism; and as his books of verse were very far from bestsellers he had no money for most of his life until, in his mid-fifties, he was awarded a Civil List pension. ‘I am completely broke just now and the people I might borrow from are also broke,’ he wrote in an early letter, striking a wholly characteristic note. Twenty-five years later he was still writing to friends saying things like, ‘How terrible to think I never get in touch with you but to ask you for money. Can you please let us have £5?’ The letters convey a persistent sense of want which makes for sorry reading, as he runs out of paraffin again or makes omelettes with seagull eggs, though you often detect a flicker of stoic comedy: ‘I get on making tea and putting a sheep’s head on the hob to simmer – the beginning of a good graham broth’; ‘I’m terribly desperate for a pair of shoes or boots … I keep thinking there must be lots of men with old army boots they’ll never use’; ‘I’ve never been broker in all my life, ridiculously so … What a carry-on it certainly is.’[*]

For much of his life Graham shared this carry-on with a woman called Nessie Dunsmuir. She seems to have borne their hardship with remarkable fortitude, but it clearly took its toll on them both: ‘Living mainly on bread and potatoes and some fish and mussels and not having enough paraffin for cooking got us down and a wee bit undernourished,’ Graham reported to a friend at one point. Hard liquor was a large part of the hard life, serving as a release from the burden of being alive – he always needed a swift one before venturing into company – but, quite as much, the booze itself constituted a burden to be grappled with, what he called ‘the difficulties of drinking’. That life should be an almost unsustainable struggle was an intrinsic part of Graham’s self-conception as a poet. ‘It is all a battle,’ he announced to his friend and partner in art, the painter John Minton. He and Dunsmuir lived in conditions of spectacular inconvenience: a poky caravan for some years and later a cottage to which the word ‘spartan’ doesn’t really do justice – ‘a leaking roof, no cooking stove, no electricity, an outside toilet and no bathroom,’ one visitor remembered. He was ‘fairly indifferent to ordinary domestic comforts’, the editors of his correspondence report, putting it mildly. Graham didn’t do comfort, in fact he rather looked down on it: ‘Happiness has never been one of my great aspirations.’ When Penelope Mortimer arrived to interview him for the Observer magazine in 1978, she could barely cross the threshold. Dunsmuir calmly explained that ‘the front door had been off its hinges for some time and it was difficult to get things fixed.’ Graham’s living conditions were a satire on the whole idea of having a home or feeling at home: when the time came to move from one cottage to another, he seems to have done so by simply walking out and leaving everything behind him – clothes, books, papers – as if they weren’t his business any more.

‘Remember,’ Graham told a friend, perhaps unnecessarily, ‘I am a great man for the drink, also my immediate life is disorganised and somewhat bemused. Sometimes I don’t know where I am.’ A further difficulty was indeed the matter of where he was, which was Cornwall, where he moved permanently in 1954. Graham was born in Greenock in 1918 and trained as an engineer in Glasgow. He and Dunsmuir (who came from Lanarkshire) evidently missed Scotland – ‘I’m often homesick to be there’ is a recurring note in the letters. But despite periodic announcements of their intention to return, they remained as far away as the British mainland permitted, instilling in Graham a sense of having somehow ended up in the wrong place. ‘I’ve now had my fill of away,’ he wrote to a friend in 1979, but ‘away’ he remained, dying in the village of Madron near Penzance seven years later in a cottage lent to him by a well-wisher. He thought of himself as a Scottish poet but was allergic to the idea of being part of a renaissance of Scottish writing: ‘The selfconsciousness of what the Scottish art scene seems to be today embarrasses me tae hell’ (an excellent piece of his bleak wit). He embraced his artistic loneliness with vehemence, ‘a kind of Jock agin the world’, but that didn’t stop him feeling resentful about his isolation and what he conspiratorially construed as banishment. ‘The Scottish Bards [have] exiled my work from any claim to Scottishness,’ he wrote, ‘and me from being a “bard” at all.’ He was cheerily scornful of the poetry of the top bard, Hugh MacDiarmid, which he considered to be made out of ‘Plastic Scots’. MacDiarmid, meanwhile, ticked off Graham for allowing ‘non-Scottish’ influences to shape his work, so that it failed to address ‘the crucial needs and possibilities of our time’. When, belatedly, the Scottish Arts Council gave Graham a prize he was certainly chuffed at the recognition (and the money) but not ready to forget the hard lot of an exclusion he had always sought. ‘I have always been a wee bit hurt (JOKE OR NOT JOKE?) that Scotland have never said anything about their exiled boy here, me.’

That isn’t entirely free from self-pity, of course, but it’s also wrapped up in a belligerent irony which makes a joke of the self-pity at the same time – as when he characterises himself to Charles Monteith, his worldly editor at Faber and Faber, as a ‘simple ploughboy from the north’, which he certainly wasn’t. In his bouncy Memoirs of the Forties (1965), Julian Maclaren-Ross offers a memorable portrait of Graham brooding over his pint, a man with whom it was impossible to get things right, ‘not unpleasant, just inordinately prickly’. The prickly wit on display in ‘JOKE OR NOT JOKE?’ is exemplary. Graham was always keen to get in first with a sardonic response to his more portentous gestures, a version of the self-protective rhetorical device that William Empson diagnosed as ‘pseudo-parody to disarm criticism’. ‘I don’t think I am less happy than most. But the word Happy has ceased for years to mean anything I seek to be. How’s that for a pompous mouthful?’ Heartless about his own unhappiness, he could be corrosively hilarious, as when reporting back on a reading tour (he quotes, as he often did, two lines from a poem sequence of his own, ‘Implements in Their Places’):

Mike Durham was very good and in fact I think I was much loved. But that didn’t seem to be enough. What the fuckinghell do I want?

Somewhere our belonging particles
Believe in us. If we could only find them.

And so as the sun touches the evening sky with saffron we leave this great intellectual landscape …

Irony normally involves some kind of collusion with the reader – you are invited to play along even if you aren’t quite sure whom the joke is on – but the effect here is almost the opposite of collusive, Graham slipping away to some private space behind the harshness of his joke. His gift for self-occlusion made him a nightmare to interview. He wouldn’t answer any of Mortimer’s questions and sent her off with the transcript of the much better interview he had purportedly conducted with himself, including a few questions thrown at her for good measure: ‘Ho Ho, Penelope, and how are you to begin? Shall you say – I was amazed at the nice man I was given to interview.’ Mortimer was charmed, as indeed many people were, but there is something vaguely menacing as well as flirtatious in his manner (‘the nice man’), motivated by a deep disinclination to reveal anything at all about himself. His poetry readings seem to have been successful, but, fortified with whisky, he would make jocularly aggressive remarks towards his audience. John Haffenden, who also attempted an interview, registered something deeply pugnacious about him: ‘He pantomimes, sidesteps, enunciates deeply and clearly, growls at me, and from time to time – in an amiable but entirely convincing manner – invites me to come outside for him to knock my block off.’ He seems to have invited people to step outside quite often: the poet Anthony Astbury, a devoted admirer, recorded him saying, ‘Come outside and I’ll – slice your head off like a melon!’

This knockabout stuff is an expression of what was perhaps the strongest of Graham’s instincts, alongside his dedication to poetry: the wish to keep himself to himself. ‘I would really like to have a castle with drawbridge and portcullis,’ he said. He once wrote a sweetly affectionate letter to Ronnie and Henriette Duncan (‘Come my dearest dears’) and, having completed it, wrote vertically up the margin: ‘Do not read this letter as a softness. I am hard as fucking nails.’ You wonder how they took so bizarrely double-minded a letter. He could write very tenderly about Dunsmuir, but endorsed Marianne Moore’s description of marriage as ‘being alone together’, and in a late miniature masterpiece, ‘To My Wife at Midnight’, wrote no less tenderly about the private space in each that the other could not broach: ‘Where we each reach,/Sleeping alone together,/Nobody can touch.’ Dunsmuir, herself the author of some distinctive poems, recognised that the main thing about her husband was that he was a closed book: ‘I do not know and never shall/what grave or joyful mystery/inhabits your head’s holiness.’

But marriage in this case was just the intimate example of a universal predicament: ‘To always want to share the aloneness, to share what happens within one’s lonely room, to wonder how alike or unalike one is from someone else.’ ‘Communication is what our lives are about … One only tries to send a message, a note, however inadequate from one aloneness to another. STOP don’t let me sound like Billygraham.’ The joke with names, whereby he (William Sydney) is a tiresome tub-thumping Billy evangelising aloneness, is hallmark Graham and a sign that his deepest emotions are engaged. That we are each alone and ultimately strangers to one another is a banal reflection on the human condition, you might think. ‘A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other,’ Dickens says in A Tale of Two Cities, with the breezy good sense of a man noting one of those odd things about the world that you have to work around. But Graham seems to have found it endlessly and darkly preoccupying – ‘the essential isolation of man and the difficulty of communication’. What is the poet’s task? It is to put ‘into words those sudden desolations and happiness that descend on us uninvited there where we each are within our lonely rooms never really entered by anybody else and from which we never emerge.’ And this is not only the business of his poetry but very often its subject matter. ‘He is one of those poets who make the writing of poetry into the subject of the poems they write,’ Donald Davie noted with some scepticism. ‘The commonsense view is that this drastically limits the importance and interest of what they write; and I think this is true.’ But Graham could conceive nothing more important or interesting:

To be always alone is necessary,
One would not ever be otherwise.
Yet our nature is such that we
Want to share our souls with others.

The second line could mean ‘you would never wish to be anything other than alone’ as a matter of preference, but also as a matter of existential crisis: ‘You would not ever exist, ever be, if you were anything other than alone.’ Quoting his lines in a letter to his painter friend Roger Hilton, Graham added, typically: ‘OK OK a bit overblown speech, but it is approximately true, if I can say that.’

He began to try, in the poems he wrote in the 1940s, to make the difficulty of communication the whole point, transmuting his defensive belligerence into an extraordinary private language – the elements of which appear the same as those of the language we all use, so that it has a tantalising sense of something familiar but on investigation is completely elusive. They are the sort of poems you call hard. I don’t really know what to do with them, so I start playing games, like ‘spot the verb’:

Stronghold till squall robs holiday within
This wonder where twin hills back the eyes
Holds weeds and geometry in a girdered hive.

(‘Let Me Measure My Prayer with Sleep’)

Such lines exemplify something Michael Schmidt once identified in Graham’s voice as ‘a strange hostility towards the reader’. The influence of Dylan Thomas has often been noticed, and the effect of the densely packed verbalism is, as in Thomas, principally to imply the labour that has gone into making the poem. You certainly couldn’t get further from the sentiment of Yeats – ‘A line may take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’ – or Hardy’s remark that he wouldn’t think of taking a poem through more than four drafts for fear it might lose its freshness: early Graham is as ostentatiously unfresh, as far from unmediated experience as could be. But the likeness to Thomas can be overstated. Even when discoursing on the wormy grave (as it often does), Thomas’s verse possesses a buoyant exuberance in the evidence of its own invention, something in which it takes an unabashed delight. Graham’s is much more tangled and fraught, and feels more self-stymied, as though chiefly absorbed by the fascinating logjams of its own difficulty: ‘Fought-over by word and word/This day between my heart and brain lies down/Locked into furious outcome of half my life’ (‘Lying in Corn’). Well, it is all a battle.

*

Over the last twenty or so years regard for Graham among the cognoscenti has grown steadily, especially since the publication of the New Collected Poems in 2004, and he is now pretty well established as a prominent figure in the poetry of the latter half of the 20th century, but I’m not sure even his greatest admirers have very much time for the early poems. In the two recent selections from his verse, both excellent – Michael Hofmann’s for the NYRB Poets series and Matthew Francis’s New Selected Poems for Faber – the early work doesn’t get much of a showing, even though Graham retained a soft spot for it and made sure these poems were represented in the original Collected Poems that appeared towards the end of his life. ‘To say I am getting better, or have written myself into a greater clearness, is very much a surface observation,’ he maintained crossly, but nevertheless writing himself into ‘a greater clearness’ is precisely what he did, and it made him a lasting poet, as he must have known.

The breakthrough begins with his 1949 volume, The White Threshold, and was consolidated in his most famous work, the long poem ‘The Nightfishing’, included in the volume of that title in 1955. Both collections, published by Faber, had been signed up by T.S. Eliot, who would prove a wise and supportive editor, and a decisive influence on Graham: perhaps no other British poet of the 20th century, not even Auden, learned so much from thinking about what Eliot had done. ‘Eliot says he’s “considerably impressed” – whatever that means in the Eliot manner!’ Graham reported when Faber accepted The White Threshold, his offhand manner clearly conveying that he was thrilled to bits, and though he affected to regard being taken on to the great list as merely a matter of acquiring ‘the snob-value of the Faber seal’, in truth the connection with Eliot was hugely important to him. One of the most simply happy of all Graham’s letters reports on a three-hour lunch with Eliot – he called it an ‘injection of “life” or “THE REAL”’:

the talk being all about poetry, Scottish Renais[sance] (which he’s agin for right reasons), fishing, publishing, drinking … Anyhow he was very very encouraging and how good it is to know that there really are some people in the world … who take the word seriously.

Eliot told him he had ‘a good sense of form and a wonderful sense of rhythm’, which cheered him, as no doubt did Eliot’s characterisation of his poetry as ‘intellectual’ and therefore bound to ‘go slow because people just were lazy about thinking’. By this time in his life, Eliot was more than ready to think about poetry in terms drawn from the world outside, such as religion and ethics and politics, but he must have recognised in Graham someone who had comprehensively absorbed the contrary teaching of the younger Eliot, and then remade it in his own prickly idiom. Graham wrote only one critical essay, a charismatic and slightly mystifying piece called ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ (1946), in which he asserted: ‘A poem is made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing soul, or the sensitive observer … It is easy to mistake a poem for a different thing with a different function and to be sad when it does not put out what it is not.’ This withering dismissal of hearts and souls and sensitivity clearly borrows from the anti-Romanticism of Eliot’s famous early essays, with their polemical insistence on ‘impersonality’ and an exacting idea of poetry ‘as poetry and not another thing’. Graham’s whole writing life was led in the inspiring shadow of such pronouncements, especially Eliot’s remark that ‘the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.’ The lonely room of the self in Graham has a distinctively Eliotic quality too (‘Each in his prison/Thinking of the key’), and pessimism about getting a message across in the debased medium of a public tongue, ‘the caught habits of language’, is pure Eliot. ‘But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you,’ one of Eliot’s characters complains, as though something else might do the job much better if only you could find it.

Perhaps no less important, Eliot was a poet of the sea – from the ‘sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown’ in ‘Prufrock’ through to ‘The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters/Of the petrel and the porpoise’ of Four Quartets, and I suspect it was with his example firmly in mind that Graham wrote the poems that so caught Eliot’s eye in The White Threshold:

Gulls set the long shore printed
With arrow steps over this morning’s
Sands clean of a man’s footprint
And set up question and reply
Over the serpentine jetty
And over the early coaches
Of foam noisily in rows
Driven in from the farout banks.

Last gale washed five into the bay’s stretched arms,
Four drowned men and a boy drowned into shelter.
The stones roll out to shelter in the sea.

(‘Shian Bay’)

The sea, beautiful and perpetual and deathly, makes an appearance in almost every piece in that volume, including the title poem, which Graham proudly announced as ‘the most sea poem for a while I’ve seen. And more “human” than anything I’ve ever made.’ But that was really just the prelude to an even more ‘sea poem’ of some five hundred lines that he would write next.

‘The Nightfishing’ is one of those rare poems that consciously sets out to be a masterpiece and pulls it off. When Eliot was writing The Waste Land, a struggle which took him several years, he wrote self-referentially of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ that ‘if a contemporary poet, conscious of his limitations as Gray evidently was, would concentrate all his gifts on one such poem, he might achieve a similar success.’ Eliot did more than gather his conscious limitations, of course, but he describes what Graham achieved in ‘The Nightfishing’ very well, and as it happens Graham did it partly under the auspices of Eliot’s poem. What The Waste Land showed, he explained to Edwin Morgan, was the way a long poem can create a ‘massive montage of one … theme upon another’. Graham really had only two preoccupations, Morgan wrote in a review of the Collected Poems: one was ‘trying to define the communicative act and art of poetry itself’ and the other was the sea. His best-known work came spontaneously into being when those two otherwise disparate themes were laid one upon the other. ‘The Nightfishing’ is based on Graham’s experience of joining a crew out looking for herring in the thick of night, though putting it that way recalls the well-intentioned reviewer in the Naval Chronicle who noted Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ as a contribution to ‘naval literature’. Like Coleridge’s, the Graham sea is a symbolic place as well as a real one: it is a hard place, naturally, a disorienting realm of toil and self-alienation. He is all at sea: identity and emptiness wash around in the poem like the murky churning of the ocean at night, interrupted sporadically by moments of illumination. ‘Who is that poor sea-scholar,/Braced in his hero,//Lost in his book of storms there? It is myself.’ Graham seems to have set about writing the poem with an almost painfully clear sense of his symbolic programme – he explained to Morgan that the central section was ‘a voyage at night and fishing with the nets and is also a metaphor of a search in the mingling darkness of the memory (a place of mingling dead continually changing and being added to by our own death) for a “home”, or for a conception of one’s self as one identity’. It sounds more like the sort of thing a critic would say than a poet about his own work; similarly, he described what he was doing with the fishing boat as making an ‘objective correlative’ (Eliot’s term, of course). But any risk of self-conscious metaphysical portentousness is offset by Graham’s sheer fascination with the extra-linguistic reality of the sea and the way it looks and moves.

‘The sea is the real sea,’ he protested to a friend. ‘The wind in the morning off the shore is not a wind somewhere existing in words, not realised by another intelligence. No. It is the wind which is true to how a wind begins.’ He was friendly with several of the St Ives artists, and did some paintings himself, and his descriptions of the shifting ocean have at times a distinctly painterly quality, as well as conveying the more prosaic sense of there being work that needs to be done:

            night rises stooped high over
Us as our boat keeps its nets and men and
Engraves its wake. Our bow heaves hung on a likely
Bearing for fish. The Mor Light flashes astern
Dead on its second.

‘I wanted to write about the sea and make it a grey green sea, not a chocolate box sea,’ he told Charles Causley, and he clearly considered himself to have succeeded on those terms, whatever else the poem might also convey about the mysteries of being. It was, he said, ‘the most definite sea poem in the language since “The Wreck of the Deutschland” … The thing is a sea monster with poetic licences by the dozen.’ His pride in a job so well done is very winning: ‘Now, Norman,’ he wrote bossily to a friend, ‘think of the wonderful (forgive me) dramatic beginning again’. And he is quite right – it is one of the most magical openings in modern verse:

Very gently struck
The quay night bell.

The hectic distortions of normal word order in the earlier poems have here become something much quieter, the momentary suspension of the senses like a held breath as the poem begins to gather itself out of the dark silence.

*

It was the example of Eliot, especially, that confirmed in Graham a determination (as he put it) to write ‘harder’ than he had while under the influence of Dylan Thomas, and the quite different direction his poetry took in the 1960s and 1970s also involves a debt, of a different kind, to Eliot. After ‘The Nightfishing’ he produced no new book for 15 years, and though a trickle of poems appeared in magazines, he sank into even deeper obscurity: according to one story, his publishers assumed he had died. The abiding interest of these late poems remains what he called ‘the old nuisance of language’, but you could be forgiven for not recognising that the writer of the rapt chiaroscuro of ‘The Nightfishing’ was also the author of plain man lines such as these:

One word says to its mate O
I do not think we go together
Are we doing any good here
Why do we find ourselves put down?

(‘Approaches to How They Behave’)

That comes from Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970); by the next book, Implements in Their Places (1977), the voice has moved even closer to the condition of prose, as in the elegy he wrote for his friend Bryan Winter:

This is only a note
To say how sorry I am
You died. You will realise
What a position it puts
Me in.

(‘Dear Bryan Winter’)

No one could mistake that for Eliot, but an interest in the possible proximity between poetry and a more prosey way of writing was a deeply Eliotic preoccupation. Graham told John Haffenden how much he admired Eliot’s ‘lovely, fairly cold ways of speaking and handling words in the Quartets’. The young Eliot had signed up to Pound’s dictum that good poetry should be at least as well written as good prose, and, working on Four Quartets thirty years later, announced in an essay called ‘The Music of Poetry’ – from which Graham quoted approvingly to Morgan – that someone who wrote a poem of any length needed to be a ‘master of the prosaic’. Graham’s poetry had always existed on the verge of things, so there was a kind of logic that it should end up on the verge of prose.

Douglas Dunn once said nicely that Graham gives ‘the remarkable impression of a poet determined to be proseless’, and in that respect, at least, he did not follow Eliot: there were no books of criticism or public lectures or contributions to discussions of public consequence. But he did embrace the resources of prose in a more oblique way, incorporating them into the texture of his verse. Michael Hofmann loves these later poems, in which, as he says in the introduction to his selection, he finds ‘something rickety and moving’: Graham ‘writes English like someone working with coathangers’. But not everyone has responded so warmly. In a memorably acerbic review of the Collected Poems in 1979, Edna Longley damned such passages as lapses into ‘the higher waffle’ and wrote that they ‘would not look out of place in the Thribb anthology’. Graham took the verdict on the chin: the notices for the book had generally been good, he reported to his publisher, ‘except the TLS by a woman who seemed to be in a bad temper’. Perhaps he was able to remain unfazed because he recognised that part of the effect of such poems is indeed their vulnerability (Hofmann’s word) in unsympathetic hands: they depend especially on the reader weighting the line-endings in a way that counterbalances the prose movement of the language, and they work by only just coming off. Take ‘The Fifth of May’, a poem from 1980 that Hofmann rightly singles out for celebration:

This morning shaving my brain to face the world
I thought of Love and Life and Death and wee
Meg Macintosh who sat in front of me
In school in Greenock blushing at her desk.
I find under the left nostril difficult,
Those partisans of stiff hairs holding out
In their tender glens beneath the rampart of
The nose and my father’s long upperlip.

The delight of the poem, and its pathos, lies in its precariousness, its barely established right to exist. You would be hard put to pin down exactly how it is all about childhood and loss and regret: the evanescence of its subject matter is part of the poem’s evocation of the vacant mind and its aimless processes.

The late manner doesn’t really abandon the edginess that had marked the early poems but conjures it into something more tender and less confrontational. In his series of epigrams, ‘Implements in Their Places’, Graham leaves four lines blank for the reader to have a go: ‘I will return in a moment/To see what you have done./Try. Try. No offence meant.’ He gets more of the mordant ironies of his letters into the later poems: ‘I thought of Love and Life and Death’ makes a joke (or not joke?) of the portentousness of the earlier idiom, but there is the same odd mixture of victimhood and obdurate creativity, the same wary eye on the reader. ‘There is the involuntary war between me and that environment flowing in on me from all sides and there is the poetic outcome.’ Graham is the model of lonely integrity as a conception of the artist, which is to claim in however ironised a form a kind of heroism, naturally not to everyone’s taste. Donald Davie admired him while disliking ‘the hieratic solemnity with which he takes his own poetic vocation’, but then for the new university wits of the Movement, including Davie, Graham was bound to seem a bit of an anachronism in his isolated intrepid modernism: ‘The poet – lonely – impossible task – but one goes on,’ he reportedly told an audience of Oxford students. Morgan, more sympathetically, spoke of Graham’s ‘undeviating and dangerous singlemindedness’ in the pursuit of his art. ‘The centre aloneness is the greatest joy and gift from Him,’ the young Graham had enthused to Morgan, gesturing towards a God of whom he generally took no notice. ‘More and more, I realise the aloneness is a joy to live in and talk there to the most marvellous listener which is within my imagination and the limitations of that listener are the limitations of my poetry.’ Morgan’s genius was very different, almost Graham’s antitype, in its urbanity, fluency, variety, as well as his social engagement, and he wondered whether the isolated life that Graham considered so necessary had not proved too high a price, not just to his person but to his poetry too:

Someone who came from Greenock and Glasgow ought not to have lived so long in a telephoneless cottage in the wilds of Cornwall … concentrating on essentials may become a bad thing. Integrity is a lone star state … sometimes the hostages of involvement and mundanity turn out to be good hobgoblins who actually sweep the house and stoke the fire.

‘Telephoneless’ was Graham’s own word, from a poem entitled ‘What Is the Language Using Us For?’: ‘I am in a telephoneless, blue/Green crevasse and I can’t get out.’ ‘I am always very aware that my poem is not a telephone call,’ he said. ‘The poet only speaks one way.’

[*] The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham was reviewed by Claire Harman in the LRB of 4 October 2001.