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This review is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

Cover of W.S. Graham: The Poem as Art Object
Jack BarronDavid Nowell Smith, W.S. Graham: The Poem as Art Object (Oxford University Press, 2022) £70.00
An Art of Afterlife

In their edition of W.S. Graham’s selected letters, The Nightfisherman (Carcanet, 1999), Michael and Margaret Snow offer an exemplary sketch of the poet’s playfully controlling nature. Graham once, so the story goes, burst in on the artist Alan Wood, who was having a quiet drink in the Gurnard’s Head Hotel in Cornwall. He then, according to Wood,
suggested that he should make his entrance again but as though it were a stormy night. The others were to make suitable storm noises. When they all, including the innocent stranger, were howling and shooshing satisfactorily Sydney went outside again, presumably to make a dramatic re-entrance. The three blew and howled. Sydney did not come back.
Just like that, he’s gone: a demanding apparition and errant director. In similar fashion, section 40 of his late poem sequence Implements in Their Places leaves four spaces for ‘YOU’ to write your own lines – with the poet impossibly promising to ‘return in a moment’ (New Collected Poems). Made, suddenly, to perform on cue, Graham treats his readers no differently than those unsuspecting souls in the pub: we are gifted instruction only to be left hanging, faithfully airing sound effects for a storming re-entrance that may or may not take place. But still we howl and shoosh.

Graham’s pages, then, must be weathered as much as read. He and his poetry enjoy putting people – whether drinking companions or readers – in difficult positions: David Nowell Smith’s W.S. Graham the Poem as Art Object assumes them with a vitally bold responsiveness and ...

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