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This review is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.TAKING GRAHAM SERIOUSLY (1)
This volume replaces W.S. Graham's much slimmer Collected Poems of 1979, which has been out of print for some time. The first, rich, collections, The Seven Journeys (published 1944, but completed earlier) and Cage Without Grievance (1942) are restored, and they push off with an exhilarating range of poetry's resources. Acrostics, parallelisms, even the incantatory, were part of Graham's intellectual and sensory spectrum in this period, often underlain by concerns that would characterise so much of the later clearer work. Right across his oeuvre there is an explicit interest in journeying, in what amounts to a secular pilgrimage into places of genuine extremity, while a metaphysical expedition is also underway, further and further into psychological complexity, further and further into the expedition of poetry itself. They are texts of determination written as if language were a breathtaking but humbling miracle.
The earlier poetry has been seen as Dylan Thomas-influenced, but this is probably on the basis of the paucity of any other Anglophone poets of the time engaging so energetically with both sound and syntax. Perhaps it also harbours a mistaken assumption about the shallowness of Graham's reading. As Tony Lopez's The Poetry of W. S. Graham (1987) showed, despite the acquaintance and mutual respect between Graham and his contemporary, the aural qualities (and the sea) of Hopkins are as much the progenitors of the energy behind the early poems as anything else. His letters show that Graham's reading was wide - even if the synthesis was all Graham's own - and an international perspective, for instance, might help better place him stylistically. A contextualising comparison for lines such as `No, listen, for this I tell / Till song becomes my home. / This drop no man descends / To death or depth of meaning if there's day' (from `No listen for this I tell') might look to the lyric hybrids of Lorca, for instance, and, perhaps especially, to César Vallejo, of a decade or so earlier.
In Graham's later and last collections, albeit amid glinting elegiac darkness, there is less of a declamatory drive. Language can appear there almost as the rascal character in an animated film, the unruly word with its own wishes scuttling out of the poet's grasp, or changing from one emotional entity to another before the reader's eyes (`Language Ah Now You Have Me'). In the late poems, too, you find the lone journey and the steadfast learner: while one figure in a snowbound expanse struggles with the questions of his existence (`Malcolm Mooney's Land'), another, a master musician, tries to convey to his student the sacrifices the truly dedicated musician must make to play with genius simplicity (`Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons').
Graham's letters, published in the The Nightfisherman (edited by Michael and Margaret Snow, 1999), display the openness to the task of writing which underlies the extraordinary sense in the poetry of texts being formed as they are read. The letters and the poetry are confident in their beguiling doubleness of wonder and command, what Graham called in The Nightfishing (1955), `Intellect sung in a garment of innocence', and they admit the fact of the poet's apprenticeship. Poetry and life intermingled irresistibly for Graham. Viscous lines of poems bubble into his letters unattached to the discussion they intersperse, as if even the severe crust of the white page, not to mention the convention of a conversational tone in a letter, could not wholly contain his poetry's volcanic urgency. Reciprocally, many of the poems are cast as letters. In these, the poignancy of the need to speak, and the need to be heard, is heightened by addresses to the recently dead, notably several of the St Ives associated artists who had become his close friends.
Brought up in the shipyard town of Greenock, in the half-urban, half-rural county of Renfrewshire south-west of Glasgow, Graham would ordinarily have become an engineer, like his father. In fact he was just that, for a few years, but he chose to opt out of any conventional career. A humanities course at Newbattle Abbey was key to his change of direction. Broadcasting, journalism, librarianship, or academe might then have been a possibility, as they were and are for other poets, but Graham probably saw these occupations as the mere packaging and distribution trades within the chain of artform supply. He preferred to be a primary producer. What was in some ways a chance sojourn to Cornwall proved to be a lasting move - he never got back permanently to Scotland, though he had wanted to retire there - and the physical isolation of the villages near St Ives may have strengthened his resolve to be aloof from the poetry scene. He wasn't wholly distant, though: he travelled up to London now and again, hitchhiking to save money, and he knew several poets in the Fitzrovia set; he was lucky to secure early and authoritative publication in the United States. His concentration on London and America rather than Scotland, whose poetry editors treated him with a degree of condescension and perhaps incomprehension that lasted almost until his death, paid off. T.S. Eliot, who could be resistant to prickly home- grown modernism (he rejected collections by both Hugh MacDiarmid and Basil Bunting), accepted Graham's The White Threshold (1949).
Eliot and Faber kept faith with Graham, and The Nightfishing, like Bunting's Briggflatts, has surely joined the small group of distinguished long poems that now grace the British modernist canon. In the 1970s, Malcolm Mooney's Land and Implements in Their Places again justified that patronage, their clarity-in-difficulty finding new audiences for his work, especially helped by Graham's own dramatic readings. This edition brings together the posthumously published collections, restores The Seven Journeys to its rightful, framing, place at the beginning of the story, and adds helpful Place and People lists, a Glossary, and a bibliography. It is edited lightly but expertly by Matthew Francis and the introduction by Douglas Dunn will, I hope, bring more readers to one of the most remarkable poets of the last century.
This review is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.