W. S. Graham
B. 1918 D. 1986
Have I not been trying to use the obstacle/Of language well? - 'Malcolm Mooney's Land', W. S. Graham
About W. S. Graham
W. S. Graham (1918-1986) was neglected in his own lifetime but his reputation as a major modernist romantic has been growing steadily since his death, with the help of influential champions such as Harold Pinter and Michael Schmidt. He was born in Greenock, Scotland, and initially seemed set to follow his father into the ship-building trade, training as a structural engineer. However, a year studying philosophy and literature at an adult education centre outside Edinburgh proved decisive, setting him on the path of becoming a writer. It was one that he followed with extreme dedication for the rest of his life, choosing to live on the meagre income form his writing rather than be distracted by other employment. Graham’s first four collections are heavily influenced by the dense metaphors and complex sound structures of Dylan Thomas. Graham was identified as being part of the New Apocalypse movement which grew up around Thomas, though his voice was distinctive enough to attract the attention of T. S. Eliot who published The White Threshold (1949) through Faber & Faber, his publishers for the rest of his career. The New Apocalypse style fell out of fashion with the rise of the Movement in the 1950s which was particularly associated with the irony and understatement of Philip Larkin. Graham himself always defended his earlier work, but he nevertheless made a strenuous effort to change his own style, to simplify his language and deepen his meaning. The attempt bore fruit with The Nightfishing (1955), particularly in the title poem’s evocation of the sea through distinctive rhythms rather than exuberant wordplay. Now considered one of the finest long poems of the 20th Century, The Nightfishing wasn’t favourably received, despite the support of Eliot and Hugh MacDiarmid, and failed to reach a wide readership. Graham continued to refine his technique regardless. By now, after a short period in the 1940s sampling the bohemian life of London, Graham was living in Madron, Cornwall. In 1954 he married Nessi Dunsmuir after a long courtship (the title of his second collection 2ND Poems was a coded dedication to her and he addressed love poems to her throughout their life together). Graham continued to explore with increasing rigour the themes which had always dominated his poetry: place, both real and imagined, poetic and private self-identity, and silence and language. This last became a particular obsession as Graham struggled to “use the obstacle /Of language well.” Perhaps this is why there is such a long gap, fifteen years, between The Nightfishing and his next collection, Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970). Amongst his finest work, Malcolm Mooney’s Land is an investigation of isolation dominated by images drawn from Graham’s reading of Nansen’s book of Arctic exploration, Farthest North. A Civil List pension of £500 per annum was granted him in 1974 and perhaps this alleviation of his financial hardships contributed to his late-flowering: Implements in Their Place appeared in 1974, followed by Collected Poems 1942-1977 two years later. Graham died in Madron in 1986, his last collection, Aimed at Nobody, appearing posthumously in 1993.
During his long years in Cornwall Graham made many friends amongst the artistic community centred on St. Ives. It is these friendships which are mourned in his Archive recordings in the form of three moving elegies: for Roger Hilton, Bryan Winter and Peter Lanyon. Together they demonstrate Graham’s skilful manipulation of verse forms, which balances control with an easy colloquial flow. Their intimate quality is enhanced by Graham’s charming and informal speaking of them: he sounds as if he’s addressing old friends, which, of course, he is. Graham, whilst a poet of isolation, also believed passionately in the struggle to communicate, to reach out beyond the individual self: he was always a convivial man whose many friendships were cemented through long and passionate correspondences. These poems, two of which are written in the form of a letter, are a vivid celebration of human warmth, even in the context of loss, and as such are a fine tribute to his lifelong loyalty, both to people and to poetry.
Recording from the private recordings of Ronnie Duncan, used with his permission and that of the Estate.
Featured in the Archive
Books by W. S. Graham
Faber & Faber, 1996
New Collected Poems
Faber & Faber, 2005