W.S. Graham: “Dear Bryan Wynter”
Asked to list the key figures of 20th-century British poetry, even the most widely read of us might forget to include W.S. Graham. A Scottish poet who lived in Cornwall, England for over 40 years, Graham enjoyed a paradoxical relationship to literary fame as well. Though his books were published by Faber & Faber, Graham’s relative isolation and extreme poverty often left him bereft of an audience: a 15-year silence punctuated his career. On one end of that gap is The Nightfishing (1955), a book that showcases Graham’s earlier, more difficult phases, when he was disparaged as a “dazed disciple of Dylan Thomas.” Though the comparison is unfair, Graham’s early work does frequently include mouthfuls like this, from “Many Without Elegy”:
Saying ‘there’s my bleached-in-tears opponent
Prone on his brothering bolster in the week
Of love for unbandaged unsprayed-for men.’
This is difficult to both articulate and apprehend. But the collections that come after Graham’s 15-year publishing hiatus do herald a shift in focus—his later books were much less interested in big, burly words. What Graham allowed to shine through instead were the concerns central to all his work, early and late: the problems and possibilities of communication, as well as the ways language allows, develops—and complicates—relationships between people, and between people and poems. As Graham himself wrote in a letter to a friend, “Communication is what our lives are about. We must try. To be better or not doesn’t matter. Measurement is out of our reach. One only tries to send a message, a note, however inadequate from one aloneness to another.”
Graham wrote many letters in his life, though only a selection has been published as The Nightfisherman. His life in Cornwall was remote, his sense of “aloneness” acute. He never held a steady job, and his missives to friends are salted with requests for financial help. “How terrible to think I never get in touch with you but to ask for money,” he wrote to his friend Bryan Wynter, an artist, in 1971. “Can you please let us have £5?” Graham’s letters are full not just of talk about poetry but actual phrases of it. As the scholar Fiona Green has noted, “Graham’s poems and letters speak across to each other in several ways, one of which is simply that words sometimes travel between them.”
Graham wrote letters with poems in them, but his poems often mimicked letters as well. Even his earliest books include titles such as “1st Letter” and “A Letter More Likely to Myself.” His epistolary poetry speaks to his concern with communication. After all, we write letters (or e-mails or texts) to people who are not with us, relying on language to communicate the information we want to to relay, but we also depend on language to embody our sense of longing, to convey the loss we feel without that person, to that person. Graham’s letter-poem “Dear Bryan Wynter” is at once elegy and letter, written to a dear friend who had recently died.
Graham lived among artists in Cornwall, and his work reflects their influence to varying degrees. He befriended avant-garde and abstract expressionist painters such as Wynter, Roger Hilton, and Ben Nicolson; his interest in “work in which abstract and figurative meet” is partially due to their influence, according to critic Ralph Pite. “Dear Bryan Wynter” is both elegy and letter, but it’s also a meditation on language and image, on what can be seen and said to someone who is absent and what might be imagined in the space of that loss.
“Dear Bryan Wynter” pretends to be a single letter, and it quotes letters that Graham wrote to friends and Wynter’s widow, Monica: “This is just a word or two in the middle of the night,” he wrote to her. “You mustn’t think I am eccentrically making a thing of Bryan dying. It is only me writing to you, suddenly being struck by the realisation of his absence.” The poem’s opening, “This is only a note / To say how sorry I am / You died” transfers the tone of Graham’s letter to Monica; it also mimics the abashed way we use language when writing to someone in grief through the tiny, throw-away adjective only and the reliance on simple, straightforward phrasing. The entire poem uses trivial small talk and the kinds of clichéd language we stuff correspondence with: “Anyhow, how are things?” and “Do you want anything?” become all the more poignant because they are language acts stripped of their action. They fill space but can never be fulfilled themselves. Graham uses stock phrases to suggest the paucity of language, but language allows the poem to exist in the first place—it even suggests that Wynter might be on some kind of receiving end after all. Lines such as “You will realize / What a position it puts / Me in” and “Bryan, I would be obliged / If you would scout things out / For me” allow Bryan a future, even if it’s only a future tense.
Language maintains the fiction of Bryan’s presence in other ways too. The poem obsessively posits questions to Wynter and to itself as though endless questioning might delay the “realisation of his absence,” the mute response that Wynter can only give:
Are you still somewhere
With your long legs
And twitching smile under
Your blue hat walking
Across a place? Or am
I greedy to make you up
Again out of memory?
Are you there at all?
And in the next section:
Do you want anything?
Where shall I send something?
Rice-wine, meanders, paintings
By your contemporaries?
Or shall I send a kind
Of news of no time
Leaning against the wall
Outside your old house.
Later in the poem comes the admission: “This is only a note / To say I am aware / You are not here.” Graham’s reliance on large, empty nouns such as anything, something, and somewhere, as well as the floating adjectives here and there, is notable here and in other late poems, which are spare, seemingly empty places. Gone are the large, loud lexicons of his first books. In their stead, Graham relies on place holders such as place, here, and there for their suggestive emptiness: they conjure the feeling of location without defining it. They are both actual and abstract in the way that Pite described Wynter’s and his fellow artists’ work.
This poem confronts absence as well as landscape. Graham’s language turns from a banality such as “Where shall I send something?” to an existential image that captures loss and longing in the barest outline of objective reality imaginable: “Or shall I send a kind / Of news of no time / Leaning against the wall / Outside your old house.” The lines work with and against one another to create and complicate the image of the poet in front of Wynter’s old house. As the phrases unspool, it becomes unclear whether the poet or the “news of no time” is “leaning against the wall”; the poem wants readers to see this seemingly simple image in both concrete and abstract ways. Such effects turn the poem into a kind of homage to Wynter’s work as well as his person.
In a retrospective of Wynter’s work at Tate St. Ives, the curators noted that Wynter’s “works are fundamentally concerned with man’s inner relationship to nature.” A Bryan Wynter painting often glides around representing actual objects, persons, and scenes, always on the brink of falling into them. His long, dream-like shapes can recall human forms or natural processes. The curators go on to quote Wynter himself, describing the importance to his work of capturing first impressions:
I find it helpful to think of that moment at which the eye looks out at the world it has not yet recognised, in which true seeing has not yet been translated into the useful concepts with which the mind immediately swamps it.
Graham re-creates that sense of “true seeing” in the third section of “Dear Bryan Wynter,” which starts, as Wynter recommends, upon waking:
I am up. I’ve washed
The front of my face
And here I stand looking
Out over the top
Half of my bedroom window.
There almost as far
As I can see I see
St Buryan’s church tower.
An inch to the left, behind
That dark rise of woods,
Is where you used to lurk.
The small dislocations and additions within this stanza build the scene strangely: the poet hasn’t washed his face but “the front of [his] face”; he’s not looking out his window but “out over the top / half” of it. Line breaks also contribute to a jagged, shifting sense of action. They pile on top of one another in unexpected ways, seeming to proceed as units of sense—“And here I stand looking”—but actually working as slices of scenery that require readers to constantly adjust their understanding of the scene’s perspective. Delaying the verb in the last sentence attaches the description “An inch to the left, behind” to “St Buryan’s church tower” (nearly an anagram of “St Bryan,” as Fiona Green notes). “That dark rise of woods” floats on its own line, almost without location at all, which seems fitting because it’s modified not by another piece of landscape but by the ghost of Wynter himself. Like the first section, which included the line “Your blue hat walking,” this part of the poem shows how language can disorient and distract us from “the useful concepts” we immediately reach for. The poem distorts landscape, but grief and absence have also distorted its language.
Both Graham and Wynter were interested in distortion. Wynter’s later work included a series of installations he called Images Moving Out Onto Space (IMOOS). Hanging a series of objects in front of a huge parabolic mirror, Wynter allowed each “work” to be the product of each individual viewer. Graham alternately celebrated and feared that poetry might constitute a similar process. To the poet and critic C.H. Sisson, he wrote:
Without diminishing at all the responsibility of the poet’s intention the poem never goes through the ‘space’ between the poet and the reader without distortion. But the distortion is necessary and its ultimate value in the mind of the reader is the poem plus his best effort of beholding.
In his manifesto of sorts, “Notes on a Poetry of Release,” Graham exclaimed, “The poem is not a handing out of the same packet to everyone, as it is not a thrown-down heap of words for us to choose the bonniest. The poem is the replying chord to the reader. It is the reader’s involuntary reply.” Yet Graham’s own life story suggests his persistent belief that both language and poetry allow people to talk to, even know, one another.
Graham devoted himself to poetry; he chose it over financial security, a sense of filial and national belonging, even health. “The effort to speak honestly and be heard is difficult, communication is difficult,” he wrote Alan Clodd. “To speak of one’s self honestly is difficult.” However difficult communication might be, it wasn’t impossible, as Graham’s entire life and body of work show. “To Bryan Wynter,” the last poem in his last book, eloquently speaks to the dependability of even the most hollow and over-used phrases. The morning after Wynter died, Graham wrote to his friend Robin Skelton: “This is not a letter to tell you that somebody has died. You don’t know him anyhow.… Are you there? Is your dog there? I make your dog a symbol.” Graham again lifts his own language from letter to poem. “Dear Bryan Wynter” ends
Bryan, I would be obliged
If you would scout things out
For me. Although I am not
Just ready to start out.
I am trying to be better,
Which will make you smile
Under your blue hat.
I know I make a symbol
Of the foxglove on the wall.
It is because it knows you.
Graham’s final request to Wynter uses the stock phrases he’s recycled throughout: “I would be obliged,” “scout things out,” “I am trying to be better.” And yet his last admission, “I know I make a symbol,” speaks to his awareness of the comfort we find in such locutions. Graham doesn’t parody clichés in this poem, but depends on them—they are a kind of language always available, and they exist in common for all of us. “There aren’t any words,” “I don’t know what to say” become the very things we do say, the words we do use to fill the emptiness when a loved one has died. Even these artless phrases become, for Graham, evidence of the attempt to overcome the difficulty of saying anything to anyone. Graham wrote to a friend about “the paradoxical hunger” of art: “To always want to share aloneness, to share what happens within one’s own lonely room, to wonder how alike or unalike one is from someone else.” “Dear Bryan Wynter” shows how language can at once make present an absent loved one and acknowledge the sleight of hand such conjuring requires. It is because we can make things symbols that we might speak to the dead, re-creating landscapes that pre-date and persist through loss. In the end, Graham’s work shows how language and writing, letters and elegies, sustain us.
Hannah Brooks-Motl was born in Wisconsin and earned an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of the poetry collections The New Years (2014) and M (2015). Her criticism has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online and The New Republic/The Book, among other places. With Stephen Burt...