Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Outward Journey

On the Scottish poet W.S. Graham.

Early in 2016, by chance rather than design, we were appointed joint coordinators of centenary activities for the Scottish poet W.S. Graham (1918–1986). Rosalind Mudaliar, Graham’s daughter and literary executor, had inherited her father’s estate in early 2013 and was looking for assistance. We answered her call. Initially our work involved providing advice and developing an inventory of the estate archive, though we would soon turn our attention toward Graham’s upcoming centenary.

For those unfamiliar with W.S. Graham, you’re not alone. While he is widely admired among poets, he is not as well-known as he ought to be. William Sydney Graham was born on November 19, 1918 in Greenock, a close-knit community situated on the south bank of the River Clyde which, at that time, was home to a number of shipbuilding companies. The Greenock accent is particularly soft. One might say it’s confluent with the surrounding land- and waterscapes of Inverclyde, while remaining particular to the small town. The earliest known photograph of Graham, a family portrait showing the future author at about ten years old, reveals a similarly close and happy positioning of the kin. At that stage in his life, Graham wasn’t to know he’d spend most of his life away from family, at the opposite end of the UK, in west Cornwall, a coastal area where ancient moors are dotted with tin mines, which no doubt provided a distant echo of the Scotland of his formative years — both Clydeside and Cornwall feature memorably in his writing. Nor could he know he would be published by T.S. Eliot and would, in time, become one of the most influential Scottish poets of the twentieth century.

As was common among the working class of his time, Graham left school at fourteen and apprenticed as an engineer. In 1938, a union bursary allowed him to attend the Workers’ Education Association college at Newbattle Abbey, near Edinburgh, where he studied, among other subjects, literature, philosophy, and drama. The experience proved to be life changing. At Newbattle, Graham met his future wife, Nessie Dunsmuir, and his determination to follow an artistic path grew strong. From this point on, he would not seek regular employment, choosing instead to pursue his poetry full time. He was to rely greatly on the charity of friends for accommodation and subsistence, together with occasional small payments for publication, grants, and finally (in his late fifties) a Civil List pension. His life was artistically rich, though the cost was years of uncertainty and poverty.

Graham was lucky to make important literary contacts early. He met Edwin Morgan in 1937 and first encountered the Scottish modernist firebrand Hugh MacDiarmid in Glasgow during the early years of WWII. He developed a special rapport with Dylan Thomas, who not only influenced his early work, but also helped to champion it. Graham is unusual, however, in that he might be thought of as a poet among painters. His early artistic exemplar was the Polish-born painter Jankel Adler, who arrived in Scotland in 1941 after fighting with the reconstituted Polish army in France. At this time, Graham shared a house in Glasgow with the artists Benjamin Creme and Robert Frame, who would produce artwork for his first published collection, Cage without Grievance, in 1942. Graham also became close to “The Two Roberts” — Colquhoun and MacBryde — and John Minton, who were highly regarded artists in the years after the war. In this creative milieu he was widely exposed to abstract art, which would be important in his poetry.

Until the fifties, when Graham finally settled in Cornwall, his life would be peripatetic. After an initial spell in Cornwall in the mid-forties, he would spend time in London, France, Italy, and the US. He taught at New York University during 1947–8, then stayed at Yaddo across the summer. He would also read his work in the US in 1951 on a tour with David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine, organized by John Malcolm Brinnin. In 1948, T.S. Eliot accepted Graham’s fourth collection, The White Threshold, for publication, and Faber and Faber remained his primary publisher. The Nightfishing (1955) crowned fifteen productive years and signaled the poet’s full maturity, showcasing work of philosophical depth and sustained lyric power.

In 1956 Graham and Nessie moved into one of the Old Coastguard’s Cottages near the cliffs at Gurnard’s Head, between St. Ives and Land’s End. They made new friendships and fell back into old ones. Again Graham found himself close to many experimental artists — chief perhaps among them Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, and Bryan Wynter, though also Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Robert Brennan, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, and Karl Weschke, among others. Graham was introduced to Roger Hilton by Patrick Heron in 1956. The two developed a close but volatile friendship, often exacerbated by alcohol. While Graham had been surrounded by successful artists for decades, his relationship with Hilton seems to have triggered a shift in his poetry. New poems from this period — including “Hilton Abstract” (published in the New Statesman and Nation, January 1957) and “The Constructed Space” (Poetry, October 1958) — show his work becoming more overtly concerned with the abstract and the difficulty of communication between individuals, including writer and reader — themes which would become obsessive in the poetry of what might be called his late style.

While The Nightfishing found admirers, it was overshadowed by the rise of the Movement poets and critics, who championed a new, more austere aesthetic in UK poetry. Nevertheless, Graham remained undeflected in his approach, working with steady discipline over the following years, his poetry undergoing a startling change of idiom before he published his next book, Malcolm Mooney’s Land, in 1970. That collection and his last, Implements in Their Places (1977), were for many readers his greatest achievement, and their publication brought the small fame that he enjoyed until the end of his life.

Materials relating to W.S. Graham’s life and work have been scattered over the years, between private hands and public archives on at least two continents. The estate archive is located in Devon, England. To sit in Graham’s spindle-backed writing chair, with its scrolling arms and seat upholstered in black leather, poring over the archive’s many treasures, is to witness the artistic remnants of a man who had an immense and restless passion for making. It seems everything Graham did, he did as an artist. For instance, he would often correspond with friends by sending them the card cover of a book, which he’d cut from some volume or other and redecorated with a painted image. He’d add his message on the back, together with the relevant address and postage stamp. From Canada in 1973, Graham sent Nessie a printed postcard depicting a Mountie greeting Chief Sitting Eagle. A shared speech bubble was added by hand, containing the acronym “TTBB,” one of Graham’s catchphrases, meaning “Try to be better.” On the reverse, he offered: “Calgary, Jack London weather.” This habit of artistic intervention was irresistible to Graham, part of a defining 
poetic methodology, and his visual artistry impressed many.

Items we’ve encountered while developing the archive inventory 
include manuscript and typescript drafts and completed poems, decorated fair copies written in Graham’s fine calligraphic handwriting on large scrolls of art paper, letters, postcards, photographs, drawings, and watercolors, and many of the author’s own books and journals. One of our early discoveries was a poem written in a frail hand on orange card, entitled “An Entertainment for W.S. Graham for Him Having Reached Sixty-Five.” The poem’s title brings to mind the late author’s “entertainment” for his friend and fellow poet David Wright, written in June 1979 to mark Wright’s approaching sixtieth birthday. Though undated, Graham’s poem to himself was possibly composed during the “spanking summer” of 1983, a few months prior to his sixty-fifth birthday. While both poems employ a light, comic tone, there’s a striking difference between them. In the former, Graham is quick to write-off the importance of any milestone of age, but the fact that he soon felt the need to acknowledge one of his own is not without significance. By 1983, Graham’s health was failing. Years of heavy drinking and poor diet had taken a toll. The symptoms of his final, though as yet undiagnosed, illness were causing him difficulty and concern. The poem he drafted during that hot summer is set in Epidaurus, Greece, the healing center of the classical world. Despite the metonymic unease brought to bear by the choice of this location, Graham cheekily suggests the work is “not an auto-elegy.” This characteristic disavowal only heightens the pathos of the poem — a poem in which, perhaps for the first time, his frailty is allowed to be seen.

Graham’s “entertainment,” published for the first time in this 
edition of Poetry, was the starting point for a centenary anthology, The Caught Habits of Language, which will include twenty recently discovered poems by the author, together with previously unseen photographs and many tributes written to him by contemporary poets. Also featured in this edition of Poetry is a selection of short poems written while Graham was developing his fragmentary sequence “Implements in Their Places” during the late sixties. These neglected “implements” were sourced from two separate archives, though the majority are held in the Robin Skelton Special Collection at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada, and were brought to light by Nathan Hamilton and David Nowell Smith 
during a research visit for the University of East Anglia. Graham’s completed poem is a sequence of seventy-four short pieces. The Skelton collection alone contains a similar number. Reading Graham’s published sequence alongside those he decided to set aside is very interesting; it’s easy to imagine that he wanted his poem to be angular, that to some degree he wanted to eschew the more lyric and epigrammatic elements of what he’d drafted, because many of the discarded implements are brilliantly achieved and contain much lyric and philosophical grace. This discovery is a significant one.

Also of note is a poem written by Graham for the widow of his friend, the artist Peter Lanyon. Readers may be aware of the author’s much-anthologized elegy to Lanyon, “The Thermal Stair,” written in the wake of Lanyon’s death after a gliding accident in the summer of 1964. The poem for Sheila Lanyon is dated June 18, 1966, and was inscribed by Graham on the flyleaf of a copy of his collection The White Threshold, which had originally belonged to Peter. This poignant poem is a wonderful example of Graham offering support to a friend in the manner closest to him — his art. Although their method and purpose are different, Graham’s poem recalls Basil Bunting’s “On the Flyleaf of Pound’s Cantos,” which had been published in the UK journal Agenda in October–November 1965. A useful parallel can be made concerning the lives of Bunting and Graham, and their early reception as poets. Both spent decades facing financial hardship and near artistic obscurity. While their work was little known in the UK until later in their lives, they were published in Poetry early in their careers, and each contributed major poems to the journal in the mid-sixties; part one of Bunting’s seminal “Briggflatts” appearing in January 1966 and Graham’s “Malcolm Mooney’s Land” in the September issue of the same year. The publication of these and other poems in Poetry brought not only much-needed funds, but also wide visibility at what was to be a key moment in each poet’s career.

In his article “W.S. Graham: Some Memories,” Irish poet Matthew Sweeney recalls being invited to read Graham’s poems at the launch of Faber’s posthumous Selected Poems, by the book’s editor Christopher Reid: “On the train down Christopher said he’d been with Seamus Heaney a day or two before, and Seamus had said that whereas Dylan Thomas pointed back to the 20th century, W.S. Graham pointed forward to the 21st.” There is a steadfastness about W.S. Graham’s legacy that means his work has aged well. Reading his poems in 2018, it’s easy to imagine them being written today. Over the course of our work for the upcoming centenary celebrations we’ve been happy to find that a generation of young, emerging poets are finding themselves galvanized by Graham’s example. His influence on contemporary poets, writing across the spectrum of poetic practice, is strong. When viewing materials from the estate archive, despite the warmth, humor, the outgoing anarchic volubility, and the all-out artistic engagement that is everywhere to be seen, there is also always a sense of Malcolm Mooney, Graham’s alter-ego “mushing across the blind / Ice-cap between us in his furs,” and Graham himself, as the solitary pioneer of the outer reaches of language. The playwright Harold Pinter caught this side of Graham, calling him “an 
explorer whose journey never ends.”

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2018

Rachael Boast’s most recent book is Void Studies (Picador, 2016), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.

Andy Ching was born in Glasgow and is cofounder and managing editor of the UK poetry publisher Donut Press.