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The ‘Discovery’ of W.S Graham.

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By Peter Riley.

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W.S. Graham
New Selected Poems
Edited by Matthew Francis

Faber 2018 | 140pp paperback | £13.00 | $11.68

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W.S. Graham
Selected by Michael Hofmann

New York Review Books 2018 | 144pp paperback | $15.00

The Caught Habits of Language: An Entertainment for W.S. Graham for Him Having Reached One Hundred.
Edited by Rachael Boast, Andy Ching and Nathan Hamilton.
Introduction by Jeremy Noel-Tod.

Donut Press 2018 | 272pp paperback | £15.00 | $19.08

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The Chicago Review, volume 62 issues 1,2,3, winter 2018 – 9.
Paperback, 424pp of which 202pp form

“W.S. Graham: Approaches” edited by David Nowell Smith | $20.00

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SOMETIMES YOU LOSE your temper. There’s nothing else you can do. They don’t listen, they just keep repeating the same old mantra year in year out and nothing will ever make them think again.

There has been a “discovery” of the poetry of W.S. Graham; it has  now reached a high pitch. He has come to be recognised as a “major poet”, after many years of neglect..

Meanwhile, there has been a “discovery” of the poetry of W.S. Graham; it has been going on for about 25 years and has now reached a high pitch. He has come to be recognised as a “major poet”, after many years of neglect, with a New Collected Poems published in 2004 and since then an increasing chorus of homage in the form of symposia, books of selected poems (now three) and recently a collection of 100 new poems in honour of Graham for his “hundredth birthday”. There is even a Graham exhibition at The National Poetry Library in London, at which you can, if you book ahead, sit at Graham’s actual writing desk and, presumably, pretend to be him. This campaign has benefitted from a release of previously unpublished poetry and documents from Graham’s archive.

This is all good news. Graham is a poet of high stature and should be known as such. There are bound to be problems and unanswered questions: Do we get a true history of his career? Is his work really so continuously excellent that no discrimination is necessary? What is implied about British poetry as a whole now and in the future by this continual praise? Might not at least some actual criticism, offered with all due respect to a remarkably inspiring poet, be a necessary component of any such spotlighting?

Actually there is a lot of negative criticism but it is directed almost exclusively at the poetry of the first half of his career, which is marked by dense figuration acting as a barrier to immediate recognition, in popular terms difficulty and inaccessibility. And it is the entire first half, not just his “early work” as most critics call it, as if it were juvenilia. The unredeemed Graham reaches to about 1955 when he was 38. Some critics hate this earlier poetry so much that they cannot bring themselves to mention it at all, and indeed silence is probably the weapon most commonly used against it. It is virtually absent from most commentary and all selections. Quantitatively you cannot really speak of “a lot” of criticism but what there is, is so vehement in its dismissals and the tone of disgust it indulges, that it weighs heavily on the view of the whole, and clearly most of the new young enthusiasts have not paid much attention to it. And the campaign of denigration receives extra strength from being part of a long-standing and unshakeable prejudice in academic criticism which declares that not only Graham’s but all poetry written in the UK during the 1940s was unspeakably bad, that for reasons never given it was simply not possible for anyone to write poetry of any value during that decade. This is the “mantra” that won’t go away. I shall return to this, and perhaps lose my temper, but first there is the question of the creation out of Graham’s oeuvre of the poet we want him to be.

Amazon.co.ukGRAHAM’S DEFINITIVE CANON was set by him as the contents of the seven books published during his lifetime as represented in the Collected Poems of 1979. For this some twenty poems were omitted from the earliest books, and some of the poems written soon after 1979 would obviously have been included if he had done any more self-editing.1 But there is no certainty that anything first published posthumously was considered by him to be either finished or publishable, which means that the last 100 pages, almost, of the New Collected Poems fall outside a strict definition of his approved legacy. Since then at least eighty poems or fragments have been printed in the two symposia before us and elsewhere.

Graham worried about leaving inferior writing behind him, as in this scene of near drowning —

Do not allow me to sink, I said
To a top floating ribbon of kelp.
As I was lifted on each wave
And made to slide into the vale
I wanted not to drown, I wanted
To make it all right with my dear,
To tell the cat I’ll be away,
To have them destroyed, the poems
Which were not objects enough on their own
Even entertainment value. I wanted
Through my saltwater breath to leave
A bubble or two in its abstract sphere
On the surface of their delicious minds. 2

His hopes for the completed poem here echo an insistence declared throughout his career, that the poem is not a direct transfer of sense or emotion from writer to reader, but a construct created in the act of writing to hold experience apart as a public and “abstract” thing, rendered into object and obstacle, which the reader recreates back to his own humanity. The harder it is the greater the potential reward.

That was a crude shot. The principle is beautifully elucidated in the sequence “What is the Language Using Us For?” Most of the later poetry is an astonished exposition of this condition, and a play with the paradoxes inhering in it. Most of the earlier poetry is a ruthless submergence in this condition, and a sacrifice of instantly functional language into it.

Image taken from Amazon.comI DON’T WANT to go on at length about the rejection of Graham’s earlier work. Michael Hofmann is the principal culprit. From Graham’s first five books he includes three poems, of which one is a sport. He does begrudgingly include “The Nightfishing” (1951), still considered by many to be a major achievement: “Long stretches of it leave me cold”. All the earlier work is swept aside in one stroke with the words “larded idiolect of poem-ese” (an interestingly larded and idiolectic3 phrase which I shall examine in a moment). Francis is rather more generous and reads the poems in the book The Nightfishing (1955) as representing his first fully achieved work, leaving the bulk of the earlier work as a failure, due mainly to Graham having had the misfortune to start writing in the dreaded 1940s. Jeremy Noel-Tod glides over the issue by identifying the earlier work as “Modernistic” and its rejection therefore at one with the 1950s rejection of all such in Britain. But some of the most vicious attacks on Graham and Thomas have come from critics devoted to the American Modernist development, notably Donald Davie.

No one has to read the earlier poems; if the later clarity (as it is generally characterised, though Graham disagreed) is what you want of him, there is plenty of it and no need to pursue him further. What is disturbing is the tone in which these critics tell you not to read it — and that Graham had no right to write it.

However offensive, this rejection is not completely thoughtless. The young Graham, fresh from studies involving contemporary linguistic philosophy, abandoning Scotland for London and the bohemian artistic life, could be singularly awkward in pressing an already dense metaphorical mode further towards complete closure. The first poem of Cage Without Grievance (1942) shows his common early writing in the first two lines, moving towards an extreme in lines three and four —

Over the apparatus of the Spring is drawn
A constructed festival of pulleys from the sky.
A dormouse swindled from numbers into wisdom
Trades truth with bluebells… 4

The bulk of the earlier work is, like lines 1–2 here, a rather crowded figurative discourse reluctant to let any term pass through its hands as it stands, which should trouble no reader experienced in modern poetry and willing to read imaginatively. But the next two lines abandon the scenic anchorage by introducing terms which should be figurative but are too removed from connectivity to figure anything with any certainty (which is not to say that there is no sense in them).

Image taken from Amazon.co.ukTHE CAUGHT HABITS of Language is encouraging. The 100 new poems in it are mostly by young poets and a majority of them show what I take to be a deliberate intention to catch at least something of Graham’s cadence and to make a move towards his poem-concept, the fortified solitude of the finished implement. Very few can be strongly related to the earlier Graham; which seems to be largely unknown to his younger adherents, and the later occurrences of a disarming near-banal simplicity (“I’m sorry you are dead”) seems to be an inimitable feature. But the whole is a heartening testimony to the fact that Graham’s poetry is making a difference. This sort of move is, I think, quite distant from the poetry of impact and issues encouraged in the current “poetry boom”. But I have seen very little acknowledgement of the devotion to Graham of those contemporaries of his who valued his work and tolerated his (at times frenetic) presence on their floors and in their favourite pubs, nor of those ten or twenty years younger than Graham who “discovered” him in the 1950s, and went on to promote him as best they could, some of them even making the pilgrimage to Cornwall and passing round the hat for him at their own events. I know of at least one senior poet, whose style and neglect both bear comparison with Graham’s, whose submission to The Caught Habits of Language was rejected.

The Chicago Review has long been a servant of the Anglophone academic avant-garde and so pulls Graham in that direction, but it also produces ten essays which take Graham very seriously. Some subject him to a variety of conceptual and theoretical vocabularies – things which don’t normally disturb the sleep of the “poetry boom” – but others are simply thoughtful and well engaged. Two of them especially (by John Wilkinson and W.N. Herbert) move Graham’s poetry further out, past the “literary” or “poetical” border posts, without reaching too far into the revolutionary politics we might have expected. There is a common need to assure us that Graham is always, or at his best, necessarily radical, but the earlier writing is very little referenced for this, and there is the expected nervousness about concepts such as “lyric”. It is depressing to find Graham having to be defended because: “There is an ‘I’ in the first line”/ “There is a referential situation in a particular time and location” / “These are complete sentences, grammatically correct, even fully punctuated”… these being, apparently, signs of a deeply reactionary, perhaps even fascistic mentality.5

WHEN A NEGLECTED poet suddenly becomes highly acceptable, as Graham has, certain things seem to follow fairly automatically: the shift of attention from the poems to the poet; the simplification and dramatization of the person and the life story; the creation of myths; the erection of a bandwagon that almost any industrious poetaster-authority can jump onto with ease; the sudden conversion of pundits who have previously shown no knowledge of the poet’s existence; claims of all-round creativity (as artist, musician or whatever the poet is known to have indulged); attempts at appropriation by sectional interests…And somebody, and it looks like me, has at some point to refer back to such realities as can be retrieved:

Graham was not all that badly neglected, in fact by current standards he was hardly neglected at all. There is no doubt about the poverty but the 1950s to 1970s involved being taken on by a major publisher, a pension of £500 a year (worth about £4000 in 2017); two Arts Council grants, a reading trip to Canada, many paid readings and periodical appearances, a published monograph on him and so forth, all of which suggests that he was being quite widely heard.

Graham was not a “great painter” but had a certain facility for bold strokes and a facial formula after Picasso (or Robert Frame?) which he repeated many times.

The 15-year hiatus while he studied to change his way of writing is not categorical. He wrote during it but published little. And he studied Pound as well as Eliot.

The portrayal of Graham as some sort of lovable rogue is neither here nor there, but if a corrective is needed a good one is Sebastian Barker’s memoir of Graham as an insufferable bully.6

A case could be made out that the later work, with all its manifest successes, involved an increase in the quantity and probably speed of his writing, which, coming as it did from a fixed position, could result in a loss of intensity. He settled comfortably into the paradox of the author-reader condition as his over-riding theme, a pact with the reader earned after a long process of confrontation and questioning. The poetry was in many ways opened out while adhering obsessively to the paradox, but with an ease and a consequent laxity which sometimes resulted in careless or obvious figures (“when I was a buoy…”) There is not the sustained high tension and calm of the opening of “The Nightfishing”. The more rejected or incomplete poems are brought up from the archive, the more this seems to be the case. The only critical article I know which suggests an occasional falling off of intensity and verbal invention in the later poems is the one I wrote myself for Jacket 7 It is also as far as I know the only one to point out that moments of halting difficulty can occur in some of the most accessible and admired of his later poems.

I call them “blockages”, points at which the now eased reader’s passage through the poem is blocked. They don’t appear very often but they are there. His new admirers seem not to notice them or not to be troubled by them. They are moments of pure idiolect, local and private terms which no one not in the know could possibly recognise, but offered as if they are meanings. If they can be navigated at all it can only be through footnotes, which most of them do get from Matthew Francis. There are also features which cause no conceptual problems, but seem intrusively puzzling. These blockages will occur even in some of his most admired and moving elegies. “The Thermal Stair”, perhaps because it is earlier, though well within the “accepted” category, has as many as eight of them, excluding place-names: jasper / the withdrawal of upper-class initials from the name alfred wallis / vesseled men / Seventy-two by sixty / SARACINESCO / the phallic boys / Godrefy and the Wolf / The tin singers. “Dear Bryan Wynter” has three: the carn Foxglove / meanders / Houseman’s star.

Most of these points are explained in the notes on both poems in the New Collected. This only eradicates the problem if we accept that such notes will have to permanently accompany the poems henceforth, and not because they are 500 years old, but because they propose a wholeness which cannot be limited to the public vocabulary. “Carn” was the name of Bryan Wynter’s house, and Graham could easily have mitigated the halt by letting it retain its capital C, but chose not to. Both poems are in the Collected of 1979 which Graham chose himself, without notes. Dylan Thomas also issued his own Collected in 1953 with no notes. We were expected to cope ourselves with such difficulties as we found, perhaps by grasping the full nature of the account offered.

It is as if in the middle of his mature fluency he obstinately refuses to be 100 per cent the poet everyone wants. These points need to be acknowledged, for they are integral to his oeuvre as a whole. What he is doing is reminding us of the necessary distinction of the poem as constructed object, a condition of which is that emotions and realizations which are integral to the occasion but do not have a public tongue cannot be excluded. They are part of the concealment but also, reaching the other side of the reader’s defeat, acts of disclosure.

As the “discovery” of Graham is conducted as a crescendo of praise, his achievement is represented as an active and positive series of acts on his part, a triumph of creativity or a “mastery” over his materials. This fails to notice what has been called the “near helplessness” in his confrontation with the independent powers of language, which runs through his career but is especially evident in the fall into utter simplicity when faced with the deaths of his friends and the singularity of love. The triumphant gaining of the sheer reality in all its ordinariness is also a declaration of defeat. 8

I SHAN’T LOSE my temper. I’ll just record briefly what a dismal astonishment it was to find Michael Hofmann in his introduction trotting out a block condemnation of the 1940s in British poetry which has been around since the 1950s, repeated again and again by a succession of poet-critics without ever a shred of analysis or any kind of option. I couldn’t believe that anyone still took it seriously after all this time. Hofmann’s attack on Graham’s earlier work is inseparable from his dismissal of the 1940s as a whole. This is what he says:

I have no special brief for the early poems of the 1940s and ‘50s — they strike me as having been for almost everyone then writing, two rank bad decades for poetry. […] Graham started off writing a larded idiolect of poem-ese derived from… [usual suspects: Yeats, Hopkins, Crane, Thomas] …I don’t care much for anything Graham wrote before he broke up his long lines and simplified, or better, purified his vocabulary. […] It was the time of the New Romantics, but really almost everything and everyone was awful then.

Then after an accusation of “random and heraldic proliferation” comes the exercise in self-evidence which almost everyone trotting out these platitudes has found to be their only weapon. He quotes “The Dual Privilege” lines 47 to 53 (New Collected page 45) and goes on to say nothing at all. Why should he when the poetry so blatantly proclaims its own awfulness? His final shot is at The Nightfishing which he includes in his selection but evidently reluctantly. “It leaves me […] lukewarm for long stretches.”

This is not criticism. It is not even invective. It is some kind of machine-produced collective professorial auto-speak. It is entirely void of analytic, historical or any kind of reasoned content, and always has been. It has never been clear exactly what is under attack. Nobody knows what constitutes the ghastly “New Romantics”. They probably include “New Apocalypse”, which was a constituted grouping which encouraged internationalism, an impassioned disorder and generally a Nietzscheian kind of self-reinvention, but neither Thomas nor Graham subscribed to it, and among those who did was Nicholas Moore, whose urbane poetry partook of the group style not at all (and could be brilliant). But he too disappeared under the weight of inexplicit criticism, as did hoards of poets of all kinds, some of them in direct succession from Auden, for the crime was simply to be born around 1910 – 20. 9

It all comes down to Dylan Thomas. Both the literary academy and the respectable part of the London literary scene hated his poetry so much that they attempted to close down the entire decade…

It all comes down to Dylan Thomas. Both the literary academy and the respectable part of the London literary scene hated his poetry so much that they attempted to close down the entire decade (actually at least 15 years) in which it was produced.10 Their motto was “all sound and no sense”, though their actual problem was being faced with such a mass of compacted sense that they couldn’t cope with it using their normal tools of criticism. It was both intellectual and popular which was an impossibility. Everybody who wrote in the 1940s was treated as another manifestation of Dylan Thomas, whatever they wrote. And as the critics had basically nothing to say about this poetry, no actual subject of contention, indeed had probably read little if any of it, they repeated the official empty edict for ever after.

This campaign against Graham was largely successful, in the academy if not among the population. It occasionally used normal literary terms, but was more often blatantly ad hominem in terms of class (“A Clydeside proletarian, half-educated and bloody-minded”) and in terms of uncleanliness and bodily function (”stained by the influence of Dylan Thomas”). In literary-historical terms it was accused of failing to be its own enemy (“deeply counter to Movement norms…”). When there is some trace of analysis it is likely to be nonsense (“The Nightfishing” was “stuck together with little bits of the Four Quartets”).11 Some of Graham’s contemporaries, whether because of the prevalent critical view or not, disowned their own 1940s poetry, or relabelled it “1950s” when it was collected.12

You might think that having discovered a “major poet” in the middle of this 1940s swamp might have awakened a new interest in all that lost poetry, even the thought that there might be another one somewhere in there. But what has happened is that Graham’s success has been used as a weapon against his entire context and his own earlier poetry.

Hofmann’s complaint is made to sound like a personal reaction to the poetry on the page, but really it is all 80 years old. The only new thing is the extension into the 1950s, which I’ve never seen before and don’t know what it means. Is he saying that Larkin and the ”Movement” by being reactively and negatively motivated, writing constantly against, continue the 1940s collapse?

The terms by which his attack is mounted are worth looking at if only to witness how little unchanged they are from attacks on Graham and Thomas in the 1950s (and the failure to distinguish between them). He foregoes critical niceties and returns to the base layer of abuse, expressing disgust as much as disapproval, and speaking of the need for “purification”. The disgust is larded with accusation of “literary”, even “poetic” usage. To single out some of them—

The basic accusation has always been bad. Bad poetry, bad poets, bad decade, enough said. Hofmann adds rank, which means decayed and stinking.

larded = heavily embellished with obscure esoteric or technical expressions, i.e., intellectual poetry, which is exactly how Eliot described it when he accepted it for Faber, warning Graham that he should not expect popularity from it (as against Thomas’s emotion-centred vocabulary).

idiolect is quite right, in the specific form of private references (see footnote 3), and in the forging of a poetical language demanding recognition from those educated or accustomed to it, which may look like idiolect from outside, and is of course normal practice.

poem-ese = the kind of poetry found in poems, which announces itself as poetry and thus elicits a particular form of attention. Poetry shouldn’t, apparently. It should be shackled down to everyday prosaic perception. One reviewer suggests that Hofmann writes as if afraid of something big, “perhaps poetry itself”.

random, heraldic, long lines… Enough. If Hofmann will not say what is actually wrong with any of these qualities or effects we are left with a list of prohibitions which makes nonsense out of modern poetry as a whole. (Heraldic is interesting as a description — words made to stand apart from experience to sign an authority or a commonality — but not as a complaint.)

The rest of his introduction is perfectly acceptable and makes a number of salient points, and his selection is, as you’d expect, biased, but serviceable, as is Francis’s, which is less biased. And what if he is right?

What if Hofmann is right about the earlier poetry? He may be. But if this is conceded the bulk of modern poetry (and much older) will have to be cast into the pit with it.

What if he is right about the earlier poetry? He may be. I don’t see how anyone can know for sure how much value is to be placed on the estranged language-use in collaboration with ancestral metrics — a kind of tough pastoral with drunken shepherds speaking unintelligibly. Perhaps we should stick to home and office. But if this is conceded the bulk of modern poetry (and much older) will have to be cast into the pit with it. Like the work of some other poet-critics it implies heavily that the current condition of poetry remains, for both writer and reader, oppositional — that we are still divided into Augustans and metaphysicals, stuck in a cleft or trench sending out occasional brickbats and mortars towards the enemy, most of them, it must be said, coming from the respectable side of things. It seems to me that a great deal of what is now being worked on by young or new poets firmly denies this.

Myself I have found the surface of most of Graham’s earlier poetry only superficially closed, and it can be a gratifying experience to think through it (or behind it, as it were) and to recognise its content as something of your own. Also that, obviously, at one time wide audiences could be gained for poetry consisting of those who were not intimidated by this kind of demand. Would it not have been better to leave it open, to say, “It is there and it is thus” — without the attached nausea?


Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of prose and poetry, including Collected Poems in two volumes (Shearsman 2018) and a new book, Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls (Longbarrow Press 2019). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.

Note: A minor alteration after publication was made to correct an editing error.

NOTES.

  1. The status of The Seven Journeys remains to me uncertain. He took only the first poem for the Collected Poems, which does not differ in manner from the others, and I’m inclined to see it as a kind of sample, meant to stand for all eight poems. That is, it represents his endorsement of the book without republishing the whole of it, which he knew would have made an off-putting overture to the Collected.
  2. The Caught Habits of Language, page 135
  3. The word “idiolect (-ic)” is being used in literary discourse in confused ways. I take it to have a strict meaning: text legible by only one person, therefore private, which can be extended to a small or restricted group, as against text available to a class of persons who have been educated in it or learned to read it themselves, which could be a large number of people. I don’t think this latter sense is legitimate but it is used freely, as here.
  4. Untitled, New Collected Poems, page 17
  5. If the 150pp section on Graham did not come bound in with a further 250pp devoted mostly to British and Irish “advanced” poetry we could have been spared quite a lot of extremely bad poetry and extremely silly claims for its global importance.
  6. See Sebastian Barker, “W.S. Graham: a memoir.” Edinburgh Review 75, 1987.
  7. Peter Riley, review of Graham’s New Collected Poems. Jacket; (website) 2004.
  8. See Denise Riley, The Words of Selves (2000), pp 68-69: “What is the language using us for?”
  9. I think the best coverage of Graham in relation to the climate of criticism is still Tony Lopez’ Introduction to “The Life and Work of W. S. Graham”. Edinburgh Review 75, 1987. None of the Faber selectors seem to have taken it on board.
  10. The other decade to be eliminated in this way, and to some extent by the same people, was of course the 1960s. Again it was a matter of reading a part for the whole, and again it was done without analysis or specification or anything like an argument.
  11. These critical snippets are mostly by Donald Davie and Ian Sansom.
  12. An interesting and still unsettled case is that of Martin Bell (1918 – 1978) whose assembled poems have passed through a Collected Poems of 1967, to a Complete Poems of 1988, both edited by Peter Porter, with none of his work from the 1940s included in either. This may be legitimate since apparently the omission was initially endorsed by the poet himself, but still leaves the adjective “Complete” suspect, and, annoyingly, we still don’t know what his 1940s poetry was like.

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