W(illiam) S(ydney) Graham Essay - Critical Essays

Graham, W(illiam) S(ydney)


W(illiam) S(ydney) Graham 1918–

Scottish poet.

Graham has elicited considerable critical interest throughout his career. With the publication of his first volume of poetry, Cage without Grievance (1942), Graham was recognized by critics as a disciple of Dylan Thomas. His early verse exhibited convoluted syntax and elusive imagery reminiscent of the work of the Welsh poet. Graham's primary consideration at the beginning of his writing career was with the internal experience of the poet, and, in striving to express that experience, he often produced poems which thwarted interchange with the reader. Critics generally consider Graham's early poetry too imitative and too self-conscious.

With the publication of The Nightfishing (1955), Graham began to receive recognition as a gifted, original poet. The title poem of this volume is widely regarded as one of the finest sea poems ever written in English. In The Nightfishing, Graham largely abandoned personal concerns and considered such themes as the difficulty of communication, death and rebirth, and the problems of shifting identity.

The two volumes which Graham produced in the 1970s, Malcolm Mooney's Land (1970) and Implements in Their Places (1977), are dominated by the themes of the limitations and failure of language. Critical reception to these works has been mixed, but many critics agree that Graham is still one of the most innovative, yet largely unknown, poets alive today. Graham's most recent volumes are Collected Poems 1942–1977 (1979) and Selected Poems (1980).

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 20.)

Vivienne Koch

The responsibility of a poet to as well as for his poem implies a radical shift in emphasis from the kind of responsibility elected so often in recent times by the poets themselves. The poets of the thirties saw their responsibility as being towards History (always capitalized), society, current events, Marx or Freud. The supposed romantic revolution of the forties placed the poet's responsibility at his own doorstep. The poet was to be responsible to the individual and thus, microcosmically, to encompass a greater responsibility towards society, which, in its organized forms, was abjured. All these forms of responsibility are, in a quite literal sense, outside, even physically outside the poem. When in W. S. Graham's Notes on a Poetry of Release, one finds a poet still in his twenties defining his responsibilities strictly in terms of his obligation to make words work in a certain way, one recognizes how ancillary to the true craftsman's affection for his materials are other attitudes. Graham, whatever other habit he shares with the younger generation of romantics, or however much he continues what is already likely to be thought of as the 'tradition' of Dylan Thomas, is entirely single in his primary dedication—to the poem:

… A poem is made of words. It is words in a certain order, good or bad, by the significance of its addition to life, and not to be judged by any other value put upon it by imagining how or why or by what kind of man it was made. It is easy to strive to make a poem out of the wrong material like a table out of water. It is easy to mistake a poem for a different thing with a different function and to be sad when it does not put out what it is not…. The meaning of a word in a poem is never more than its position. The meaning of a poem is itself not less a comma. But then to each man it comes into new life. It is brought to life by the reader and takes part in the reader's change.'

Such an intention leads us to expect a concern with technique in Graham's poetry. But to think that his complex, consciously constructed poems are merely technical in their end, is to falsify what a concern with words means. A poem by definition should rule out such a possibility. To see that the poet is concerned with words in a certain order, and that this order has a meaning at least for the duration of the poem, is to allow the poet his richest possible function and the poem its best intensity of meaning.

In the light of Kenneth Burke's suggestive metaphor on the indivisibility of means and ends in poetry—'the container and the thing contained'—how does Graham use words to explore the imagination?… The Seven Journeys provides useful signposts to his direction. The seven journeys are, in fact, seven longish narrative poems each clustering around a nexus of experience such as sex, intellect, the marvellous, love, etc. The fiction of an 'I'-narrator (announced in a prologue poem, 'The Narrator') serves as a hub or spindle upon which to centre the various data of these explorations or journeys. Though the poems as formal units suffer from a lack of sustained intellectual direction, individual lines and passages almost compensate for this. In all of the journeys a reliance is placed quite characteristically … on the poet's inward resources for seeing a 'reality' and for creation…. (pp. 216-17)

It is the exact vision of a dynamic of order or of chaos within even the narrowest physical confines of animal, place, or thing which the poet-narrator, in a final wish, hopes

                Is yet enchanted into form.

The reader's participation in the making of a poem is invited, but, at the same time, primacy is given to the supreme fiction of the poet's autonomy as maker…. (p. 217)

It is, in a sense, quite crucial to the whole body of Graham's work that he has a rich stock of imagery of small, usually organic things … which serve to reduce to a minute scale the dimensions of the outside, geographic universe, so that we see the whole complicated life of the microcosm as a sign of the larger whole in which it manages to sustain its own inner wholeness. This curious way of sorting 'History in a bowl' may, physiologically traced, derive from Graham's early training as a precision engineer and the concern for small exactitudes and the readings of the micrometer involved in it. This recurrent closing down of the field of vision, as it were, may be a symbol of the narrowing of the margins of the self, and the assertion of the superior integrity of the individual universe in an environment which threatens to engulf, or, at least, invade it. Other instances in The Seven Journeys of this closing in of the focus of observation are found in similes such as:

         Like down a polar spiral in a berg of bone,

or in the fine melancholy of a passage like:

Somewhere in distilled harmonies a tumult spins,
One for each human constellation in a skull,
And blows a world of faculties in a watched bubble
And ribs my magpie comet in a cage without grievance.

These lines, incidentally, are instructive to examine for the way in which the imagery breeds the philosophical generalization of the aloneness of 'each human constellation' rather than, as so often happens in 'philosophical' poetry, the generalization fumbling about for appropriate imagery.

When we arrive at a consideration of Graham's next volume, Cage Without Grievance, we find a...

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Edwin Morgan

With the publication of The White Threshold …, W. S. Graham moved into the front rank of those who are striving to light up the imaginative dialogue of poet and reader without resort to well-laid fuses of moral or social response and also without the adoption of any attitude (whether fashionable or institutional: masochistic-elegiac, fission-happy, or chat-and-dogma) towards personal experience except the bedrock attitude of acceptance, of patience, interest, exploration, wonder, and vigilance. The difficulty of this attempt to remain undistracted and unwooed in our time can be met only by a strong integrity in the artist, by an undeviating and dangerous singlemindedness which will pitilessly test whatever faith he has in his ability to record, to speak, to leave the dead and gesture to the unborn. Only out of what Graham calls 'the centre loneliness' will good communication come; only when we cast off from the shore will 'home' have any meaning; only by denying the importunate remedies of aesthetics or sociology will cures be found for the dying poem and the divided people. The art of poetry becomes a voyage of discovery: the poet writes to find himself, not to integrate his idea of himself with his idea of the world, and in the act of finding the self he is stung and irradiated with feeling, drenched, 'drowned', assimilated in a sea-change, so that the voyager becomes a different voyager and the next discovery of the self is of a richer face, with its past in its eyes, and the reaction to it is again different, and (if honest) more significant.

To the reader, therefore, who may ask 'But what is the poetry of Mr. Graham about?' we shall have first to reply rather as Mr. Eliot replied to his Cocktail Party questioners, by referring them to...

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G. S. Fraser

Every poem by Mr. Graham is not only very deliberately constructed but, in the musical sense, through-composed. No word is where it is merely for the sake of the "meaning" in a flat prose sense. Yet the patternings are not abstract, they reinforce deeper layers of meaning…. Mr. Graham's poems are not only about their subjects, but about themselves as attempts to embody their subjects, and therefore about the mystery of poetic language. Words like "still" and "change" in the largest [and title] poem here, The Nightfishing, work realistically and metaphysically. The sea is real and not conceptual, and yet it is also a metaphor, and yet what it is a metaphor for—the tragic struggle of the poet to make shape...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Mr. Graham is that rare creature, a poet who knows something about ordinary life outside the library, where livings are earned in dangerous and cold labour….

The Nightfishing is a grand sea poem, strong, turgid, violent and driving, as the sea does, in unknown directions. In years to come Mr. Graham may write one of the great sea poems of our language. More than any living poet his talent is compressed and disciplined to this purpose. He may be too sincere, at least he is not relaxed by the welfare of modern life. Fishing will always be dangerous and cold, and this gives his poem a grip on experience which the villanelles of the universities never communicate. We know what it is like to have...

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Robert B. Shaw

Malcolm Mooney's Land is W. S. Graham's first book in fifteen years, and it is an impressive performance, odd and not immediately attractive. The poems seem abstracted, elliptical, and chilly, and it takes many readings before one becomes fully aware of the strong pulse beating in these firmly penned lines. Graham's recurrent concern is with the radical leap poetry must take to reach its audience: he scouts over and over the barriers between poet and reader…. In the title poem he poses as an arctic explorer, sending out messages from the frozen waste he wanders in alone. Clusters Traveling Out offers another strange, tense picture of the poet's isolation…. Among the other poems I would like to...

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Douglas Dunn

Seven years have gone by since the publication of Malcolm Mooney's Land, W. S. Graham's first collection since The Night-fishing appeared all of fifteen years before. In what, then, looks like a carefully anxious career, Mr Graham has slowly ground down his work until it is by now [in Implements in Their Places] concentrated on a small handful of subjects essential to himself—language and communication, his Scottish background, the Cornwall where he lives.

Ostensibly, the theme of communication is a large one. So severely does he delineate it that any breadth and profundity it might have offered him are scrupulously self-contained within his own given conditions. He keeps his...

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Anne Stevenson

For W. S. Graham, language is like an ocean in which he struggles, or like weather in which he sails, or like a jungle in which he risks his life. Graham employs all these images to describe the poet's overwhelming, terrifying but necessary medium—a medium which is embodied in the wilderness of society, but which is also a way out of it…. Significantly, the first sequence in Graham's Implements in their Places is called 'What is the Language Using us for?', and it is about determination in the face of helplessness. A poet cannot do without language, but getting away from it is to fall 'Deep down into a glass jail … in a telephoneless, blue / Green crevasse' where presumably Graham's poems are 'messages...

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Andrew Motion

Graham's [poems] concentrate on themselves. The result is only rarely narcissistic; more often it's an absorbed and absorbing effort to map the boundaries of language—which for him have become more definite and restrictive as he's grown older. They're emphasised, no doubt, by his failure to secure a large attentive public; in one late poem he touchingly admits:

Speaking to you and not
Knowing if you are there
Is not too difficult.
My words are used to that.

This imprisonment within the self is all the more distressing for having followed a...

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G.B.H. Wightman

Collected Poems includes work from seven books of poetry. The most recent are The Nightfishing (1955), Malcolm Mooney's Land (1970) and Implements in Their Places (1977). The latter two publications were Poetry Book Society Choices. Graham's early poems were written in the 1940s and influenced by Dylan Thomas. They contain a mass of metaphors. Instead of throwing off new insights, or revealing new angles of vision, the images obscure the meaning they are intended to convey, making most of the poems of this period unreadable. In 1955 Graham published The Nightfishing. This long poem remains his masterpiece. It describes a man who leaves a harbour in a small fishing boat to net...

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Alan Brownjohn

W. S. Graham is, with George Barker, the great survivor from the submerged "apocalyptic" generation. It's strange to think now that the "New Apocalypse" formed a considerable school in its own day, albeit disunited and leaderless (Dylan Thomas, its spiritual father, never really acknowledged its existence.) As early as 1940, almost at birth, it melted away into literary history; although heavy deposits of the apocalyptic style were to be seen in several of the smaller literary journals up to the early 1950s, and it's intriguing to remember that Harold Pinter began not as a playwright but as an apocalyptic poet influenced by [Graham, whose Collected Poems 1942–1977 was recently published]. Almost any early Graham...

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Jeffrey Wainwright

W. S. Graham's Selected Poems includes work published in England over thirty-five years from Cage Without Grievance (1942) to the Collected Poems 1942–1977 that appeared in 1979. This selection, however, does not proceed chronologically but begins with a number of poems that concentrate intensely upon the problematics of language both in poetry and at large. The first, a sequence of three poems from Implements In Their Places (1977), with the challenging reiteration of its title "What Is The Language Using Us For?," issues an announcement of the concerns Graham has come to, and stands almost as an admonition, a necessary question that must be confronted before we can proceed. The poem is...

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