W(illiam) S(ydney) Graham

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G.B.H. Wightman

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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 herrings and who returns at dawn with his catch. The language is rooted in the real world. We hear the bell on the quay, we see the tackle of the boat, and we feel the wind between the shoulder blades. This linguistic authenticity underwrites the poet's authority: in other words, the accuracy of the factual diction reinforces the truth of the poetic connotation. The sea-scholar, as the poet sees himself, sails out under the stars and in trying to interpret his experience of the voyage seeks also to explore the interpreter. It is a poem of high achievement.

The Nightfishing reveals some of the themes which later obsess the poet. He pursues the nature of communication and the chimera of self with the haunted ruthlessness of Ahab hunting the white whale. He asks us how the words appear on the page, what agent put them there, and whether they have the same meaning for the reader as for the writer. Some of the poems are as dedicated and tortuous in their examination of these problems as Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Graham appears to argue that a man's identity lies in the word, and the word once uttered becomes the grave of the person who said it. It is a complex theme. The diction he uses to unravel it is plain but subtle. He has one of the best ears for the balance of consonants. Some of the devices which lace his writing—little incantatory repetitions, odd ellipses—have an off-beat quality. Although the images he employs … invigorate the poems, the environment is bleak. His work in this vein resembles the abstract paintings of Roger Hilton and Bryan Winter who were his Cornish friends and neighbours.

The reader comes on his love poems, addresses and elegies with relief. They make the poet more human and accessible and also show him in a less self-regarding light. He seems more interested in the world around him. It is likely that some of his best work is yet to come. The final poem in the book, 'To My Wife at Midnight', is indicative. It has a simple and delicate power. Graham is an original poet. Although his work demands close attention, he rewards the assiduous reader. (pp. 243-44)

G.B.H. Wightman, in a review of "Collected Poems: 1942–1977," in British Book News, April, 1980, pp. 243-44.

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