W(illiam) S(ydney) Graham Vivienne Koch - Essay

Vivienne Koch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2329 words.)