New Collected Poems
W.S. Graham, edited by Matthew Francis
Faber and Faber, $25 (cloth)

British Modernism has not been served well by American critics and readers. Preoccupied by American poetry’s own version of family court—who are the true heirs of William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, or even Robert Lowell? when will the prodigal Stein finally come back from Europe and take her place at the head of the table?—we have been content merely to nod approvingly at the likes of Basil Bunting and David Jones. But as the recent publication of J.H. Prynne’s Poems, Tom Raworth’s Collected Poems, and the many collected and selected volumes streaming out of Salt Publishing remind us, the story of British Modernism in America is still a work in progress.

Add to that story W.S. Graham’s New Collected Poems, which not only returns Graham to the central narrative of 20th-century British poetry but should also mark his introduction to the United States as a major lyric poet. A daring technician teased, but not intoxicated, by visionary impulses, he belongs in the company of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane, but as the one who believed language to be an obstruction to communication, an “other” just behind, yet inseparable from, the stage machinery of the self. “I stand in my vocabulary looking out,” he writes in “Notes to the Difficult One,” and the first part of “Clusters Traveling Out” ends, “Whoever / Speaks to you will not be me. / I wonder what I will say.” This see-saw between a near-paranoia about language and an utter devotion to its unveiling places him among such chroniclers of the “word virus” as William S. Burroughs, Laura Riding Jackson, Jack Spicer, and any number of later writers who were inspired by the language philosophies of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, or who, steeped in Roland Barthes, vexed the borders between reader, writer, and text.

Graham’s own story is simple, but, in a modest way, mythic. Raised in Greenock, a shipbuilding city in Scotland, William Sydney Graham apprenticed as a draughtsman to an engineer, but soon adopted a mode of living that was typical of “bohemians” in Britain: he was known for taking long, three-day walks, often in terrible weather, he lived in a caravan for several years (choosing to remain even after his lover, pregnant with his daughter, left him), he conducted his creative life in rent-free houses and apartments, and he carried on most of his socializing in pubs. Dylan Thomas was an early acquaintance; critics usually claim that Thomas was a dominating influence on the younger and far less renowned poet, but the admiration was mutual: “Well, Sydney?” were the first words out of Thomas’s mouth after an impromptu reading of the then-fresh poem “Fern Hill” at a Soho pub in the 1940s, and he clearly wanted to know.

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In his youth Graham was known for tacking onto cardboard phrases that he thought should fit into poems; indeed, he’s been said to have “invented material” in his poems to join a list of words together. But he knew what he was doing: changing, or de-naturalizing, the word order of standard English allowed echoes from several kindred languages—Anglo-Saxon and Scottish in particular—to surface, and fostered analogies to the near-abstract work of the St. Ives school of painters, many of whom Graham had befriended. Graham’s own landscapes were often harsh but brilliantly detailed, and the perfect settings for the vocal drama he struggled to enact:

While whisper the tethered anemones under the grave
And the narrative sprouts from the bone-sweet skull
Telling a blossom to its bulb
And spins in a hollow of sound in the emerald dome
Tinctured vermilion and told in the glacier heart
That trades the unmapped spell along the blood.

These lines are taken from “The Narrator,” the first and most prosodically varied poem of The Seven Journeys (1944), Graham’s first finished manuscript (the book itself was his second to be published). The poem is composed primarily of sentences of three lines or more, and punctuation limited to periods at the ends of lines; the effect is of a cascade of images and rhythms, or perhaps, more fittingly, an eruption: “the earth confessing the voice / That runs ever over the hour / Confessing the death without space for the laying of dead.” But despite the freedom he gives to word order, the prosody suffers; often each word in The Seven Journeys is jockeying so insistently for attention that the rhythms become a dull tom-tom—the mitigating voice is driven out. Even so, he manages to foreshadow the turn his writing would take five years later, as suddenly a period arrives midline, carving a silence: “Yet my eye webs the word.” Indeed, this sentence could belong to any period of Graham’s writing, concerning as it does Graham’s lifelong antagonist and the object of his investigation, language.

Graham was fortunate to have three volumes published during the wartime paper shortage, including his first, Cage Without Grievance (1942), followed by The Seven Journeys and 2ND Poems (both 1945). The poems in these earlier volumes roiled in the fecundity of the creative mind with a sort of Zarathustrian flare, channeling through a volcanic, pitiless, alien but inevitable-sounding syntax and lexicon. Graham would sacrifice this style almost completely in The White Threshold (1949), which T.S. Eliot published at Faber and Faber. In such poems as “Listen. Put on morning,” we find a whole new admission of pauses and silence into the work, here even in the title, which retains its period in the poem’s first line. Like Stevens, Graham was a poet who felt that the space between words is where it all happens, is what can kill and redeem: “Come dodge the deathblow if you can / between a word or two,” he writes in “The Broad Close.” In “Notes on a Poetry of Release,” his only poetics statement outside of his letters, he writes: [When] I am at the last word and look back I find the first word changed and a new word there, for it is part of the whole poem and its particular life depends on the rest of the poem. The meaning of a word 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.

“Not less a comma” could also mean “not less a space,” and it is commas, periods, and silences that are curiously absent in Graham’s earlier volumes. It’s when the poet’s visionary sensibility “puts on morning”—sees afresh, and sees the reader at the other end of words—that Graham’s distinctive effects are brought to the fore. The language is more dynamically transformed, embracing both higher/ bardic and lower /conversational registers, and Graham’s “vision” is made all the more startling and convincing when it sheds its epochal light on the particular and mundane:

Listen. Put on morning.
Waken into falling light.
A man’s imagining
Suddenly may inherit
The handclapping centuries
Of his one minute on earth.
And hear the virgin juries
Talk with his own breath
To the corner boys of his street.
And hear the Black Maria
Searching the town at night.
And hear the playropes caa
The sister Mary in.
And hear Willie and Davie
Among bracken of Narnain
Sing in a mist heavy
With myrtle and listeners.
And hear the higher town
Weep a petition of fears
At the poorhouse close upon
The public heartbeat.
And hear the children tig
And run with my own feet
Into the netting drag
Of a suiciding principle
Listen. Put on lightbreak.
Waken into miracle. . . .

There is an ease here: Graham is now talking to himself, but he is also talking to the reader about, of all things, how to write a poem. But we find this interesting since what he is really describing is how to pay attention, along with suggesting an answer to that most troubling of corollary questions: why? It helps that he brushes up against humanistic, even melodramatic, elements—what is this “suiciding principle?”—and that the mournful bass notes that enter after the first “And” are so certain and polyvalent. There is a new breath of Scottishness here, not just in the use of words like “caa” (drive) and “tig” (a Scottish version of “tag”) and in the place names, but in the use of a three-beat line, which opened up possibilities for syncopation—rhythmic, phonemic—that he continued to exploit. His symbolist leanings are still apparent, but here they seek out fresh, even mischievous directions: enigmatic representatives “Willie and Davie” and the “virgin juries” suggest a new kind of archetype, and they resonate long after the “hollow of sound in the emerald dome” is forgotten.

Graham’s next book, The Nightfishing (1955), was received enthusiastically, but Graham—who had no need for London literary culture and preferred painters as companions—was still living in poverty, finally settling in an abandoned coast-guard cottage in Cornwall in the south of England with his wife, Nessie Dunsmuir. The book’s long title poem puts on exhibition his knowledge and experience as a seaman, both growing up in Greenock and working on fishing boats in Cornwall. Like Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” it is a mystical poem, but one that only resonates with Christian imagery—fish, nets and water abound—without invoking or evoking any god (such as the “dull brown river” in Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” another predecessor poem). Graham saw in the sea an analog for the linguistic unconscious, a dark mass of swirls that corrupts language with its rhythms and torments, its exploitation of every gap or fissure in stone or surety. The poem begins with two tight, evenly paced sections and descends into a long, dark maelstrom of a third section:

Who is that poor sea-scholar,
Braced in his hero,

Lost in his book of storms there? It is myself.
So he who died is announced. This mingling element
Gives up myself. Words travel from what they once
Passed silence with. Here, in this intricate death,
He goes as fixed on silence as he’ll ever be.
Leave him, nor cup a hand to shout him out
Of that, his home. Or, if you would, O surely
There is no word,

There is not any to go over that.
It is now as always this difficult air
We look towards each other through. And is there
Some singing look or word or gesture of grace
Or naked wide regard from the encountered face,
Goes ever true through the difficult air?
Each word speaks its own speaker to his death.

In general, Graham’s poems favor the cyclic over the linear, and the seventh and final section of “The Nightfishing” bring us right back where we started, at the quay. The poem’s middle section—which in earlier figurations was tinged with notes of drowning—leaves our poet more or less unharmed, as if cyclical epic time and solipsistic lyrical consciousness were fused, and journeys not only started where they began, but took place there as well. This place, of course, is language, but this attention to language, for Graham, also voids the words: this play of nets, of stanzas, of syntactical reticulations, is an “intricate death,” a purgatory in which our once Nietzschean protagonist has been revealed as an anti-hero: he survived nothing, perhaps never rose to the occasion. It is so, also, for the reader, who is the only sure witness to this play of forms: “He that / I’m not lies down. Men shout. Words break. I am / my fruitful share,” the middle section ends. The day’s take is hauled in, the fish caught in their nets like words “in any order” caught in a sentence.

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After The Nightfishing, Graham didn’t have another book published until 1970; Faber and Faber had simply forgotten that he was alive, and rushed to sign him once they were disabused. When Graham died in 1986, he hadn’t been to Scotland, where he had hoped to spend his last years, since 1981. Though he did eventually receive recognition in the form of awards and invitations to read, his work was eclipsed by that of the Movement poets—Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, etc.—and his lingering association with Apocalyptic school writing seemed to make him largely unfashionable to both the mainstream and the avant-garde.

Graham’s later poems recall, again, Stevens in some of their methods; for example, “Ten Shots of Mister Simpson,” a numbered series of shorter poems concerning epistemological approaches to a visual subject, seems to echo “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” (Graham unhinged this form from any refrain and used it devilishly in “Implements in their Places.”) The justly celebrated “Language Ah Now You Have Me” contains one moment of imagistic foppery that seems right out of Stevens’s Harmonium: “I am at the jungle face / Which is not easily yours. It is my home / Where pigmies hamstring Jumbo and the pleasure / Monkey is plucked from the tree.” But more often, Graham’s hallmark was not the overgrowth of language, but its barrenness: in Malcom Mooney’s Land (1970), he would figure the space of language as a white, Arctic expanse, pocked with life-sucking fissures. But like the “frigidaire patent” in Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, Graham’s wordscape is replete with the anachronous, or simply incongruous, presence of machines:

I heard the telephone ringing deep
Down in a blue crevasse.
I did not answer it and could
Hardly bear to pass.

One becomes enmeshed in Graham’s esoteric dilemma when asking whether that phone, or any, is ever worth answering, and whether speaking into it is a reach outward, inward, or “aimed at nothing.”

Graham would publish only one more book of new material before his death in 1986, Implements in their Places (1977), followed by Collected Poems in 1979. Unlike that earlier collection, this beautifully produced new edition restores his earlier books to their entirety, and it includes three sections of posthumous writing, glossaries of names and Scottish words, and spare but useful notes—a mundane but encouraging set of compasses by which to follow the steps of this poet who always made a point of getting lost. Throughout his career Graham struggled against what he called the “beast of silence” that lives in the page unmarked by text, but like the arctic explorer Nansen, whom he greatly admired, he makes his trek into the unexplored terrains of language exhilarating, sublime, and not a little dangerous.