Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Poetic Heroes, Series 1: W.S. Graham

Of all my encounters with contemporary poetry over the years, nothing has had a profounder effect on me than the poetry of WS Graham. And, like all great art, his work seems to evolve over time, changing its effects on me as I read it.

It's about fifteen years or more since I picked up his Collected Poems in a bookshop. Initially, I was
attracted by his late poems - "To My Wife at Midnight" and his elegies to Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton - and then I worked my way backwards through his great poem "The Nightfishing" to his early work in the rhetorical "apocalyptic" style. Throughout his mid to late period poetry, even the most abstract and opaque, there's a human element which speaks directly to personal experience.

And of course, Graham's life, much of it spent in west Cornwall in the company of artists, was
heroically dedicated to the art. As Harold Pinter put it:'W.S. Graham drank and ate poetry every day of his life'. It does seem that Graham believed, in his own words, that 'The poet or painter steers his life to maim//Himself somehow for the job'.

Right now, it's this early work that fascinates me. I've grown to appreciate it partly as I've grown to appreciate the early work of Dylan Thomas and as I've read more of contemporaries like Burns Singer. Unlike almost all practitioners of this style who later moved away from it, Graham defended his early poems, insisting that they were as good as anything that came later. Reading this early work now - always musically adept - it seems to broaden his achievement, and add a whole body of lyricism and reference to his oeuvre. I now think of the work as more consistent than I had previously reckoned. As Peter Riley persuasively argues, the later work grew directly out of the early poems and shares many of their qualities.

Take a look at the two WSG items on Litter, by Geoffrey Godbert and my good self. One of the best interpreters of Graham's work is Peter Riley, and a good place to start is his review of the New Collected Poems.

Graham produced very little prose, but I'd recommend to anyone his "Selected Letters" - an amazing, lyrical collecton of correspondence, that also includes his important early essay "Notes Towards a Poetry of Release".

As I grew up on industrial Tyneside, one of the poems that really struck a chord when I first
encountered Graham was "The Dark Dialogues":

The big wind blows
Over the shore of my child
Hood in the off-season.
The small wind remurmurs
The fathering tenement
And a boy I knew running
The hide and seeking streets.
Or do these winds In their forces blow
Between the words only?


kathz said...

For me the starting point was picking up a volume, when I had no knowledge of who Graham was, and reading the poem that begins "What is the language using us for". I was hooked. I bought the book.

Alan Baker said...

That poem is a good example of how he manages to take the abstract subject of language and communication and humanise it - using that peculiar form of personification, and the very natural-seeming address to the reader/himself.