BOOKS FICTION/POETRY: From hard knocks to bardic rituals

William Scammell
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:46

SELECTED POEMS by W S Graham, Faber pounds 9.99

W S GRAHAM (1918-1986) belongs to that generation of poets who came to maturity under the heady influence of Dylan Thomas, whose brand of neo-metaphysical rhetoric has become deeply unfashionable. Thomas's sonorous organ music implicitly offers to sweep the reader off into eternity. Every poem is an attempt to sign up the whole heavenly vision, as Ted Hughes once remarked.

When Graham says "I girded me with voice", or talks of being "clenched in prison in my mortal tree", we brace ourselves for some strenuous spiritual weight-lifting. But there's a wry, puckish note running alongside the testamentary one, reminding us that the poetic dreamer came out of the school of hard knocks in Greenock before signing up to the bardic rituals of Fitzrovia. This new Selected Poems, ten years on from his death, gives us an opportunity to see what he did with his inheritance, and how he gradually disciplined his talent so that he could engage with the mundane as well as the miraculous, and make less noisily pious connections between the two.

The life-long obsession with language, communication, self, the multifarious uses and abuses of "discourse", culminating in the poem "What is the Language Using us For?", might be said to anticipate much that is now current in critical theory. Equally it might be construed as a way of putting off the job, puddling around in philosophy while the sun and moon go to waste. Much of it seems foggy and self-indulgent, until he arrives at a way of distancing and objectifying his self-examination in the marvellous late poem "Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons", in which the master flautist gives his pupil the benefit of a lifetime's experience.

Here solid detail - "Blow a little ladder of sound / From a good stance so that you feel the heavy / Press of the floor coming up through you" - meshes with traditional wisdom: "What we have to do / Today is think of you as a little creator / After the big creator ... / Do not intrude too much / Into the message you carry and put out."

Graham took some considerable time to put that lesson into effect himself, and the further admonition: "Do not be sentimental or in your Art." It's art that tends to get in the way of the putative subject in his long poem "The Nightfishing". For every good visual perception, there are a dozen imitative duds. Compared with Patrick Kavanagh's "The Great Hunger" or Hugh MacDiarmid's "On a Raised Beach", this raid on profundity is distracted by its Eliotisms and clanking symbolism.

Graham oscillates uneasily between the "simple / Boy from Greenock" wanting to keep open his romantic links to paradise, and the philosopher of language who keeps nagging us about the value of silence and submission. When he says "I know what I climb towards" you don't quite believe him - his contemporary Robert Garioch makes an instructive contrast - though there is no doubting his single-mindedness, or the integrity of a long and lonely life devoted to his craft.

"The Night City" - "Unmet at Euston in a dream / Of London under Turner's steam" - offers a note of self-mockery, playfulness, and reflection: "The Plague's pits had closed / And gone into literature. / Between the big buildings / I sat like a flea crouched / In the stopped works of a watch". The lyrical "To My Wife at Midnight" is half gruff and wholly loving. I doubt that he will be read in the future quite so fondly as Garioch or Norman MacCaig, but the best of his poems look built to last. What we need next is a proper Collected.

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