A Sudden Affection of Language

Ross Wilson discusses W.S. Graham

Ross Wilson

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     O Greenock, Greenock, I never will

     Get back to you. But here I am,

     The boy made good into a ghost

     Which I will send along your streets

     Tonight as the busy nightshifts

     Hammer and spark their welding lights.


 W.S. Graham, The Greenock Dialogues

Coventry’s, a tobacconist in Kirkcaldy, had a backroom stowed with secondhand books. Browsing one day I came across an old tattered issue of Poetry London magazine from Oct-Nov 1942. It featured four poems by a young poet who acknowledged in his contributor notes, “I have never had a single poem appearing anywhere before.” The short note also mentions his being “born in 1918, Greenock, was educated there.”

     It is W.S. Graham’s centenary year and, with my friend Gregor Addison, I have decided to embark on the train to Greenock, a town I’ve never been to before but whose street names are familiar to me, thanks to Graham’s poetry.

     We pull out of Glasgow Central. Passing along the Firth of Clyde, Gregor points out stumps in the water; remnants of a shipping industry that once dominated this landscape. We arrive in Greenock Central at 11 30am. The station, originally built in 1841, must have been grand in its day but is now rundown; its high walls straggled with vegetation. We climb steep stairs and soon come across a well dating from 1629 and a street name familiar from the poetry: Cartsburn Street. But my mobile sat nav instructs us to double back on ourselves and climb the brae up Lyndoch Street, another name familiar from the poems. We pass a few shops and pedestrians until we come across Hope Street. And there, on the far right as you climb the brae, is the tenement flat 1 Hope Street, described by Graham as, “the set-in bed at the top of the land.” For the Graham’s home was on the top floor overlooking the Clyde, high above the small blue plaque now fixed to the wall of the sandstone building, informing anyone who might happen to look up, in words bobbing on lines curved like waves, W.S. Graham, 1918-1986, born here, POET;”

     In June a memorial stone was unveiled for Graham by Jackie Kay in the Makars Court at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. A few months before that an anthology of new poetry, The Caught Habits of Language, was published to mark Graham’s centenary. And then there was an essay devoted to Graham in the Neglected Poets issue of the transatlantic Scottish-American poetry magazine, The Dark Horse. With all that going on you could argue that Graham is far from neglected. And yet, for years, he has been one of the smaller big names in Scottish literature, perhaps due to the fact, as Douglas Dunn pointed out, “he had the cheek to live somewhere else.”

     Graham lived most of his life in Cornwall, an area which features a lot in his poetry. Yet, as we shall see, he kept returning to his origins in Greenock, in his poems, if not in person. The playwright David Greig, in Edinburgh Review 137, wrote, “Alasdair Gray has said that a city doesn’t really exist until it’s been written about. In saying that, he identified a space which exists in parallel with the concrete world, a space of imagination. W.S. Graham called it ‘The Constructed Space’ – opened up by art, in which we locate ourselves imaginatively.”

     A few months back, visiting my hometown Kelty in West Fife, I started daydreaming about writers who left their hometowns when they were young but kept boomeranging home through the page, as if the act of writing was a way of connecting with their past, the people and places they’d lost, including their younger selves. Jack Gilbert lived on Greek islands, in Paris and other places far from Pittsburgh where he came from, and yet Pittsburgh recurs again and again in his poems. In one poem, Gilbert is in Denmark, taking care of his partner’s baby, “I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before/throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with/my mouth against the tiny ear and throw/him higher.” Gilbert hopes the boy will feel gladness all his life whenever someone spoke, “of the ruined city of steel in America. Each time remembering something maybe important that got lost.” In a later poem, Gilbert writes how Pittsburgh is still tangled in him. Philip Levine has a similar relationship to Detroit in his poems. Likewise James Joyce got out of Dublin but could never get Dublin out of his writing.

     The above writers are very different yet similar in how their imaginations find a way back to their hometowns through their craft, turning early impressions and memories into poetry. They share an instinct to preserve early life experience.

     Just for the sake of recovering

     I walked backward from fifty-six

     Quick years of age wanting to see . . .  


 . . . Graham writes in his poem Loch Thom. How well “fifty-six/Quick years of age” catches the acceleration of time and “for the sake of recovering” at least one aspect of the poets’ mission and vocation: the preservation of people and place; utilizing the page as a frame and the form of a poem as a frame within a frame. Graham concludes Loch Thom with a compound refrain GOBACK GOBACK GOBACK, reminding me of Van Morrison’s song Got to Go Back, released the year Graham died, in 1986: Oh we've got to go back/Got to go back/Got to go back/Got to go back/For the healing,/go on with the dreaming . . .

     This is my first time in Greenock, though my words have been here before when an elegy for my old boxing trainer was adapted into a film-poem by the artist Alastair Cook, using Greenock Amateur Boxing Club as a background to the poem. Other artists have been drawn to Greenock, or drawn from it. John Galt and John Davidson were raised here, and the screenwriter Peter MacDougall used the town to set his gritty tv dramas in the 1970s. More recently Ken Loach filmed Sweet 16 here.

     Graham wouldn’t recognize the Greenock in Loach’s film. Even in his lifetime his Greenock was an old long gone Greenock of a 1920s childhood and early adolescence, during the height of the shipyards on the Clyde. For an eccentric like Graham it must have been difficult to fit in to such an environment. His reaching back in time, and into himself, to the Greenock of his early years, through what he refers to in his poems as the habits and barriers of language, reads to me like a desperate attempt to communicate with a world he had been part of and outside simultaneously.

     “Are you proud of me,” the poet asks his dead father in the late poem, To Alexander Graham, a poem which evokes the smells of the tar and ropes of the Old Quay in Greenock.

     In the second “letter” from his collection, The Nightfishing, Graham, the poet, reaches back to Graham, the young engineer.

     Younger in the towered

     Tenement of night he heard

     The shipyards with nightshifts

     Of lathes turning their shafts.

     His voice was a humble ear

     Hardly turned to her.

     Then in a welding flash

     He found his poetry arm

     And turned the coat of his trade.

     From where I am I hear

     Clearly his heart beat over

     Clydeside’s far hammers

     And the nightshipping firth.

     What’s he to me? Only

     Myself I died from into

     These present words that move.

     In that high tenement.

     I got a great grave.


     “Turned the coat” suggests turncoat, as if in choosing poetry over the shipyards, Graham feels he is turning his back on his proletarian roots. It’s hard to imagine a working class community embracing Graham’s decision to abandon work to live the life of a poet.

     After completing an engineering apprenticeship, he was accepted at Newbattle Abbey College. I’d first heard about Newbattle via the Orcadian writers Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown and had assumed its doors shut in the 1950s or 1960s. So I was surprised to learn Gregor was there in the late 1980s, accepted as a live-in student of Literature and Philosophy. Graham had been accepted as a student of the same subjects in 1939, when awarded a trade union grant.

     Later, in the Beacon Arts Centre overlooking the Firth of Clyde, Gregor explains he was accepted into Newbattle for two years. His time was cut short when the conservative government closed the college. Newbattle had a long history of left wing politics. Graham remained somewhat aloof from politics. Though the sounds and smells of working class life helped to bring an earthiness to his poetry, neither party politics or ideology held any interest to him. Indeed, many believe his leaving Scotland was at least partly due to Hugh MacDiarmid and his followers stifling nationalism. He seems to have associated more often with painters in Cornwall, though perhaps it’s best to take that with a pinch of salt? Perhaps Graham just preferred the company of artists to writers? In a letter to Charles Monteith he describes artists as “much easier than poets to speak to.” If Graham was never entirely at home in Greenock, perhaps he was never at home in a literary milieu either? In his early days Graham was interested in combining drama and music and installations into performances of his poetry. Later on he was great friends with the painters Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and others. I wonder what he would have made of the Beacon Arts Centre?  Described as “a modern riverside arts venue with 2 performance places, rehearsal facilities and a bistro/bar.” No such place existed in Graham’s Greenock.

     At Newbattle Graham decided he would be a poet and that nothing, not even a job, would get in the way of his vocation. He survived through the patronage of supporters, often living rent free, and on odd jobs his partner Nessie Dunsmuir held. After three small press collections, a third was accepted by TS Eliot at Faber and Faber (Fibber & Fibber, Graham called them.) Faber remained his life long publisher. Championed by Eliot as an “intellectual poet,” Graham was also befriended by Dylan Thomas who spent a week with Graham in Glasgow and once concluded a reading of his own with a Graham poem. In the late 1940s Graham was invited to lecture at New York University and won an Atlantic Award, allowing him to embark on a reading tour of America with David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine. A promising career seemed to slow down in the 1950s. The Nightfishing appeared in 1955, but fifteen years went by until Malcom Mooney’s Land came out in 1970. In retrospect this appears to be less a mid-life crisis of confidence or creativity as a delay in publication. The late fifties and sixties appear to have been not only a fecund time for Graham but a time of real artistic growth, a time where he created the body of work by which he is best remembered today.

     Like the wee boy elevated above the town in his 1 Hope Street tenement, the mature man descends to earth after an airy start in poetry. His head once lost in a cloud of abstraction, high on the sounds of words, comes back down to earth, or tries too. Graham is never as matter of fact or clear cut as Philip Larkin. Indeed, a Graham poem moves to its own music, distinct from The Movement which many believe eclipsed him. There’s probably no poet I admire so much who is as hit and miss, to my eye and ear, as Graham. This is, I think, due to his oddness and unconventionality, which can be as attractive as it can be unattractive. When a Graham poem hits home with me it does so through the singularity of his voice and vision; when it misses, I feel his eccentricity is leading him astray. The early work is like wading through a fog comprised of words. Only when the mist begins to clear do I begin to appreciate his work more, though it rarely attains a complete clarity and usually retains some of his earlier opacity and mystery. I find myself agreeing with MacDiarmid’s assessment of Graham’s first collection, “an adolescent playing with the materials of great poetry.” Edwin Morgan, a lifelong friend who first met Graham when he was a teenager, and who admired Graham’s poetry from beginning to end, was also critical of it, disappointed by Graham’s obsession with language. Morgan isn’t wrong but his critique would also apply to the greatest writers who tend to obsessively circle a few limited themes. It also tells us as much about Morgan as it does Graham, as more than most poets Morgan made great efforts to vary his style and subject and approach to his own poetry. By comparison Graham is limited to a small field. But a small field can be fertile.

     Graham is a poets’ poet in that his subject is the nuts and bolts of poetry. Rather than using words as a window to frame a particular scene or subject, Graham zooms in on the window itself. And yet, as his work progresses, it opens up and closes in to people. “A poem is made of words,” Graham writes, but he also writes, “language is where the people are.” If the early poems echo an aesthete’s arts for arts sake insularity the later poems reach out, not attempting to communicate so much as addressing the difficulties in communicating through language.

     I speak across the vast

     Dialogues in which we go

     To clench my words against

     Time or the lack of time

     Hoping that for a moment

     They will become for me

     A place I can think in,

     An aside from the monstrous.

     In letters, Graham writes how, through poetry, he aims to, “always want to share the aloneness, to share what happens within one’s own lonely room, to wonder how alike or unalike one is from someone else.” The oral tradition of communal ballad meets the isolated avant garde poet in Graham’s best work, mixing sentimental attachment to people and place with the intellectual detachment of the experimental writer obsessed with language.

     In a postscript to his book, The Truth of Poetry, Michael Hamburger acknowledges how Graham’s late style, “made me question some of my earlier assumptions.” Hamburger goes on, “I had seen a danger in two extremes of commercialization of poetry in the entertainment industry on the one hand, its rarification in the language laboratories on the other.” For Hamburger, Graham found his own way through these two extremes.

     What is the language using us for? A line from the 1977 collection, Implements in their Places, repeats itself like a scratched record on a 1970s concept album. Graham might have been an “intellectual” poet, as Eliot said, but he was also a poet of affection, whatever his misgivings about the “expanding heart.” “A poem is made of words and not of the expanding heart,” Graham writes, “the overflowing soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words.”

     For all the existential exploration of the white space of the page, Graham’s words are also full of puns and play, like this, from Implements in their Places,

     When I was a buoy it seemed

     Craft of rare tonnage

     Moored to me. Now

     Occasionally a skiff

     Is tied to me and tugs

     At the end of its tether.

     Graham’s Selected Letters also delight in word play. Correspondence with others plays a big part of his oeuvre as well, with several poems written in the form of a letter, or, more accurately a letter in the form of a poem. Graham’s poems sometimes quite literally address friends, sometimes dead friends. Some of Graham’s poems read like letters addressed to a reader, an imagined reader on the other side of the words he is writing, outside the time he is caught in, as if the page was a wall between poet and reader, between the then of the writing and the now of the reading; one year, ten years, one hundred years after pen took to paper, when a reader might lift a book like a brick in the wall time has erected between him/her and the poet writing.

     Graham lived most of his life in England and wrote in English, his poems incorporate words from the Cornish dialect and place names from his adopted Cornwall. But there is also a three page glossary largely of Scots words in the back pages of his New Collected Poems. There is also a two page list of People important to Graham and another two pages of Places. Was a Collected Poems ever so much like an address book; an address book accompanied by a dictionary as a guide to the local tongue? Graham’s diction directs him back to “Greenock long ropeworking/Hide and seeking riveting town of my child/Hood.”

     We walk two and a half miles to the neighbouring town of Gourock, passing by the wealthier houses along the esplanade, a sharp contrast to the tenements we viewed earlier, but like 1 Hope Street and the poems of W.S. Graham, constructions in space surviving one era into another, despite time's erosion and a second world war blitz that devastated much of the Clydeside town.

     As the Firth of Clyde opens into the sea I’m reminded of the plaque at 1 Hope Street, where Graham’s name bobs like buoys on the water and how Graham was influenced by Heraclitus and his ideas of flux. We might be unable to step into the same river twice as it’s not the same river and we’re not the same person, but we can fix our words to the page so the fleeting flitting moment is preserved to flow on to some future reader somewhere other than where we set the words down. In Alexander Hutchison’s last collection, Bones & Breath, a collection gifted to me very generously by the poet (who I’d only just met,) Hutchison published two poems in “an attempt to engage with the inheritance and spirit – or shade – of W.S. Graham.” Like Graham writing to the people of his past or to some imaginary reader in the future, Hutchison talks to Graham through poems Graham can never read, but others will.

     As Gregor and I walk along the esplanade looking out to Helensburgh across the Clyde I’m reminded of Kirkcaldy, another de-industrialized town with a similar population to Greenock and its own less appealing esplanade overlooking the Firth of Forth. I think specifically of Coventry’s, where I came across those early Graham poems in an old frayed issue of Poetry London. And I’m reminded of how poetry can close the space between people, how a young man's first published poems can wash up decades after they first appeared into the hands of another young man, extending through space and time. As Graham himself once wrote in conclusion to an essay of his own, our words can endure, reaching out with a “sudden affection of the language.”

Ross Wilson’s first full collection of poetry, Line Drawing, will be published by Smokestack Books on the 1st of December 2018.