We are now at a sufficient distance from the debate between those two strands of British poetry to put emotive argument to one side, and to be able to evaluate the poets of that period without regard to the fashions of their time. Such a revaluation appears to be underway in critical circles, and this book is a welcome contribution to that process. In their introduction, the editors, referring to the essays that follow, say that
'they show [Graham] to be experimental and traditional simultaneously, modernist and also involved in his frequently anti-modernist historical moment. They contest the way Graham has been pigeon-holed and implicitly question the ways in which poetry from the post-war period has been categorized (and polarized).'
So freeing Graham from pre-conceived associations is one of the aims of this book, and in that respect, it is very welcome.
Overall, the wide-ranging nature of the essays is excellent, and they cover such diverse topics as Graham's use of automatic writing, the influence on him of the St.Ives painters, and the role of the numinous in his work. Each section contains a sample poem by Graham, which is a nice touch, and the volume finishes with a review of his 1979 Collected Poems by his contemporary Edwin Morgan. Morgan's review is astute and even-handed, and he doesn't shy away from difficult issues, such as the opacity of the early poems, and the narrowness of Graham’s subject matter. Speaking of Graham’s early poetry, Morgan observes:
“He did not escape the obvious dangers lurking in that view [the primacy of language over emotion, observation etc.], the overtaking of sense by sound, the over-estimation of sub-conscious and chance elements, the frustrating of argument and persuasion. Yet no-one can say that sound, and the sub-conscious, and the progress of a poem through something other than logic, are not important features of poetry, and we have to be clear that Graham’s continuing faithfulness to the Word is what gives his work its integrity, in that he is a great and cunning craftsman, with a very particular skill in rhythm, and in the movement of a poem from line to line…”
Which is a fairer assessment of his earlier work than that of certain critics at the time of its publication.
Morgan’s essay is a good conclusion to the book, but it's a shame that the editors made the decision to start with the weakest contribution, Ian Sansom's essay. Although Sansom makes some interesting observations, particularly in relation to Graham's working-class origins and the awkwardness this caused him in 1940s Fitzrovia, the essay is marred by a style that almost amounts to journalese. Sansom's tone can be gauged by his considering that Graham's neglect during his lifetime was because 'perhaps his poetry was not in fact, very good'; something which, in any case, he fails to either demonstrate, or to use as springboard to reach an alternative conclusion.
But the book gets into its stride with Tony Lopez's insightful contribution, 'Graham and the 1940s', which examines, among other things, Graham's friendship with Dylan Thomas, and the way Graham, right from the beginning, was distinct from Thomas in his preoccupations. Lopez also draws a surprising parallel between the early work of Graham and that of Philip Larkin. Lopez compares Graham’s poem “His Companions Buried Him”, from “2ND Poems”, to Larkin’s “Legend” from “The North Ship”, and concludes that, although the two poets went off in very different directions, their early work actually had some common features, and the young Larkin, as Lopez points out, was an admirer of Dylan Thomas. All of which is a good example of the artificiality of poetic movements and schools.
Ralph Pite discusses Graham's art in relation to the St.Ives painters that he lived among, and in particular, to the work of his close friends Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon. Pite sees the role of abstraction in Graham's poetry as being influenced by abstraction in painting. Both painters wrestled with pure abstraction, and were moving towards a form of painting which takes on the 'task of presenting something other than itself so that itself becomes transfigured in the process' (Hilton). The essay charts the parallel project of these painters and of Graham - in which Graham's abstract poetry, such as 'Hilton Abstract' or 'The Dark Dialogues' is working towards 'release in to the human world of another'(2), where an abstract process can lead to the disclosure of something 'real and | Particular' (“The Dark Dialogues”) - and illustrates Graham's distrust of abstraction for its own sake.