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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.

In the most academic essay in the book, Adam Piette examines Graham's use of the line-break, and of the white-space between lines (symbolizing the 'silence' his poetry often referred to), in the light of Heideggerian theories, of which Graham was aware, and he seems to accurately describe the tension in some of Graham's work when he talks of these theories as 'situating the poetic voice in an abstract printed territory that lies somewhere between the abstract spirit of the language and the ordinary language of the people'.

There is a strong essay from Peter Robinson on 'dependence' in Graham’s poetry, which discusses Graham's vexed relationship with the reader and how this is embodied in the poems. Robinson's essay is the longest in the book, and manages to conduct a complex analysis without resorting to jargon. Mathew Francis's contribution on the other hand, which is a useful close reading of Graham's unpublished prose manuscripts and notebooks - a form of automatic writing which Graham termed his “clusters”, and which Francis refers to as an “a remarkable avant-garde challenge to the institution of literature” - is a condensed and difficult read.

It would have been good to see a bibliography of Graham's works, perhaps even a re-print of the thirty-page one included in Tony Lopez's now out-of-print book "The Poetry of W.S.Graham", and I would also have liked to have seen a more in-depth discussion of Graham's relationship to Dylan Thomas. Although there are many outward similarities, Graham's early work early work was distinct and separate to Thomas's; in fact taking Thomas's innovations and developing them in ways that Thomas himself never did. Lopez touches on this, as does Peter Robinson, who shows how Thomas's prosody was more 'determined' than Graham's, that is, Graham was more inclined to let language lead the way, by means of word-association and lyric and rhythmic impetus, than Thomas was.

Finally, it's worth mentioning the good design of this book, with its feeling of space on the page, and its cover design incorporating one of Roger Hilton's paintings.


1. Peter Riley, Review of W.S. Graham’s “New Collected Poems”, pub. Jacket Magazine, issue 26 (http://jacketmagazine.com)

2. W.S. Graham, “Notes on a poetry of Release”, Edinburgh Review 76, 1986

3. Tony Lopez, “The Poetry of W.S. Graham” pub. Edinburgh University Press, 1989)

Copyright © Alan Baker, 2006

Alan Baker

W.S. Graham: Speaking Towards You,
edited by Ralph Pite and Hester Jones, pub. Liverpool University Press. 224pp.

The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in the poetry of W. S. Graham. The publication of Graham's uncollected poems, poems from his notebooks, Selected Letters, and most recently the "New Collected Poems", has made more of his work available than ever before (although the "New Collected Poems" does not contain all the work that Graham published, and a scholarly and authoritative "Complete Poems" does not appear to be forthcoming from Faber). Since Tony Lopez produced his ground-breaking study of Graham in 1989, there have been a number of critical studies, most recently "Where the People Are: Language and Community in the Poetry of W.S. Graham", by Mathew Francis, one of the contributors to this book.

The result of all this interest in Graham's work, is that we are at last beginning to see him in his own right, rather than in the light of his relationship to the Apocalyptics of the 1940s, or in opposition to The Movement poets who followed them, and whose critical arbiters relegated Graham partly because of his associations with the former group.