Standing Stones

by John Metcalf
ISBN: 0887621449

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A Review of: New Collected Poems
by Marius Kocejowski

Matthew Francis has seen through the press the most complete edition to date of W.S. Graham's poetry. Whether or not this was advisable is a question I will return to at the end of this article. As it stands, the book is impeccably edited, contains a useful glossary, informative notes, a bibliography, and a list of people, which includes under Montgomerie the entry-"William Fetherston-Haugh Montgomery (1797-1859), physician who described the changes in the follicles surrounding the nipples in the early stages of pregnancy"-and a further list of places. (There is a purpose to this exercise, since Graham's poetry, even when it moves into the constructed space' of his imagination, is born of actual people and places, not all of them easily identifiable.) Douglas Dunn's Foreword is written in a fine and sober voice, while the editor's brief but elegant Introduction made me curious to hear what more he had to say about his subject. The book is unlikely to be surpassed in scale. Above all, it serves to keep afloat a reputation, which, during the poet's lifetime, had all but vanished. There was a poetic dark age, between the publication of The Nightfishing (1955) and Malcolm Mooney's Land (1970), when people did not even think to ask whether Graham was still alive. Cornwall was probably further away from London's consciousness than San Francisco; a Scots poet living there was not likely to be remembered. It was only in the last decade of his life, when, against the adversities of alcohol and ill health, he produced some of his best poems, that he acquired a small but faithful following. The majority of poetry readers, however, pitched their pup tents elsewhere. Graham has always had to survive one fashion or another, and I suspect he will continue to weather the vicissitudes of popular taste. Only a few months ago, his 1979 Collected Poems, which, incredibly, was still in its first printing, was remaindered, presumably in order to make way for this one. That earlier volume is still worth reaching for.
Graham was a complete poet. Of his kind there are few and still fewer to come, or at least not until after the professional swill of poetic verbiage has begun to subside. He was a poet because he had to be. The greater part of his life was spent in bitter poverty and doubtless the world will ask whether the sacrifices he made for his art bordered on the irresponsible. A steady job was anathema to him, as was anything that would put an obstacle in the path of an approaching verse. There were times even when he and his wife lived on soup made of lichen scraped from stone. This said, towards the ends of theirs lives, they were not without the support of friends and the small house they had in Madron was given to them rent-free. While he could be brutally competitive, such that any other poet sharing the stage with him would have to watch his own back, Graham was, in the making of his verse, a pure and absolute voice. My guess is that even had he never published during his lifetime his collected works would be substantially the same.
If Graham was, to some degree, a "poet's poet", he had little recourse to other writers and certainly none to academe. The conclusions he arrived at, regarding language and what lies beyond it, had nothing to do with fashionable literary theory, although often he swam unawares in the same intellectual current. The position he chose, in the wake of Dylan Thomas and the poets of the New Apocalypse, was to disturb, even torture, the language. As might be expected, given his appetite for the pure, it would take him many years to arrive at his stated goal "that I burn bright enough to see out through the window which my poem is." This last is from a letter he wrote, in 1943, to the poet Edwin Morgan. What I find most striking about his earliest letters, published in the The Nightfisherman (Carcanet, 1999), is the degree to which they demonstrate a critical intelligence already far in advance of his actual poetic practice. The problem was in getting there. The circuitry of his early verse is too overloaded at times. Some of the poems are so dense as to be unintelligible. As he approached the end of his life, however, the poems became increasingly finer. Many of them have to do with language, "the beast in the space", and the near impossibility of communication, yet the manner of his poetic exploration is throughout bold and passionate.

What is the language using us for?
What shape of words shall put its arms
Round us for more than pleasure?

It would be a mistake though, to seek to categorise him or place him in the Forties because he was a poet who, in my view, belongs to the future. His poetry stands at the crossroads of the highly sophisticated and the primitive. Should the reader be led into thinking Graham researched his themes, the truth is quite the opposite-he drew from whatever crossed his path. One must be forever grateful to Ruth Hilton who, upon visiting Graham in 1976, showed him her copy of Johann Joachim Quantz's On Playing the Flute (1752) because Graham's chance reading of it was to give rise to a masterpiece, arguably the finest dramatic monologue of our times. "[Quantz's] prose steered my verse," he wrote to the poet David Wright. "It helped my imagined gestures." A man who had by now earned his right to "disturb the language," Graham dared to turn arpeggios into "the joy of those quick high archipelagoes," making of pure sound a physical landscape. Shall we ever again hear the like? The identification of musician and poet is magnificently achieved, particularly in the connection made between them and their common opposite, which is silence. It is the closest one gets to an ars poetica in Graham's verse.

Karl, I think it is true,
You are now nearly able to play the flute.

Now we must try higher, aware of the terrible
Shapes of silence sitting outside your ear
Anxious to define you and really love you.
Remember silence is curious about its opposite
Element which you shall learn to represent.

The final lesson, aimed perhaps at our celebrity-driven times, lies in the poem's last four words, which ought to be writ large above every writer's table: "Do not expect applause."
It is at this juncture that I offer his publishers a challenge for the future. Although Graham never climbed onto the ghastly bandwagon the poetry scene has become, where every poet is a performer, every performer an entertainer, nevertheless the most thrilling poetry readings I've ever attended were the four he gave in London in the 1970s-two at the Poetry Society, one at Keats House and, the final one at the Pentameters pub in Hampstead. What made those events so memorable was the poet reading his poems on a high wire, as it were, such that one wondered if he would survive his own reading of them. Doubtless the massive consumption of drink added to the tension. The nervous mood was such that eruptions would occur in the audience. "I will cut off your heads!" Graham warned them. He is the only poet I have seen with the audacity to give an immediate, rereading of one of his own poems. "I am not mock humble," he wrote in one of his letters. Other times he'd whoop and cry, and, once, quite out of the blue, at Keats's House, he sang a Scots ballad, demonstrating a fine singing voice. At the National Sound Archive in London there is a recording of Graham's second Poetry Society reading-it ought to be issued because there is no better key to his poetry than that rough diamond voice.
Our age is not conducive to love poetry, perhaps because there is an inherent distrust of the aesthetic motive that is usually its source. Nevertheless Graham wrote at least two great love poems, "I Leave This At Your Ear" and "To My Wife at Midnight". The latter, a love poem written to another in old age, is perhaps incomparable in our literature. As in the 1979 edition, the three-page poem is here accorded a section of its own, as if it were meant to stand in perpetuity upon its own plinth.

Are you to say goodnight
And turn away under
The blanket of your delight?

Are you to let me go
Alone to sleep beside you
Into the drifting snow?

Where we each reach,
Sleep alone together,
Nobody can touch.

Is the cat's window open?
Shall I turn into your back?
And what is to happen?

What is to happen to us
And what is to happen to each
Of us asleep in our places?

There is in that poem an extraordinary movement of the waking mind which drifts back to the Battle of Culloden (1746). The poet lies "sore-wounded" peering into the future where his wife, not even aware he is gone, lies alone: "I'll see you here asleep/In your lonely place." It is a masterly performance and, despite it being shorn of any trace of sentiment, difficult to listen to with a dry eye. And the love that was the difficult love he had for his friends is again given voice in several brief elegies, the finest among them, perhaps, being "Lines on Roger Hilton's Watch".

Which I was given because
I love him and we had
Terrible times together.

The publication of New Collected Poems raises a problem, which I feared would be the case, when I first heard the book was in preparation. Admittedly I was greedy for more, hoping for a cache of hitherto undiscovered verse, though I knew this was unlikely. The problem is this: what actually comprises a poet's oeuvre? Should it be what the poet himself wishes it to be, or should it be for others to determine? The answer to this is not always clear. We have had instances of poets, Virgil among them, being rescued from the impossible standards they set for themselves. And then there are poets, Vernon Watkins, for example, who have never been accorded their rightful due. We have moved beyond those areas of slackness and rescue into a rather more brutal regime. There is virtually no delicacy where there is a quick buck, or even a critical reputation, to be made. And such are the pressures in publishing and academe that even those with the best of motives make their errors in innocence. We have already been through this with Philip Larkin's Collected Poems the publication of which would have had him turning in his grave.
In the case of Graham, the way is clearer. When, as Francis rightly points out, Graham defended his early work as being "other objects with their own particular energies" surely he was defending only those youthful poems that he wished to preserve. After all, he did live to oversee the publication of his Collected Poems when he was already close to the end of his writing life. The few poems he had yet to produce were later gathered in Uncollected Poems (Greville Press, 1990) and it is this slender pamphlet, published under the guidance of Graham's widow, Nessie Dunsmuir, a lady of fine critical intelligence, that most truthfully extends the oeuvre. I began to have doubts with the publication of Aimed at Nobody (1993), containing work that Graham would have declined to include in any collection. The New Collected opens with The Seven Journeys, originally published by Poetry Scotland in 1944, and which one contemporary reviewer described as "a forgery of the poetic currency." It ends with the abysmal "With the Dulle Griet in Canada" which, at best-that is, if one is feeling particularly charitable-could not have been anything other than notes towards a poem. Graham, in his Collected wisely did not include any of the poems from The Seven Journeys, nor did he come even close to whittling down "the Dulle Griet" to the four or five lines of poetry that might have been embedded there. Should a poet of his considerable worth be bracketed so, between the indigestible and the execrable? This collection effectively throws the balance at a time when Graham, one of the finest poets of the second half of the twentieth-century, has yet to be accorded his rightful place. I speak with the unease of one who wonders what he would have done in Francis's shoes. The damage, if damage is what it is, can be undone at a future date. I would much rather that any future collected, or even meticulously selected, poems (with, of course, a CD recording tucked in at the back) ended with the delightful "A Walk to the Gulvas".

Let us go back, Reader,
You who have observed
Us at your price from word
To word through the rain,
Don't be put down. I'll come
Again and take you on Be well wrapped up against
The high moor and the brambles.

Sadly, when Graham wrote those lines, he would have been physically incapable of such a hike.

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