Elegy For The World: Loss And The Poetry Of W.S. Graham

Steven Blyth


Loss is a significant feature in the work of the Scottish poet W.S.Graham. The theme is most overtly dealt with in some of his best known poems: the elegies for his deceased friends, entitled The Thermal Stair (for the painter Peter Lanyon, killed in a gliding accident), Lines on Roger Hilton's Watch, and Dear Bryan Wynter.

This is only a note
To say I am aware
You are not here.
I find It difficult to go
Beside Housman's star
Lit fences without you.
And nobody will laugh   
At my jokes like you.

Indeed, it is ironic that his publishers Faber and Faber (or Fibber and Fibber, as he called them) thought that, during a long period of silence, Graham himself had died. As well as loss through death there is also a preoccupation with the loss of Scotland, Graham living most of his adult life in Cornwall:

The curlew's cry travelling still
Kills me fairly. In front of me
The grouse flurry and settle. GOBACK

(Loch Tom)

However, there is a deeper strain of loss running through Graham's work. To uncover this we must start by looking at the poems in his three early collections, Cage without Grievance (1942), 2nd Poems (1945), and The White Threshold (1949), the poems in the first two collections perhaps being the most interesting in this attempt to chart a kind of trajectory of loss. The poems in these collections are complex, knotted pieces which are impossible to untie. They are almost universally seen as being flawed, largely due to a word-drunkenness caused by more than a dram or two of Dylan Thomas:

Over the apparatus of the Spring is drawn
A constructed festival of pulleys from sky.
A dormouse swindled from numbers into wisdom
Trades truth with blue bells. The result unknown
Fades in the sandy beetle-song that martyrs hear
Who longingly for violet cells prospect the meads   

(Over The Apparatus of the Spring is Drawn)

Dennis O'Driscoll sums things up well, commenting that, at this stage in his work, Graham wasn't "allowing words the breathing space which Thomas did. Instead, he threatened to choke his poems with force-feeding".1 However, Graham thought these early poems were just as important as the more acclaimed pieces from his three later collections, The Nightfishing (1955), Malcolm Mooney's Land (1970) and Implements in their Places (1977). Indeed, as well as insisting on their importance, he always denied the influence of Dylan Thomas. In a letter to Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press in 1977, he writes:

"I am getting better I hope. But it is not like a graph saying 'He started out not knowing what he was doing and then he went through his Dylan Thomas phase (which I got a great deal out of) and now he is refining himself ".2

Whether or not Thomas was a conscious influence will always be a moot point, no doubt. However, another poet whose influences can be found in Graham's early work is G.M. Hopkins. Of course, Hopkins is a poet whose influence has been found in the work of Thomas. Making such a connection in his introduction to Thomas's selected poems, Walford Davies also points out something which may go at least some way to explaining the apparent coincidence that seems to exist between the styles of Thomas and Graham:

The poems of the Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins were first fully published only in 1918. Eliot's generation was by then already in full swing, so it was natural for Hopkins to influence the younger poets growing up in the 1920s, whose real decade was to be the thirties".3

Thomas was born in 1914, Graham in 1918, and so such a coincidental influence is quite conceivable. Still, does such historical and biographical evidence hold when we compare it to the poems and furthermore what does all this have to do with loss?

Certainly in a formal sense, Graham has little in common with Hopkins: Graham's early poems are unmetrical and unrhymed. In this sense Thomas is far closer to Hopkins. However, the key to the correlation between Hopkins and Graham's early work is two fold: firstly, there is the notion of what Walford Davies, when comparing Thomas and Hopkins, calls "genuine weight and density in the lines";4 secondly, there is the Hopkinsian notion of inscape, or the very 'thisness' of an object. I would argue that Graham's early work attempts, unsuccessfully, to produce Hopkinsian lines of weight and density which attempt to embody the inscape of their subjects. The irony here is, of course that Graham's early lines are so overly dense and so overly weighty that they produce quite the opposite effect—all sense of a subject is lost. Now one could not claim that Graham was focusing specific natural objects and attempting to embody them, or reach their inscape in the way that a Hopkinsian poet such as Ted Hughes is. There are no poems of Graham's entitled Thrushes, or Pike etc. However, within the crammed over-stuffed lines of the early work there is the feeling that the poet is trying to get under the skin of his subjects, whatever those subjects might be. Moreover, there is the highly adjectival style that Graham has at this point, plus plenty of compounds (e.g. birch-bright, Bird-perched, white-killed)—both of these elements push the poems towards more specificity, more thisness:

I am the hawk-heart braced in the epic's hero          
Hollow and lit in a single follyless zone
Twinned with a dawn and a dark.
Graceless in gardens I hear my unvisited care
Squawk back at the sculptured cuckoo's nursery rhyme
Chimed in the dandelion tower.        

(The Narrator)

Certainly obscure and certainly flawed, but here, as in much of the early work, is an echo of Hopkins in terms of weight and density. A less obscure and later poem from The White Threshold is perhaps a more accessible example:

This deep time, scaling broadside the cannoning sea,
Tilting, cast rigged among galloping iron vesselwork,
Snapped wirerope, spitting oil steam screamed out jets,
Bomb drunkard hero herded by the hammerheaded elements
Loud raftered foamfloored house...

(Men Sign The Sea)

To end the discussion of this phase of Graham's work, it is worth noting the poem Explanation of a Map from the collection 2nd Poems. This poem is central to the early work and embodies much of what has been pointed out, both stylistically and also in terms of the desire of the poem's narrator (which is perhaps the map itself!) to represent a kind of inscape through language or, as he puts, engage in "Wording the world awake." As with the others, this poem is complex and nearly impenetrable but what one can glean is the idea being put forward that language can get at that inscape, that thisness. In this poem more than any other we see that, for Graham, language embodying and representing the world is still a possibility; the romantic ideal of framing the world is alive and kicking:

...My word
Knows mister and missus, measure and live feature,
So fume and jet of the floor and all its towns
Wording the world awake and all its suns.

Already we have seen an ironic loss of subject in the early work because of the weight and density of the lines. This gives us a taste of the deep loss that runs through Graham's work, this being the loss of the world which he so much wants to (and feels he can) word awake. Before looking at this loss, which is apparent in the later work, we must first turn our attention to the long poem, The Nightfishing, from the collection of the same name. In terms of the loss of the world and Graham's writing as a whole this poem is a turning point. In it there are many of the complexities and tones of the early work, though at a much reduced level, resulting in a demanding but far more accessible piece. The bulk of the poem is about a fishing trip which is both literal and metaphorical, with the sea and its fish as a metaphor for language. The narrator metaphorically dies and is reborn: the loss of one self and the gaining of another, The poem inhabits a central position in Graham's stylistic and thematic development—after the collection in which it appears we have the work from Malcolm Mooney's Land and Implements in their Places, both of which contain a very different kind of poetry. While the change is not too abrupt (there are shades of this new style in many poems in The Nightfishing) the title poem can be seen as being one in which the poet sheds one poetic style or voice and brings into play another wholly more successful one. However, at the heart of The Nightfishing lies yet another irony in terms of loss. Ronnie Duncan points out: Technically, it is a well-wrought work with some fine descriptive passages of the sea and men's struggles within that dangerous element":5

The brute weight
Of the living sea wrought us, yet the boat sleeked lean
Into it, upheld by the whole sea-brunt heaved,
And hung on the swivelling tops. The tiller raised
The siding tide to wrench us and took a good
Ready hand to hold it. Yet we made a seaway
And minded all the gear was fast, and took
Our spell at steering. And we went keeled over
The streaming sea.

It seems that in this poem Graham achieved what he had been struggling to achieve in the earlier poems: he touches the inscape of the sea, embodies it in language just at the point in which he seems to abandon this quest and turn to a style which is more concerned with language as language, as opposed to language as embodier of thing. Graham turns from attempting to word the world awake to a poetry which questions the word itself. We see here the beginnings of Graham's loss of the world.

The syntax and language of the later poetry is much more simplistic: instead of density and weight the lines have a lightness: instead of writing gale force poetry, Graham turns his hand to a poetry which is like a breeze, though none the less powerful for that, in fact more so:

Dad, what am I doing here?
What is it I am doing now?
Are you proud of me?
Going away, I knew
You wanted to tell me something.
You stopped and almost turned back
To say something. My father,
I try to be the best
In you you give me always.

(To Alexander Graham)        

Here we see a crystal clear diction, an ability to move the reader and also an interest in the theme of communication, which inhabits a central position in this later work. However, the problem of mimesis and of wording the world awake does not vanish: in the late, work we discover a poet who is conscious of the fact that his biggest loss is, perhaps, not that of his friends, so wonderfully evoked in those elegies, or his family or homeland but the world itself, the world he once longed to evoke and frame in his poetry. Bearing this in mind, the last lines of Ten Shots of Mr Simpson are notable. The sequence deals with the idea of representing a Holocaust survivor through art. Yet this attempt at mimesis ends:

Language and light begin to go
To leave us looking at each other

A comment on the impossibility of representing the Holocaust through art, certainly, but also a comment on the difficulties of representation through art in more general terms. The theme of the loss of the world is consolidated in A Note to the Difficult One:

I stand in my vocabulary looking out
Through my window of fine water ready
To translate natural occurrences

The poem ends without any sense of the boundaries between the writer and the world being broken. Wording the world awake is no longer possible:

This morning I am ready if you are
To speak. The early quick rains
Of Spring are drenching the window-glass.
Here in my words looking out
I see your face speaking flying
In a cloud wanting to say something.

Graham's later poetry is peppered with images of the loss of the world in terms of the inability of the writer to embody it in language. Similarly, as in The Nightfishing, there are many instances where the world is transformed into a metaphorical landscape and thus the real world is surrendered to the figurative. Perhaps the best example of this is in the poem Malcolm Mooney's Land, in which an arctic landscape is transformed into a metaphor for, once again, the difficulties of communication. The real world diminishes in the face of a metaphorical one:

I have made myself alone now.
Outside the tent endless
Drifting hummock crests.
Words drifting on words.
The real unabstract snow.

Perhaps these lines best sum up Graham's later work, depicting a lonely figure grappling with the difficulties of language, trapped in a place where the real world has been replaced by a world of language, which is for the writer as tangible as that that has been lost. It has often been pointed out that Graham has become something of a neglected poet. However, his loss of the world makes his poetry more relevant than ever when we bear in mind the emergence of virtual reality. Perhaps the opening and closing lines of his long sequence Implement in their Places will become a fitting epitaph for our time:

Somewhere our belonging particles
Believe in us. If we could only find them.



1 Dennis O'Driscol, W.S.Graham: Professor of Silence, in Eds. Ronnie Duncan and Jonathan Davidson, The Constructed Space: A Celebration of W.S.Graham.  (Jacksons Arm. 1994) p. 52.

2 Carcanet Press archives at The John Rylands Library, Manchester.

3 Ed. Walford Davies, Dylan Thomas: Selected Poems, (J.M.Dent and Sons, 1974), p15.

4 Ibid, p. 17.

5 Ronnie Duncan, W.S.Graham; A Reader's View, op. cit, p. 16.