W. S. Graham

W. S. Graham (1918 - 1986)



William Sydney Graham was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, and spent most of his adult life in Cornwall, where he scraped together a living as a writer. His poetry pays close attention to the structure and possibilities of language; he invites readers to explore with him the means to authentic communication in poems of great energy, wit and humanity.


Full Biography

‘Listen. Put on morning.
Waken into falling light.’


William Sydney Graham was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, on 19 November 1918. He was educated at Greenock High School; he left in 1932 to become an apprentice draughtsman, then studied structural engineering at Stow College, Glasgow.  In 1938 he won a bursary to study for a year at Newbattle Abbey College, near Edinburgh. He began publishing in the early 1940s, including a collection brought out by the great Glasgow printer and publisher William Mclellan, who did so much to encourage and promote contemporary Scottish literature. Having been rejected for service on medical grounds, he had various jobs during the war and moved to Cornwall in 1943, where he was able to live rent-free in a caravan.  He received an Atlantic Award in 1947 and spent the year 1947-48 lecturing at New York University. Moving to London in 1948, he met T.S. Eliot who took his next (fourth) book of poems for Faber and Faber and they remained his publishers.

In 1954 he married Agnes (Nessie) Dunsmuir (1909-1999), whom he had met at Newbattle and who also wrote poems.  They lived in near poverty until a Civil List pension in 1974 alleviated things somewhat. After marriage he returned to Cornwall and lived in the village of Madron for the rest of his life, dying there on 9 January 1986. In 2006 commemorative plaques were put up in Fore Street, Madron, and at 1 Hope Street, Greenock, where he was born.

This long absence from Scotland meant that he was often overlooked in accounts of Scottish writing, although he corresponded with Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan, among others, and remained friendly towards Hugh MacDiarmid while their positions as regards poetic language were very different. He wrote to William Montgomerie in 1969: ‘I certainly couldn’t write the poems I do without being Scots. Of course I have great bouts of homesickness for Scotland, the land and the people. But the selfconsciousness of what the Scottish art scene seems to be today embarrasses me tae hell.’

Graham’s early work could be described as neo-romantic and influenced by the New Apocalypse movement, Dylan Thomas-ish.  He tried the long poem format, published as The Nightfishing in 1955 (though written over many years), which despite some powerful writing and imagery, with the sea and fishing as symbolic of the creative process (‘What a restless space/ To trace stillness on’), was not a critical or popular success, and it was fifteen years before he  published another collection.

In Cornwall he became friendly with a local group of painters that included Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter. Their abstract work began to influence his poems – as an engineer he had always been interested in structure and the use of space. This, together with his obsession with language and the problem of communication, gives his work its character. He said he was speaking from one aloneness to another. His later poems make this connection with perhaps a greater clarity, certainly with a  greater warmth and a kind of unsentimental nostalgia, especially the poems about his father and Greenock, elegies for friends, and the love poems to his wife. ‘To Alexander Graham’ is one of the most moving poems he wrote.

Roderick Watson has described his ‘spare and elliptical beauty of voice’, and in his poem ‘W.S. Graham’ (Stolen Light: selected poems) Stewart Conn pays homage to

  so perfectly turned and weightless
                    they’d defy gravity
but for the ice
                    that pins them in place’

Watson further comments, in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century (2007) ‘his poetry is driven first and foremost by a deeply personal need to communicate at a level of linguistic honesty, integrity and urgency.’   It is this emphasis on the word that makes Graham, in that terrible phrase, ‘a poet’s poet’.


The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words. … It is brought to life by the reader and takes part in the reader’s change. (‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’)

He keeps asking, ‘What is the language using us for?’, and of any poem, ‘Does it disturb the language?’ Graham lived and wrote the life, and for that at least, for so many writers – and readers – he remains essential.


Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Cage Without Grievance (Glasgow: Parton Press, 1942)
The Seven Journeys (Glasgow: William McLellan, 1944)
2nd Poems (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1945)
The White Threshhold (London: Faber and Faber, 1949)
The Nightfishing (London: Faber and Faber, 1955)
Malcolm Mooney’s Land (London: Faber and Faber, 1970)
Implements in their Places (London: Faber and Faber, 1977)
Collected Poems 1942-1977 (London: Faber and Faber, 1979)
Uncollected Poems (Warwick: Greville Press, 1990)
Aimed at Nobody: poems from notebooks, edited by Margaret Blackwood and Robin Skelton   
      (London:  Faber and Faber, 1993)
Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1996)
W.S. Graham, selected by Nessie Dunsmuir (Warwick: Greville Press, 1998)
The Nightfisherman: selected letters of W.S. Graham, edited by  Michael and Margaret Snow
         (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999)
New Collected Poems, edited by Matthew Francis (London: Faber and Faber, 2004)
Approaches to How They Behave (Donut Press, 2009)
Les Dialogues obscurs: Selected Poems in French, translated by Anne-Sylvie Homassel and Blandine Longre (Black Herald Press, 2013)

Selected Biography and Criticism

Calvin Bedient, ‘W.S. Graham’, in Eight Contemporary Poets (London: Oxford University Press,1974)

Robert Duxbury, ‘The Poetry of W.S. Graham’, Akros 38 (1978)

Damian Grant, ‘Walls of Glass: The Poetry of W.S. Graham’, in Peter Jones & Michael Schmidt  
      (eds), British Poetry Since 1970 (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1980)

David Punter, ‘W.S. Graham: Constructing a White Space’, in The Hidden Script: writing and
          the unconscious
(London: Routledge, 1985)

‘The Life and Works of W.S. Graham’, Edinburgh Review 75 (February 1987)

Mark Andrew Silverberg, ‘A readership of none: the later poetry of W.S. Graham’, English
         Studies in Canada
24:2 (1988)

Tony Lopez, The Poetry of W.S. Graham (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989)

Edwin Morgan, ‘The Poetry of W.S. Graham’ and ‘W.S. Graham: A Poet’s Letters’, in Crossing
         the Border
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1990)

Ronnie Duncan & Jonathan Davidson (eds), The Constructed Space: a celebration of W.S.  
(Lincoln: Jackson’s Arm, 1994)

Elizabeth Lowry, ‘The Strange Disappearance of W.S. Graham’, Thumbscrew 5 (Summer 1996)

Stewart Conn, ‘Whisky and boiled eggs’, Scottish Review 19 (Autumn 1999)

Aquarius 25/26 (2002) [George Barker/W.S. Graham issue]

Stewart Conn, ‘Malcolm’s land: W.S. Graham’ in Distances: a personal evocation of people and
(Dalkeith: Scottish Cultural Press, 2001)

Matthew Francis, Where the People Are: language and community in the poetry of W.S.
(Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2004)

Ralph Pite and Hester Jones (eds), W.S. Graham: speaking towards you (Liverpool: University of
         Liverpool Press, 2004)

Peter Riley, Jacket, no. 26: review of New Collected Poems (Australia: 2004)

John Corbett, ‘Language, Hugh MacDiarmid and W. S. Graham’ in Ian Brown and Alan Riach,
         (eds), The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-century Scottish Literature (Edinburgh:
          Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

David Nowell Smith, “These words take place”: W. S. Graham’s “The Nightfishing” (Essays in Modern British and Irish Poetry 5, 2011).

David Whittaker, Give Me Your Painting Hand: W.S. Graham and Cornwall (Wavestone Press, 2015)

Other Useful Info


The Estate of W. S. Graham (contact the SPL)
Faber and Faber 

Manuscripts and Papers

National Library of Scotland