‘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.
Image: Copyright © the Estate of Michael Seward Snow, 2018. All rights reserved.