The Caught Habits of Language: An Entertainment for W. S. Graham for Him Having Reached One Hundred edited by Rachael Boast, Andy Ching and Nathan Hamilton


Review by Jack Baker 

This elegant anthology – a centenary ‘entertainment’ – affirms W.S. Graham’s enduring influence. It assembles poems in tribute from some eighty admirers, along with twenty previously unpublished drafts and fragments from Graham’s manuscripts. To exploit the archives of a poet so fastidious in sifting and editing his work is a sensitive undertaking, and the editors are suitably cautious in framing these new poems: ‘it would be wrong to claim they are amongst his finest work’. Even so, the promise of fresh insight into a poet of Graham’s stature will arouse keen interest. Though several of these recovered poems read as promising first drafts, they contain flashes of the transfiguring perception sustained in masterpieces such as ‘Loch Thom’, which deserves to be regarded, along with ‘The Nightfishing’, as one of the great post-war poems in English:

And almost I am back again
Wading in the heather down to the edge
To sit.  The minnows go by in shoals
Like iron-filings in the shallows.

My mother is dead.  My father is dead
And all the trout I used to know
Leaping from their sad rings are dead.

‘Graham’s line breaks spell out more / than rafts of black on white’, as Ian Duhig observes, in his tribute. The poet’s trademark rhythmic acuity is certainly displayed to full effect in the newly published poems, perhaps the most fully achieved of which are ‘The Owl’ and the ‘The Curlew’. Like Yeats in ‘Adam’s Curse’, striving to convey the elusive ‘moment’s thought’, Graham finds both frustration and promise in the gulf between words and world:

In this address to you in verse
The dark is mine tonight. It is
A dark which I have manufactured
Myself for me to see you well in.

(‘The Owl’)

As the helpful notes for these manuscript poems indicate, most are later works.  The daunting syntax and disorientating imagery of Graham’s early style are schooled here to an arresting clarity of vision. ‘Arresting clarity’: it is difficult to isolate these poems’ conjunction of verbal economy and emotional openness without inviting cliché. Certainly, the mode differs in effect from the curious expository nakedness of much contemporary poetry. Instead, Graham’s late style moves to preserve a negative capability that the fixities of age and identity had seemed to close off:

Look at the chirping various
Leaves of Mr Graham’s
Spanking summer. Where are
You at? I know my face
Has changed. My hair has blanched
Into a wrong disguise
Sitting on top of my head.

Beside each other perched
On the Epidaurus steps.
Where am I going to go?
Shall I rise to follow
The thin sound of the goats
Tinkling their bells

(‘An Entertainment for W.S. Graham for Him Having Reached Sixty-Five’)

Other poems are more uneven, but contain wonderful local effects. In ‘It is as Though the Very Movement Comes Out of Silence’, an uncharacteristic note of valediction – of nostalgia, even – cedes to starker admissions, which are not so much morbid as wryly self-aware. The artistic penchant for aloof self-righteousness, for instance, is deftly undercut:

But I am only human and I find
I want some indication of love and respect
From my fellow beasts no matter how different
They seem from me.

These poems rarely foreclose the metaphysical questions they set out to explore. Though the poet seems gently chided by the intractability of his surroundings, the unresolved tension between reality and the imagination finally becomes a source of creative energy that is itself consoling. Mimesis is denied in favour of an expressive mode:

The words of making it up are far realer
Than you walking with the rain on your face
Tapping hedges and walls with a white stick.

Many of the entertainments collected in this volume are alive to the implications of ‘making it up’. The editors stress the ‘diverse backgrounds and poetic practices’ of their contributors, and the assembled cast is certainly eclectic. Even so, it is touching to note how many of the tributes are self-consciously indebted to Graham’s own dramatic machinery: his landscapes, soundscapes and ghostly presences. Of these, Paul Henry’s ‘Violin Tide’ most beautifully honours Graham’s fascination with the sea:

Perhaps you are not so far away
From the moon in the violin
And the clock I should wind, to hear
The workings of the bay.

Graham was writing in good company. In the American tradition, in particular, poets from Whitman to A.R. Ammons have made the shoreline a scene of crisis and revelation. But Graham could also conjure immanent possibility from more intimate details. Denise Riley captures well the subtle mix of estrangement and longing inspired when familiar landscapes are made newly conspicuous:

Some buxom clouds lollop along, gloweringly under-lit
Past russet trees brushed dark, fine-feathered by sable hair.
What’s that inhuman call, far into the woods of no ears.   

(‘Three Awkward Ears’)

These and other poems respond most keenly to the impersonal dimension of Graham’s verse – to the poet who finds his partial and peripheral being made temporarily whole by an imaginative confrontation with the real. But other contributors are inspired by the life as much as by the work. Jackie Kay’s poem, ‘Out of the Clyde’, locates Graham in the streets and shipyards of his childhood:

Clyde-side clad, you stepped with ease,
not minding yourself on the way, a steady pace, then
stopped – out of the flood – to speak to us,
from the tall tenement of poetry, off on a ship
down the upper Clyde

The tone – generous and lightly romanticising – is entirely in keeping with the spirit of this volume. Several tributes cast Graham in the image of a sage, whose incomplete and single-minded life reflects an enviable dedication. Peter Riley’s ‘A Prelude for W.S.G.’, too, is deeply admiring, but brings its human subject closer:

I’ll leave you now, Mr Sydney,
to your alcohol evening, coming home late
on the cliff path with the last star burning
by your foot, and in through your own front door.
And just then, when a closure is pending,
the night quay bell very gently tolls
and we know, we are all called out.


Jack Baker received a PhD from Durham University on the impersonal modes of Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. He has published essays on Pound, Stevens, Marilynne Robinson and Geoffrey Hill, and is working on a book about beauty and consolation in modernist poetry.

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