WS Graham

The seafarer

In 1945, WS Graham wrote to Sven Berlin about Alfred Wallis’s paintings: ‘It’s like the work of the angel in the man and both not knowing each other very well.’ In the following year, Graham would write his poem ‘The Voyages of Alfred Wallis’, which begins with the lines:

Worldhauled, he’s grounded on God’s great bank,
Keelheaved to Heaven, waved into boatfilled arms,
Falls his homecoming leaving that old sea testament,
Watching the restless land sail rigged alongside
Townful of shallows, gulls on the sailing roofs.

Only Graham could begin a poem with ‘worldhauled’, an invention, a conflation, heavy and labourious. In it we also see ‘wordhauled’: the idea that language is also heavy, difficult to fathom. Hard to know what Wallis might have made of it (the poem was written four years after his death); he was a man of simple words. He had no formal education. The only book he had read was the Bible (hence ‘God’s great bank, / Keelheaved to Heaven … leaving that old sea testament’). He had no training as an artist. Painting was something he took up ‘for company’ when his wife died. Everyone knows the famous story of how Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood came upon Wallis and his paintings by accident, as they walked past his open door on Back Road West during a drawing holiday in St Ives in 1928; subsequently, how Wallis’s strange naïve pictures of boats askew, his spatially-challenged seascapes altered the course of British modernist painting. Hard to know what Wallis would have thought of his fame, the fact that his paintings have travelled farther than even a seasoned mariner could imagine, or that his rough works – mostly house paint on cardboard or wood – command five figures in auction houses (Wallis died in the poorhouse at Madron).

Graham’s poem predates the kind of fame Wallis was to achieve, although Berlin was already at work on the first serious monograph. Graham explained to Berlin in another letter that Wallis represented ‘a symbol of that energy which manifests itself in all kinds of places, so often when it is shouted for and encouraged by all the gear and disguise of “rolling eye” etc. – not appearing – and at times appearing, as in Wallis, seemingly “in spite of”.’ A typically Graham-like sentence, full of energy, stops and starts, a snaking trail of (il)logic. Kind of like Wallis’s landscapes, which are never accurate maps of a place, but are born out of ‘what used to be … what you will never see any more’ to use Wallis’s description. A life lived on the sea, already in the past when Wallis started painting, reconstructed from memory. That’s why nothing is to scale in Wallis’s paintings; apart from the fact he lacked the formal training of perspective, the huge waves ready to engulf the boat are exactly how they looked to the young mariner; the tiny houses hugging the harbor already in the distance as the schooner pushes out to sea.

Back to Graham. He had been reading the great Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer when he wrote his tribute to Wallis. The strong compound constructions of words come partly from this:

Sitting day-long
at an oar’s end clenched against clinging sorrow,
breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too.
I have coursed my keel through care-halls without end
over furled foam, I forward in the bows
through the narrowing night, numb, watching
for the cliffs we beat along.

Graham would have been deeply affected by those lines, a poet who spent his entire life next to the sea, and who understood Wallis’s great respect for its power to both lull and destroy. Graham ends his Wallis poem like this:

Falls into home his prayerspray. He’s there to lie
Seagreat and small, contrary and rare as sand.
Oils overcome and keep his inward voyage.
An Ararat shore, loud limpet stuck to its terror,
Drags home the bible keel from a returning sea
And four black shouting steerers stationed on movement
Call out arrival over the landgreat houseboat.
The ship of land with birds on seven trees
Calls out farewell like Melville talking down on
Nightfall’s devoted barque and the parable whale.
What shipcry falls? The holy families of foam
Fall into wilderness and ‘over the jasper sea’.
The gulls wade into silence. What deep seasaint
Whispered this keel out of its element?

‘Over the jasper sea’ is one of the most beautiful images in Graham. Wallis would have known it well. It comes from a hymn:

Hark tis the voice of angels
Born in a song to me
Over the fields of glory
Over the jasper sea.

Alfred Wallis: Ships and Boats is at Kettle’s Yard until 8th July

I will be running a writing workshop looking at the influence of Wallis on poets such as Graham, Merwin, Clemo and Christopher Reid on Sunday 10th June

The other side of language

I came across this quote from WS Graham today – “a word is exciting because of its surroundings” – hunting for some clarification on the poem Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons (in preparation for my course at Chateau Ventenac next week) while pondering the very strange image near the end when the famous flutist Quantz tells his pupil, Karl:

One last thing, Karl, remember when you enter
The joy of those quick high archipelagos,
To make to keep your finger-stops as light
As feathers but definite. What can I say more?

In 1977, Graham wrote to Fraser Steel, a radio producer at the BBC, who had queried the use of ‘archipelagos’ in the poem, assuming it was a typo. Graham replies:

Of course I mean ‘arpeggios’. That’s why I said ‘archipelagoes’. It is making a quick little entertainment by putting down one word in stead [sic] of the other and both words making an exciting sense. At least I hope so. Again, I think we know he is playing a quick flourish of islands.

A lot of the poem has the strangeness, the not-quite-rightness of something translated awkwardly from German into English (Graham read Quantz’s famous 1752 treatise on playing the flute, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen in its English translation, leant to him by Rose Hilton). But the use of ‘archipelagos’ is typical of Graham, because he wants us to think of art – in this case music, but of course also poetry – as a means of transport to another place. So there is the sense of two words, the ‘correct’ one, but also one which is close in sound but carries us further in metaphor. And isn’t it funny how playing or listening to arpeggios on a flute sounds a bit like hopping quickly from one little island to the next (and trying not to get your feel wet in the bargain)?

John Cage, whose music I was listening to this afternoon (a chance collision between Cage and Graham – both of them would have liked that) said that music should be ‘purposeless play … not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.’ Graham certainly felt that way about words, was always acutely aware of their power to both confuse and clarify. Which is what he is constantly doing in his poems, sometimes all at once.

And anyhow, ‘archipelago’ is one of the most beautiful words I can think of, so it’s good to have an excuse to put it into a poem …

Small is beautiful

Coming away from last weekend’s Free Verse book fair (laden with my bag of purchases!) I felt truly optimistic for the first time in quite a while for the future of poetry publishing. The fair was arguably an example of something positive emerging from the recession. True, there are a number of small presses which have suffered (and some which will inevitably close) in the current round of Arts Council cuts, but as many if not more have risen to prominence in the last five years, such as Cinnamon, HappenStance, Mulfran and CB editions (whose founder, Charles Boyle, organised the fair). Here is a statement of intent from the programme:

Writing is not being cut – and the job of making is the most interesting, innovative, inspiring writing available to readers is still largely that of the smaller presses. They are flexible; their overheads are minimal; they are run, most of them, by people who are mad – which is in fact their strength, because their madness is a form of obsessions not with money but with the use of language, which is where it all starts …

And so, the Free Verse fair was inaugurated in a spirit of defiance, collaboration and small-scale entrepreneurship. As the larger presses find it increasingly difficult to support their poetry lists, and, as a result, are taking fewer risks on new poets, there is growing scope for small presses (often very dynamically and successfully run by a single dedicated publisher with a vision) to discover the poetic talents of tomorrow.

I cannot remember a time in the two dozen years I have lived in this country when there have been so many presses producing such innovative and exciting work (‘a disarray of publishers’, as the programme proclaimed); apart from being a bit too young, I was not in the UK during the flowering of the small press and pamphlet movement of 70s – it seems to me from everything I’ve read and heard about that period that it was very much a revolt against the mainstream, whereas the current spawning of new small presses feels far more organic and welcoming. As the diverse selection of voices in Roddy Lumsden’s  2010 Identity Parade anthology perhaps indicated, there are no prevailing trends in poetry these days, apart from a genuine desire to try new things.

So back to the fair. Chris Hamilton-Emery gives a very good account of the atmosphere in the room in his blog: . Along with some indies who have been around for a while (such as Enitharmon, Anvil, Shearsman, and my publisher, the aforementioned Salt) there are more recent arrivals, such as Penned in the Margins and Donut, whose books are collectors’ items as well as great reads. I love my copy of Chris McCabe’s Shad Thames, Broken Wharf, which Penned in the Margins produced as a boxed edition of 200, complete with an ‘Inventory of Items Mudlarked from the Thames’ and one of those items (mine is a blue and white ceramic fragment) contained in its own brown paper bag and separately numbered and labelled. I love my growing collection of Donut Press books, beautifully designed and small enough to fit into a back pocket; their mini-edition of WS Graham’s ‘Approaches To How They Behave’ contains that single long poem, a brilliant new introduction by Sean O’Brien, and a selection of quotes from Graham himself (and all for a fiver!).

I am very much hoping this will become an annual event. Judging by the number of people who poured through the doors while I was there (and the number of people leaving with bags as heavy as mine was!) it should be.  

The listening sea

To St Ives, with its twisting cobbled lanes and whitewashed cottages, for a retrospective of the artist Peter Lanyon. Unlike Hepworth or Nicholson or Gabo or most of the artists associated with the town, Lanyon was born in West Penwith. It was the landscape of his childhood, one he ‘knew in his bones’, according to John Berger. Berger says of Lanyon’s painting ‘Trevalgan’:

It is a painting, not of the appearance, but of the properties of a landscape: properties only discovered when one knows a place so well that its ordinary scenic appearance has long been forgotten.

And so into his landscape. From St Ives we drove along the coast to Zennor, stopping in the churchyard to find the graves of Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter. We continued along to Gurnard’s Head, and made a visit to the pub, where WS Graham and Roger Hilton used to drink all night and then beg the long-suffering barmaid to cook them breakfast in the morning. Then to places I knew from Graham’s great poem-eulogy to Lanyon, ‘The Thermal Stair’: Levant and Morvah, with their worked-out tin mines that loom like ghost castles along the cliffs; Botallack, St Just, and then inland over the bleak, bleached-out wintery hills to Lanyon Quoit, that strange, ancient structure. These were the landscapes Lanyon painted, but as he said, ‘I paint places but always the Placeness of them.’

And we could find Lanyon’s palette in the landscape: the grey of slate, of smoke, of the sky on the verge of storm; the green of algae, of spring fields, of the ‘jasper’ sea (to steal a phrase from Graham); the white of chalk, of cloud, of wave-caps; the brown of cliff edge, of burnt heather. Once he took up gliding, his colours changed, became brighter, faster; racing blue, pure white, occasionally a bold strike of red as he reached higher and higher, not content with the familiarity of the ground, the contours of the land he knew so well. Gliding enriched him as an artist, but also brought about his early death, at the age of 46, in 1964.

Back to Graham’s poem, one of his most haunting and lovely, where the poet asks for a ‘thermal to speak and soar to you’, his dead friend. So many of Graham’s poems are about the search to find clarity through language, and here, he finds a common ground between the writer and the artist:

The poet or painter steers his life to maim

Himself somehow for the job. His job is Love
Imagined into words or paint to make
An object that will stand and will not move.

The poem is the object which will stand, as will Lanyon’s paintings and sculptures. These works ‘stand’ for a way of expressing landscape and our ‘stand’ as humans in the landscape. For Lanyon, the West Penwith coast wasn’t just a place of beauty, but a place of particular industrial history, the dark history of tin mining in the region. Lanyon talked about making a ‘pilgrimage from inside the ground’ to represent the lost mines, the dead miners. Lanyon said: ‘Images in painting do not stand for things. They are things.’

Tacita Dean writes of the shift in Lanyon’s work after he took up gliding: ‘his paintings begin to lose anxiety and something of the heaviness of earth and the old land.’ It was in the sky, she says, that Lanyon found his ‘elsewhere’. Graham understood this too. It was what they shared, an intimacy with the land, and the constant struggle to find a medium, and a ‘stand’ within that medium, to express how they felt.

Graham’s call to Lanyon is transformed into a tolling bell at the end of the poem:

Remember me wherever you listen from,
Lanyon, dingdong, dingdong from carn to carn.
It seems tonight all Closing bells are tolling
Across the Dutchy shire wherever I turn.

The constructed space

Thinking about poetry and structure, in the wake of my writing workshop at the Fitzwilliam Sculpture Promenade. I had decided to name the session ‘The Constructed Space’ after the WS Graham poem of the same title. And that poem will always remind me of a weekend in St Ives with a group of poets: walking the cliff paths in Zennor, sitting in Barbara Hepworth’s garden after rain, talking about those extraordinary Wallis paintings where ships tilt in their harbours and sail up streets. After the Fitzwilliam workshop I ended up in Kettle’s Yard, looking at more paintings by Wallis and thinking about how everything is linked, certainly by memory, but also by what moves us and continues to move us.

And so back to Graham’s poem. The 'constructed space’ is the poem itself, but also the 'abstract scene’, the 'public place’ (those lines make me think of empty city squares with isolated figures heading in different directions, never to connect), and also communication, the words on the page reaching out to the reader, two speakers engaged in conversation. Even in that transaction, it is never certain that meaning will be conveyed, which is how I read the phrase 'lonely meanings’. But the attempt is all, and so he must continue in 'this abstract act’, the act of writing poems.

The painting is by Roger Hilton, Graham’s long-time friend and drinking companion. It’s called 'January 1957’. Hilton often titled his paintings with dates or months, as if he was trying to fix an impression or sensation in time. When I look at it I too think January, in all its cold greyness, parched fields and bleached skies …

The Constucted Space

Meanwhile surely there must be something to say,
Maybe not suitable but at least happy
In a sense here between us two whoever
We are. Anyhow here we are and never
Before have we two faced each other who face
Each other now across this abstract scene
Stretching between us. This is a public place
Achieved against subjective odds and then
Mainly an obstacle to what I mean.

It is like that, remember. It is like that
Very often at the beginning till we are met
By some intention risen up out of nothing.
And even then we know what we are saying
Only when it is said and fixed and dead.
Or maybe, surely, of course we never know
What we have said, what lonely meanings are read
Into the space we make. And yet I say
This silence here for in it I might hear you.

I say this silence or, better, construct this space
So that somehow something may move across
The caught habits of language to you and me.
From where we are it is not us we see
And times are hastening yet, disguise is mortal.
The times continually disclose our home.
Here in the present tense disguise is mortal.
The trying times are hastening. Yet here I am
More truly now this abstract act become.