On the “Extreme Silentness” of W.S. Graham

/ /

Read W.S. Graham a while, and one begins to notice the spaces between the words. Read Graham a while longer and the spaces widen, and the wide white margins become a different kind of border. Oceans of silence surround these poems, many of them written at the seaside, as if the poems were seines for meaning and feeling, and silence might pour through the spaces and submerge or subsume the caught meaning. Whether they have ideas in them or not, words can be knocked together, or braided, or knotted; they can leave an impression like breathed-on glass or a slap in the face. Silence is their medium, is what they press against (or what they are hurled or furled or hoisted against). Graham posed his ambition for each poem as a question: “Does it disturb the language?” The more telling or cutting question, which we are prompted to ask about too few poets but naturally arises when reading Graham, is: Does it sharpen the silence?

In his introduction to this welcome volume, the first book of Graham’s work to be published in the States in thirty-eight years, and just the second ever published here, Michael Hofmann identifies several of Graham’s techniques that disturb the language: his diction, which includes Scottish and Cornish words, his eccentric punctuation—commas where we don’t expect them, no commas where we do—and his conceits. His work with punctuation doesn’t look quite so unusual now: in fact, some of his poems superficially resemble Alice Oswald’s (and, as Hofmann notes, e e cummings’). But the formal architecture of Graham’s silences—the silences out of which his speakers pitch their poems—distinguishes them. Graham’s poems often sound like radio broadcasts, coming to us live, alone, from some remote shore, but whether they are by or about “a creature in its abstract cage asleep” one can never be sure. To Graham, a poem is a living thing hobbled by the language, which gives it life; and its form, which might be a cage, or a network of pipes in a prison, or the intractable continuous demands of solo arctic travel, complicates that life. Even at their most ambitious, his poems are always auditioning for audition; even when they are read they never expect to be heard; and our inattentive reading may not wake—to borrow words from a poem by Graham’s second and most significant publisher—the “infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.”

Graham was, as Douglas Dunn wrote, and Hofmann quotes in his introduction, “a poet determined to be proseless.” More than a refusal to review and participate in the scene, Graham’s proselessness grew out of his profound commitment to make no noise, only poetry. To read Graham’s poems is to engage with silence. Think of a doctor testing whether a sick patient can survive on “room air” (as opposed to pressurized oxygen, administered through a nasal cannula). When it comes to silence, we are sick; our disease is overstimulation. It is difficult to find an equivalent in our world for the silence he sought out and cultivated in order to mature his poems. To go out and stay in the wilderness, long enough that we don’t hear the absence of sound as a deficit that provokes fright, is a luxury. To stay out long enough that we become accustomed to the force of silence is almost impossible, and, more to the point, undesirable except as luxury, or as an “escape” from life. To Graham silence wasn’t a luxury but a necessity. To the reader accustomed to prolix contemporary poems, reading in a world defined by noise and relentless demands on attention, the principle that silence is his medium seems impossible, deadly, or even quaint. Yet he chose isolation, poverty, rural silence on the Cornish coast, consciously and intentionally rejecting “career.”


Graham was born at No. 1, Hope Street in Greenock, “a Clydeside industrial town set in beautiful surroundings. Its prosperity was on the docks, shipyards, and sugar refineries.” Often Graham writes of the sights of the Scottish countryside. Of his hometown he recalls odors: “I smelt the tar and the ropes.” Uninterested in school, at fourteen he began an engineering apprenticeship that included impossible-sounding—apocryphal?—exercises in micrographia worthy of Robert Walser. According to Michael and Margaret Snow, editors of Graham’s selected letters, “Graham seemed to have enjoyed the early training in draftsmanship (which included [ . . .] writing the Lord’s Prayer on a postage stamp).” At the end of four years he “managed to obtain a bursary enabling him to spend the 1938-9 academic year at Newbattle Abbey, the residential college for mature students, near Edinburgh.” 1938, the year Graham turned twenty, is twenty-eight years after Virginia Woolf declared “that on or about December 1910 human character changed.” It is amazing how different a world is that considers a twenty-year-old a “mature” student.

The Snows tell a story that sounds too fortunate to be true but bears repeating, as much for what it says about the promise of Graham’s work as for the role fortune played in his life. John Mack, the Assistant Warden of Newbattle abbey found a draft of Graham’s poem “To ND” that had fallen out of his pocket, and “on the strength of it, recruited [Graham] to the class in Philosophy during the second term. Here he became particularly interested in the Pre-Socratic philosophers.” On the evidence of his letters, he read philosophy all his life.

Graham was exempted from military service when diagnosed with what the Snows describe as an “unsuspected ulcer”—does one suspect such things? He found work in a Torpedo Factory, where, after finishing his nightly “quota of machining parts” he worked on The Seven Journeys (1944). Though technically his first book, it appeared after David Archer’s Parton Press published his second, Cage Without Grievance (1942). Archer had an eye—and an ear—for talent, having “already published the first books of George Barker, David Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas,” the latter figure the most significant—and, in retrospect, debilitating—influence on Graham’s early work. In 1942 he began the first of several relocations, to Cornwall with Mary Harris where they lived in a “caravan.” The Snows summarize: “Mary stayed there for a short time but they had already amicably agreed to separate and that their daughter Rosalind should be born and brought up by Mary in Scotland, as [Graham] did not want to assume responsibility for a family.”

Having begun with Mack finding the draft of his poem to his future wife, Graham’s good fortune continued. Mary Harris owned the caravans where he settled first with her and then with ND until December 1947, when they separated. “[B]y 1945 the volume 2ND Poems (To Nessie Dunsmuir) was ready for publication.” (Bold in the original) As the Snows tell it, “[Graham and ND] were not to meet again until 1953.” During this time Graham lived alone in London and held what appears to have been his only actual job, briefly working as an advertising copywriter before T.S. Eliot, then at Faber, persuaded him to return to “a quieter life in Cornwall. Bryan Wynter lent [Graham] his cottage near Zennor.”

Wynter was one of several painters Graham was friendly with, and was the addressee of one of Graham’s moving late elegies. “Dear Bryan Wynter” opens: “This is only a note/ To say how sorry I am/ You died.” The poem proceeds through a series of negations. The second section begins, “Speaking of you and not/ Knowing if you are there/ Is not too difficult. / My words are used to that.” After three rhetorical questions, offerings of food and drink and art, he gives an account of the timeless surroundings, of the moment of speech: “Or shall I send a kind / Of news of no time / Leaning against the wall / Outside your old house.” The simplicity of this address becomes distinctly stranger in the third section, quoted in full:

I am up. I’ve washed
The front of my face
And here I stand looking
Out over the top
Half of my bedroom window.
There almost as far
As I can see I see
St Buryan’s church tower.
An inch to the left, behind
That dark rise of woods,
Is where you used to lurk.

The unnerving, exacting strangeness of “I’ve washed / The front of my face” is the sort of locution that prompts Hofmann to describe Graham’s late poems “as unconventionally nailed together as a Cornell box or a Calder mobile. He writes English like someone working with coat hangers, sometimes three nouns in unpredictable concatenation, sometimes three verbs, sometimes even—certainly, it feels like it—three prepositions. The very short two- and three-stress lines that are his most characteristic form contribute to this impression of language being bent[.]” (Italics in the original) This characterization risks pleading for Graham’s manner at the expense of his astonishing direct address. Stripping down to essentials may require some flex in his materials, but no more than one admires in the plain, spare lines of Shaker furniture. The bars of the “abstract cage” are the form, visible but easy to overlook, like the dowels seamlessly joining and forming the back of a beautifully made chair.


No critic feels as strongly about his early poems as Graham does. Perhaps thinking of his own métier, Hofmann observes, dryly, “like a lot of poets, Graham continued to have a soft spot for his early production.” The question for critics is whether Graham’s maturity begins with The Nightfishing (1955) or Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970). Hofmann includes Graham’s longest poem grudgingly, then leaves the balance of that volume out. He includes just three poems from the first four volumes, a few from the posthumous Uncollected Poems (1990) and Aimed at Nobody: Poems From Notebooks (1993). His W.S. Graham selects from the last three volumes Graham published during his lifetime, which included a Selected Poems in 1979. If Hofmann’s selection, for which he makes a convincing case, has one sore lack, it is a glossary. Mathew Francis, editor of the Faber New Collected Poems, includes a page-and-a-half of Place Names, a page-and-a-half of People, and, crucially, three pages of Scots, Gaelic Scots, Latin and Cornish.

Graham’s longest poem, “The Nightfishing,” occupies not quite a sixth of Hofmann’s selection, yet leaves him unmoved: “though some sort of tour de force, [it] doesn’t have much to do with the poet that Graham became. It leaves me not exactly cold but lukewarm for long stretches.” This is the poem for which he is best known, and The Nightfishing (1955) is the volume many critics mark as, if not the beginning of his maturity, at least the end of his youth in thrall to Dylan Thomas. It was the second volume Eliot accepted for Faber, and that meticulous editor wrote, praising and qualifying his praise: “some of these poems—by their sustained power, their emotional depth and maturity and their superb technical skill—may be among the most important poetical achievements of our time.” In a letter from 1989 the poet David Gascoyne, who undertook a reading tour of the States with Graham and Kathleen Raine in 1951, draws an intimidating, possibly invidious, comparison: “I have always thought of ‘The Nightfishing’ as a great poem—essentially a meditation on Being (as is, in an entirely different way, Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves.’)” It was during this first of two trips to the States that Graham met Pound.

The poem ostensibly records a fishing trip in the seas off the Cornish coast. It was never for work, but Graham was allowed out on the boats more than once with the locals. Graham’s ambition for his longest poem is prosaic: “if it made somebody seasick (a good unliterary measurement) I would be pleased.” In the early work Graham suffers from, as Dennis O’Driscoll puts it, “word-drunkenness.” In “The Nightfishing” the world is intoxicated, and in constant metamorphosis. This sentence, flooded with agency, is typical: “So we shoot out the slowly diving nets / Like sowing grain.” As poet and critic Angela Leighton who writes perceptively about Graham in general and about “The Nightfishing” in particular, observes, “Certainly, to ‘make the silence first’ was, for Graham, a cruel part of the poem: in [the case of ‘The Nightfishing’], the night, the quiet, the darkness, the sea.” The silence is penetrating: “So I had been called by my name and / It was not sound.” The poem closes: “So I spoke and died. / So within the dead / Of night and the dead / Of night and the dead / Of all my life those / Words died and woke.” If the diction is plain, the artifice is high, and the effect sustained. It is a long, demanding modernist poem, nearly contemporaneous with Berryman’s “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” and published just three years after David Jones’s Anathémata.

Graham and Dunsmuir had married in October, 1954. In 1962 they left another difficult living situation at Gurnard’s Head. The Snows report: “Graham appears to have made the move [. . .] by abandoning everything not immediately needed and walking out leaving the door open and clothes, books and papers behind. A fresh start.” They still did not have an indoor toilet and lived on next-to-nothing. The letters include many requests to borrow tiny amounts of money to be distributed at regular intervals to supplement a life of forage and scavenge and Nessie’s intermittent employment.

Between what some consider his first mature book and what Hofmann and others consider the essential Graham, he fell quiet. According to Dennis O’Driscoll, Faber “assumed that [Graham] had died in the long silence that followed his fifth collection.” While Graham did not die during the fifteen years between The Nightfishing and Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970), like the speaker of the title poem of the latter collection it took him all those years to compose, Graham reappears, harrowed by loss. He has left much behind: “Better to move / Than have them at my heels, poor friends / I buried earlier under the printed snow[.]”

If the sea was a turbulent subject that made its own noise and its own demands on “The Nightfishing,” the snow of Malcolm Mooney’s Land is Graham’s new blank page. The page has grown as big as this fictitious arctic land, where even the ice composes: “Under our feet the great / Glacier drove its keel. What is to read there / Scored out in the dark?” Unexpected, “Scored” replaces the unmusical “scoured”: the glacier’s writing on and rubbing out the earth becomes a musical mark-making that leaves a long musical wake, white on white. To read these lines now is to think of glaciers in retreat, and of how soon we must write them off. As a landform the glacier has had its day. The anonymous explorer’s struggle with nature becomes a struggle between “the real unabstract snow” that closes the poem and the abstract language that makes the snow “real” on the page. They cannot be separate: just as the speaker can’t escape the white noise of the ice floes and the arctic silence welling up or drifting down.

Graham, who cultivated friendships with painters, had a wonderful voice: a professor at Battlegate Abbey urged him to train as a singer. He met Benjamin Britten, Eric Crozier and Peter Pears. In our time, when virtuosity is a virtue, when too many musicians are applauded for playing fast and loud (I’m thinking particularly of pianists), Graham is that rare exception who gives the rests the same shapeliness and emphasis as the notes. The basso continuo beneath his melody is unabstract silence. Speaking in the persona of the 18th century flautist in “Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons” Graham writes, “Now we must try higher, aware of the terrible / Shapes of silence sitting outside your ear / Anxious to define you and really love you.” To “try higher” does much more than subvert the expected admonishing idiom (try harder), since teacher as well as student must extend themselves together. They must do more than face the music, more than praise the sentimental “sound of silence.” To master melody and form, they must contend with “the terrible / Shapes of silence” that, loving and threatening, have their own agency.

“Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons” ends with a tender farewell followed by a stern injunction that reminds us of the poet’s isolated and quite possibly isolating performance: “I will miss you. Do not expect applause.” While Hofmann doesn’t name “Five Lessons” in his list of poems that dramatize the agency of various speakers’ relationship to silence, his point about one of the signatures—key signatures?—of Graham’s late work is perceptive and succinct: “The temptation to be abstract is repeatedly denied by the properties and settings of the poems.” “Clusters Traveling Out” opens on a constraint, “Clearly I tap to you clearly / Along the plumbing of the world [.]” Or these lines from the opening section of “Malcolm Mooney’s Land”: “From wherever it is I urge these words / To find their subtle vents, the northern dazzle / Of silence cranes to watch.”

As a reader of his own work, Graham was notoriously confrontational. He demanded silence, attention. Leighton cites one example of outright obstreperousness: “Sebastian Barker recalls, a loud ‘Fuck off’ to organizer and audience, followed by a refusal to read at all.” She then considers the opening line of “The Beast in Space,” Graham’s most explicit confrontation with the auditor, with the speaker, or to the creature: “Shut up. Shut up. There’s nobody here.” As Leighton points out in her revealing reading of “Beast,” “as Graham’s love of a pun might intimate, the beast itself is also ‘shut up’ in its strangely spacious cage.” At least in this poem, Graham’s beast is kin to Schrödinger’s cat: both dead and alive. But unlike the quantum cat, Graham’s beast exists as it does—if it does—in a box of its own making. It is no coincidence that Graham called the wireless, acquired when he and ND moved to modestly more modern lodgings, in mock-seriousness, “the invention.” And I’m sure Graham would have thought of and riffed on the fact that inside every radio is a speaker, behind a grille, inside a cage.


Once, in one of those moments made for the camera, meant to humanize or humiliate the poet, the sort of thing poets now might organize and upload to Youtube to promote themselves, Marianne Moore was handed a snake at the zoo in the company of a photographer from Life. Asked how the snake felt she said, “Like rose petals.” Hugh Kenner makes much of this anecdote in his “The Experience of the Eye,” claiming “[Moore’s] was perhaps too poetic a remark to make its point, but she has never allowed a fear of being thought poetic to deter her from accuracy. For she meant the resemblance of snakes to rose petals neither as a fancy nor as a simile, but as a virtual identity of tactile sensation: a species of wit gone into the fingertips: a tactile pun.” If it is safe to say Graham is not the poet Moore is, Graham, like Moore, never allowed a fear of being thought poetic to deter him from accuracy. His tactile puns are tapped out on the eardrums. And Graham, like Moore, is an unmistakable voice. Consider this moment in the mysterious, “Enter a Cloud.”

The cloud is only a wisp
And gone behind the Head.
It is funny I got the sea’s
Horizontal slightly surrealist.
Now when I raise myself
Out of the bracken I see
The long empty blue
Between the fishing Gurnard
And Zennor. It was a cloud
The language at my time’s
Disposal made use of.

Out of a series of contingencies or exigencies, moving, yet firmly grounded in the landscape and its language, steeped and steeping in silence, “Enter a Cloud” begins and ends with the same couplet: “Gently disintegrate me / Said nothing at all.”