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W.S. Graham, Dramatist of the Beast in Language.

W. S. Graham a "dramatist"? Yes, in the sense of making the language of poetry an urgent topic, blowing up its painfulness. He addressed in particular four problems. First, his often repeated but undeveloped query, "What is the language using us for?" Second, to what degree is "the language ... having us on"? (NCP, 199, 328) Third, is silence positive or negative in and around the poem? Fourth, what to do about the reader?

In an obvious sense, it's we who use the language, rather than the other way around. But what if, over time, language has developed a purpose, a spiritualizing mission, leading us out of species-regard and pointing us toward some greater reality? A nice fantasy with a bit of truth in it. Also a torment, in that this further reality asks so much of us. "I stand in my vocabulary," Graham says to the "the difficult one," the muse, while she enunciates "Terrible words always just beyond me." And a stanza later: "I see your face speaking flying / In a cloud wanting to say something" (NCP, 206-7).

Time, though it makes of us fleeting incidents, is nonetheless our opportunity for "spiritual integration" (a pompous phrase Graham rightly put in quotes a couple of times in his letters). But whereas space--in what I shall call his allegorical "Arctic" poems, as distinct from his literalist "Nightfishing" poems--is a brute outside that it pays to be wary of, language can run with time and at the same time deceive it, as it were, through an "untense, casual level of idiom," which one can hope is nonetheless "exciting poetically" (NF, 100). Time seems agreeable to language and its integrations, whereas space has no knowledge of it; even its echoes are frauds. What Graham somewhat shyly called "soul" may have its base in a "unique gesture of consciousness," but, as in Keats's notion of soul-making, the "gesture" has to be given shape and sustenance (NF, 142). "Making" is shaping. Before a reading of his poetry at The Poetry Society in London in 1979, Graham wrote to his friend Harold Pinter, asking Pinter to introduce him to the audience and read from the early poems: "After that I will do my best and try to end the night changing the shape of their souls" (NF, 360). (Graham had an enchanting reading voice. The common experience, at least in the later years, was that "the people were slayed" [NF, 268]). The soul is, then, a making-in-progress, perhaps a continuum, perhaps not, in its ceaseless successions:
       And why is it there has to be
   Some place to find, however momentarily
   To speak from, some distance to listen to?

"We are always continually another," Graham wrote, recalling Rimbaud's "I is another." "Each breath we take is taken into a new man" (NF, 173). The soul is ultimately, perhaps I should even say essentially, a fata morgana: "Somewhere our belonging particles / Believe in us. If we could only find them" (NCP, 257).

The young Graham called silence his "master." A cruel master, standing for "a suiciding principle" (NCP, 60). To be is to speak, speak something, be present in language; to listen to one's own speech, in autorealization. "The ear says more / Than any tongue." But it also
    Hears the caged cry
   Of those prisoners
   Crowded in a gesture
   Of homesickness.

Speech is not, then, an "at home." For we are in Plato's cave, ignorant of what lies outside yet homesick for it.

The outside is, in undimension, silence. But is the silence just the negative of expression? Is there something "in" it? Is silence primal? Profound? Shallow? Potentially fecund? Or even complicit with the Freudian "father's no'"? Does it "sleep" in language the way Graham said his "father's ego" slept in him? (NCP, 241) In a Paul Celan moment, Graham hears "the telephone ringing deep / Down in a blue crevasse," that is, in "the spaces / Between the words." (1) "I did not answer it," he adds, "and could / Hardly bear to pass" (NCP, 154). Yet at another juncture, far more sanguine, he tries "to extract / A creature with its eggs between the words" (NCP, 208). Silence, then, might be both absence of self and the potential of home implied in homesickness. (Home? Dare to answer that telephone!) Graham could not stand still on the subject. He was sensitive on too many sides. An explorer, besides. As he said, his is "intellectual poetry," even if he put the label in quotation marks (NF, 93).

For all his Platonic yearnings, what he wanted most was a soul here, here in Greenock, Scotland, here in Madron, Cornwall. Reality with a small "r." Reality via language: "Imagine a forest / A real forest" (NCP, 204). But every angle on language in Graham is contested by another angle. Language isn't, isn't just, a path to the physical real. It is isolating, despite millennia of rumors to the contrary: "Reader / Of this account, I am alone / In the waste with some indication / Of man which terrifies me" (NCP, 350).

Graham's "terror" of the spaces between words was the piercing point of the three-dimensional compass of his "Arctic" poetry, the other subjects in it the slide and glissando of the travelling foot. It was a fear (to introduce another term for much of what has already been said about silence) of the languageless Real, a plain but dramatic term from Lacan--an unsignifying Real and so necessarily an unfilled-in concept, clearly negative from the point of view of a potential personal soul. The Real is the hidden something ("Thing," Lacan says) that cannot be used except to stimulate, via both fight and flight, symbolization and the imaginary. Chiefly it came across to Graham as a beast, primordial.

But there is still another Reality, or a subset of the Platonic one: in a letter, Graham asks how we can save ourselves from "REALITY," which is a "ghost world with insistent affection for the man it hunts" (NF, 230). He may have had in mind the magnetization he felt toward the Scottish dead, the ghosts of Malcolm Mooney's Land, including his father's. Loving ghosts wishing not to be forgotten. To be alive while feeling drawn to their "REALITY" is a compromised existence. What can you do to withstand it but make a soul from the felt position of a unique identity "indestructible in anything or anyone else"? (NF, 142)

At least poetry imagines and constructs its own reality: "I have really become a man who only gets any significant 'kick' out of being in the world I write poetry from. It is my last habitat" (NF, 206).

But the endless complications! "I sit here becoming / Hardly who I know" (NCP, 169). What is more, "we fall down darkness in a line of words" (NF, 268). (I will interject here that Graham was years ahead of Derrida and the other deconstructionists who gained an audience in the late 1960s--ahead in his almost constant suspicion of language as unreliable.)

In addition, the poet has to acknowledge and put up with the "reality" of the reader. The latter is "as necessarily present in the action as the writer" (NF, 138-39). Too bad, for the reader as such has a "deadly face" (NCP, 213). What a sorry lot readers are! Graham: "Writing my wee bit poetry. Who will it reach? Only the kind of people I wouldn't like anyhow" (NF, 299). He excepts the "few who will really get the subtle heartbreaking gestures of speech woven and positioned so exactly in a poem-a very very few"--that is, readers as skillful as he is: "the poem never goes through the 'space' between the poet and the reader without distortion" (NF, 94, 212). He looks for the positive in that marred transmission: Doesn't the reader also add something? But why must the speaking be just one way? It's frustrating, lonely. Happily though, the fruit of this limitation, if it is one, is, precisely, art. Because "his words as he utters them are not conditioned by a real ear replying from the other side ... [the poet] has to make the poem stationary as an Art object." (2)

Still, Graham's speakers are sometimes openly annoyed that a reader has to be in the equation at all. To cope, they may go on the attack. "You are wrong," so he tells the unfortunate subject in TEN SHOTS OF MISTER SIMPSON. "You are wrong / Being here, but necessary. Somebody / Else must try to see what I see" (NCP, 212). The poem begins:
    Ah Mister Simspon shy spectator
   This morning in our November,
   Don't run away with the idea
   You are you spectating me.

In his great lapidary essay of 1946, "Notes on a Poetry of Release" (reprinted at the end of NF, 379-83), the young Graham defined the work as "the reader's involuntary reply." Rash, I believe, rash and triple rash. He was later to say that he knew his "intention" was in the poem, and he held firmly to his own readings (as well as appraisals) of his work. And he was a hard man to compete with or deceive in such matters. Still, his own opinions were not enough. He knew that if a poem begins with the poet it doesn't end there. What is it, then? It can perhaps be defined as a virtual something largely shared out between the poet's own readerly "reply" to it and other readers' replies, plus whatever remains unrecognized or unremarked on either side. But the superiority in the "sharing" was the poet's. No one was likely to understand Graham's work as well as he did; his intelligence, and not just his poetic intelligence, was extraordinary. No wonder he regretted the reader. He equated the poem in all its heartbreaking nuances with his living identity, if only of the moment. What a unique and precious thing to hand on to a reader. A poor reading would mutilate it, a bad reading kill it. (There is magical thinking in the equation.)

Graham was not above brazen denial of the reader's inevitable difference from the writer. At which point he pretends (drama is the key) that writing can be hallucinated as a sensual, immediate experience if promoted as speech, a "voice" transforming the reader into a listener, opening consciousness up to a thickness of sounded signification quite near, sympathy with the speaker's supposed organic sound-production. That the writer "speaks" is of course a common trope in poetry. But, like Plath, Graham doesn't treat it commonly; he dramatizes it, pushes attitude, bosses, displays bravado.

Yes, print is a sort of comeback, but hazardous. How do you forestall the poem's fall into the reader? Through vocal impact. Hear me as you would a rifle shot below you in the canyon. You instruct, you browbeat. You press because you fear that there will not be so much returning of you as you wish for. So it goes. Maybe there was not even so much initial arrival in the poem as you thought: "Have the words ever / Made anything of you, near a kind / Of truth you thought you were?" (NCP, 203)

DETAIN DETAIN OR THE BLUE TUNDRA, the very first piece in the cluster of previously unpublished drafts printed with this essay, takes up the problem of a destructive force in silence; it develops Graham's metaphor of the Beast that feeds on words more fully than Graham develops it elsewhere, except in THE BEAST IN THE SPACE, where the speaker surprisingly ends by saying of the Beast, "Give him your love" (NCP, 157). Why do so? Graham illuminates the command in a poem from his notebooks, [HERE BEHIND THE ALPHABET], published in Aimed at Nobody (1993): "Shouting / Is useless. It only frightens off / The necessary beasts I begin / To have an affection for. Silence / Is the boundary of every cry, the medium / Which gives the cry a shape to speak" (NCP, 327). The Beast (here equated with silence) is thus, like the reader, a productive obstacle.

DETAIN DETAIN begins on a positive note, if hardly in regard to the Beast:
    Within this space you may allow
   All that is adequate to what
   This space has made of you to out.
   O to be watched is that creature
   Stalking us both as we converse,
   A bad bad beast that can be worse.
                                                         (p. 156)

The poem is allegorical, something like that. ("If this place I write from is real then / I must be allegorical. Or maybe / The place and myself are both the one / Side of allegory" [CLUSTERS TRAVELLING OUT, NCP, 193]). The "beast" in the poem is "abstract," the land "abstract," the "space" of the poem "abstract." Graham had friends who were abstract painters influenced by, among others, Jankel Adler, a second-rate Picassoesque caricaturist of the figure, a touch Gothic, and in practice he sometimes applied the example of abstract art to his poetry, thinning the latter and concentrating it in allegory. (3)

The speaker has the addressee in focus as if in field glasses: "I see you as you sit or stand / Looking over the abstract land" (p. 156). Nevertheless, the addressee is a listener, within earshot, in fact as good as standing right there with the speaker as they converse in the blue tundra, the vast unowned terrain of language, so surrounding and in common that it might as well be silence. This listener, to try and draw him out from the draft's rough dizzyingly circular phrasing--by contrast, Graham's finished "awkwardness" is, of course, deliberate and delicious--is the ideal reader, "adequate" to the "space" of the poem. A sentence from a fairly early letter explains, if hardly parses, the notion of adequacy: "I realise the aloneness [necessary to writing a poem] is a joy to live in and talk there to the most marvelous listener which is within my imagination and the limitations of that listener are the limitations of my poetry" (NF, 94). A teaching poem, DETAIN DETAIN will create a space that the ideal reader will prove perfectly adequate to. There will be nothing that is not "out," understood. This is perhaps to make too much sense out of very difficult lines. In any case, no failure in transmission is expected.

Elsewhere, of course, Graham acknowledges as fully as anyone has done the necessary ambiguity of poetry. But here he indulges the experiment of imagining a joyfully clear atmosphere.

Nonetheless, the speaker is honor bound to make a full disclosure to the listener: the poem's space is the habitat of a beast that actively feeds on silence--effectively, an animate figure of silence itself. The cold tundra is a complementary figure, all but (richly) redundant. Overdetermined, the Beast in the Space is more or less the Beast of Space ("more or less" in that, unlike landscape or space, the Beast somehow intersects with language without comprehending it, unless it is simply a case of intimidating the poet through what Wallace Stevens called the "violence without," which is not a bad characterization of Lacan's Real). (4) Space is not us, whereas a poem is our space, a rival if nominal space that must be built and right enough to banish the Beast. (To Graham, "Anglo-Saxon words," to which he was partial, give substance to the poem's space. So do "fresh grammatical shapes" and "beats you can count on your fingers," [NF, 162-63].)

The speaker thus points to a potential crisis. But not to worry--he can scare the beast off:
    Look. I will scare the beast away.
   He dwindles to a speck across
   The tundra and the pressure ice.
                  (DETAIN DETAIN OR THE BLUE TUNDRA, p. 156)

("Pressure ice," a double rhyme with "across," is a fine compaction of process and product; often in Graham's work, as in most poetry, the genius is in the details. The beast itself, of course, is pressuring.)

Now speaking together will be trouble free:
    We are alone. Is now the time
   To speak together with the beast gone?
   Detain, Detain, Detain, Detain.
                  (DETAIN DETAIN OR THE BLUE TUNDRA, p. 156)

"But will not be called back," the next stanza begins, the break in sense effectively the beast's work, a bite.

The poet will hear something "adequate" from the addressee. After all, it's his poem, he calls the shots: "Shout / And I will shout, or let us whisper / Here in the abstract space together" (DETAIN DETAIN OR THE BLUE TUNDRA, p. 156). He closes on this opening, as if the poem had been but the clearing of the way for a satisfying conversation. The terminal rhyme is certainly winning, the meter graceful, no longer rocking and disquieted in what may seem like indifference of ear or an imitation of unease. There is, then, promise in the prosody But the anticipated full rhyme of speaker and listener remains unrealized.

In all, the reader/listener is but the poet's shadow or puppet or "ear," and the speaker's supposed dispatch of the Beast banished the resistance that might have made the poem a discovery instead of mere wish fulfillment.

Graham is the least confessional of poets who divulge their plight. He used allegory as stilts to raise himself above the literally and directly personal into what he called the "abstract," that is, the existential-universal. The poems that face onto the void of silence and the inevitable distortions of readers (again, the double challenge in the Arctic poems) obviously exempt themselves from suggesting a real "place or atmosphere" (NF, 142-43).

In one of the more striking of these drafts, the speaker even allegorizes his own sweat:
    They have made me wear a terrible disguise,
   The skin of a creature I do not know
   Rank with the oils of silences
   I have never before encountered.
   I tap this out from the other side
   Of language where they have me.
            ([CAN YOU HEAR THIS? CAN YOU HEAR THIS], p. 157)

"Oils of silences /1 have never before encountered": in [KANDINSKY'S RIBBONS], another poem from notebooks published in Aimed at Nobody, Graham writes, "it is necessary to be aware / ... of every kind of silence / That slides past the making ear" (NCP, 304).

The larger conceit in the excerpt is that of being imprisoned in a muggy silence where the difficulty of sending out messages is as exaggerated as it was underplayed in DETAIN DETAIN. A poet must be very, very careful, for language surveils the poet who uses it. Language, then, is an oppressive, if not exactly shackling, jailer. The allegory of prison walls highlights Graham's recurring figure of the poet as speaking from "the other side of language," the side of course opposite the side of the reader/listener.

There is a virtual plague of disguise on both sides. Language itself is disguise, even if carefully voiced: "The voice which shall / Eventually enter your ear," says the speaker, may imitate him "exactly," but it's only that, an imitation. Effectively, we are in Plato's cave; reality itself is incommunicable, out of reach; here inside there are nothing but copies. "Taps" implies a severe reduction in expression, in articulacy and nuance; language constrained to a system of signs, a code. Language anyway conceals what cannot be made manifest. "They have made me wear a terrible disguise." (I should perhaps say that I don't mean to call Graham an outright Platonist; but an analogy with the Platonic scheme is at the base of the Arctic poems, of which the prison poems form a set.)

Who or what are the imprisoners? Perhaps, in part language itself in its commonness, which is one meaning of "Language ah now you have me" (NCP, 208). There is thus the difficulty of creating at each and every point of the poem an exquisitely exact positionality: "the meaning of a word in a poem is never more than its position" ("Notes on a Poetry of Release," NF, 382). An ill-chosen position is a bite out of the poem's language. Exactitude, else there will be no translation of "English into English" (NCP, 300). No "cured-by Art best" (NCP, 317). No adequate separation from the common world where the soul is not a defined gesture.

What would a human being be if naked, undisguised? Something either monstrous or awesome, perhaps primordially sublime in lacking deadening social imprint. Graham imagines this possibility in the unpublished draft entitled FRANK BAKER AND THE YEARS OF LOVE, which stands alone in his work in its fantasy of a pagan release from disguise, albeit one crossed with Agape:
    And the tree of life is a twisted tree
   Waving branches that never see
   The leaves of Love that wither away.
   Let us read from the book of leaves
   That turn with the wind on many graves
   And let our copes of cloth of gold
   Wave in the early wind of the world.
   What is about to begin here?
                                               (p. 159)

Half a dozen times in his work Graham warms to the idea of poetry as an undisguising power that can reveal love:
    I have dressed up in words to kill
   Your shadow face on the other side
   Of the frosted door. Are you also
   Murderously disguised or are
   You maybe the real shape of love?

His most forced, ugly, and bravura presentation of "Love" as the goal of a poetry opposed to difference and separation appears in SLAUGHTERHOUSE, another poem from his notebooks published in 1993: "Hung on the hooks the voices scream / ... I've always wanted to live in a slaughter / House of my own ... / The slaughter-house is a house of Love" (NCP, 335-36). It takes a certain violence to remove a hardened disguise.

The elimination of disguise is of course a great deal to ask for, and Graham, a realist withal, doesn't pursue it. A sort of imprisonment in ice is implicit in the Arctic poems. Graham's virtual spirit-of-Scotland, Malcolm Mooney, is encased in his "slowly moving / Ultramarine cell of ice" (NCP, 323). "I happen to be Malcolm Mooney's / Figment," the speaker confides, "rocked on Malcolm's knees" (NCP, 318). A fantasy that all but makes Love a paternal support for unmarked infancy. (And we cannot miss the image of rhythm-induced jouissance.)

By far the best piece included with the clutch of drafts sent to me for this essay appeared at the close of CLUSTERS TRAVELLING OUT in Malcolm Mooney's Land (1970; NCP, 194-95). It is the beautiful, trancey piece that begins
    When the birds blow like burnt paper
   Over the poorhouse roof and the slaughter
   House and all the houses of Madron,
   I would like to be out of myself and
   About the extra, ordinary world
   No matter what disguise it wears
   For my sake, in my love.

"No matter what disguise it wears / For my sake"? Here, even sensory appearances are drawn into the gravitational field of disguise. The piece ends in starkest drama:
    I hear their freezing whistles. Reply
   Carefully. They are cracking down.
   Don't hurry away, I am waiting for
   A message to come in now.

Graham is perhaps of all British poets the one most shadowed by the shadowless Thing, the unsignifying, unsignifiable Real.

As a corollary, and more than any of the other British poets of his time, Graham registers the fall of subjectivity even from secular grace. In the nineteenth century, Rimbaud had made "the subject" something hellish and already another, Mallarme had etherealized it, Nietzsche had laughed at its supposed integrality, Dostoevsky had located it underground, and so on. Now, in the mid-twentieth century, such thinkers as Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Baudrillard were confidently declaring the sickly end of "the subject." Baudrillard, for instance, wrote in Fatal Strategies that
    the subject has ... found itself trapped in the melodrama of its
   own disappearance--it has overdosed on resignation, it is
   convulsing on its foundations, looking for a gentleman's
   with its object, the world, which it had felt strong enough to
   manipulate to its own advantage ... the subject, the metaphysics of
   the subject, was beautiful only in its arrogant glory its
   inexhaustible will to power.... Finished with all that, it is now a
   miserable carcass in conflict with its own desire or its own image,
   incapable of managing a coherent representation of the world. (5)

"I happen to be Malcolm Mooney's / Figment ..."

Graham never quite convinced himself that he was anything so metaphysical as a subject. Only his poetry could corroborate it and no one would or could tell him that it did. He noted in a letter to a friend that my chapter on him in Eight Contemporary Poets (1974) was written in a language "that could be for or against" (NF, 279). Unhelpful. Didn't Bedient know that what we have here is a matter of life and death?

In point of fact, and for the record, I regard Graham as one of the two most poetically brilliant and adventurous of the British poets of the 1950s through the 1970s, the other being Ted Hughes, who qualifies mainly, though not exclusively, through Crow, another testimony, in part, to the imprisonment of the enfeebled subject in the cave of the Real. These are the poets who had, in their time, the greatest depth and sensed most keenly the enormousness of the challenge to manage, in Baudrillard's words, "a coherent representation of the world." Stevie Smith followed close behind.

Graham's best poems--electric--will continue to live, and the others, many of them choice, will be towed along. Could he have asked for more? Yes. Always more.


(1/) W. S. Graham, [IN THAT WATER WOOD], UVIC, File 18.

(2/) W. S. Graham, "W. S. Graham Writes ..." Poetry Book Society Bulletin 64 (Spring 1970).

(3/) On Graham's association with painters, see Ian Sansom, "'Listen': W. S. Graham," W. S. Graham: Speaking Towards You, ed. Ralph Pite and Hester Jones (Liverpool University Press, 2004).

(4/) Wallace Stevens, "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (Knopf, 1951), 36. 5/ Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. Philip Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski (Semiotext(e), 1990), 112.
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Author:Bedient, Calvin B.
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2019

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