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Poetry’s Plastic Medium: The Example of W. S. Graham

Major advances in modernist poetics have long occurred through contact with experiments in the visual and plastic arts: one need only think of the “cubist” poetics of Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, and Gertrude Stein, of the New York School’s links to Abstract Expressionism, or, most recently, of conceptual writing’s regular citation of Brion Gysin’s claim that “writing is fifty years behind painting.”[1] Poets would find their community amongst artists; but also, the poetics itself would emerge out of critical engagement with the work of the poets’ artist peers: adapting compositional practices and techniques; adopting conceptual vocabularies. At times, this leads to intermedia experiment (Calligrammes, collage, concrete work); at others, to a renewed focus on the medium–specificity of poetry: both the peculiar possibilities of language as material and resource for art–making, and the repertoire of techniques and conventions through which this material is deployed.

The work of W. S. Graham (1918–1986) is at once an exemplary and singular instance in this history. If his life was spent in obscurity and neglect, Graham’s work is nevertheless central to any story of modernist poetics in Britain from 1940 onwards: he was associated with the “New Apocalypse” poets of the early 1940s, and then came under the patronage of T. S. Eliot at Faber at the end of that decade, before falling out of fashion as the anti-modernist “Movement” began its long hegemonic rule over the various organs of poetic taste. But he is also central to the story of modernist art over the same period. Unlike Stein and Reverdy, John Ashbery and Barbara Guest, Graham was not an art critic; but like them, he was a “poet among painters”: in Glasgow, London, but most of all St Ives. He was apprenticed in the shipyards of Clydeside in his teens, first as a draughtsman and then as trainee engineer, and in later life would produce meticulously rendered calligraphic copies of his poems, as well as watercolors, sketches, abstracts, and mixed-media works.[2]

Fig. 1. W. S. Graham, Christmas card to Stewart Conn, 1971 (painted onto the cover of a hardback book). Reproduced with the kind permission of the W. S. Graham Estate. Image courtesy of Stewart Conn.
Fig. 2. “Hilton Abstract,” calligraphic manuscript from Nightfisherman, 154.

In the 1940s he was close to the émigré surrealist painter Jankel Adler and neo-romantic figurative painters such as Robert Colquhoun and John Minton; in St Ives he was a key figure in an artistic community coming to terms with the constructivism of Naum Gabo.[3] He himself was quick to downplay the impact his artist peers had on his work, telling Tony Lopez (author of the first PhD, and later monograph, dedicated to his work): “I have lived beside some writers and artists in my life but searching in my work I do not think they have been of any influence. I have never come near being part of a movement or group (not that I am necessarily against that but that is how it was).”[4] Nevertheless, both his poems and his thinking about poetry—be it in statements on poetics, in letters, or in the poems themselves—suggest otherwise. Robert Frame, who along with Benjamin Creme provided illustrations for Graham’s first collection Cage Without Grievance (1942), later wrote that Graham’s poems were distinctive in their “feeling for the medium,” something he suggested was derived from witnessing his artist interlocutors’ “acute sensitivity to the matière.”[5] 

Fig. 3. Robert Frame, illustrations for Graham’s Cage Without Grievance (1942). Reproduced with the kind permission of the W. S. Graham Estate and the Robert Frame Estate. Image courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.

What does it mean for a poet to demonstrate a “feeling for the medium”? Even in the plastic arts, the term is ambiguous. Rosalind Krauss has argued that “the idea of a medium as such” implies doubleness: insofar as it describes “a set of conventions derived from (but not identical with) the material conditions of a given technical support,” “medium” would indicate both the material and its mediacy/mediation.[6]  However, “medium” can also incorporate the modalities of a work’s reception—that through which it is mediated.[7] But this is further complicated when the “technical support” is language. Language’s “material conditions” involve not just the physical dimensions of sound and script, but also the social practice of language usage, and in this sense its material conditions and its modes of its reception are deeply intertwined. This means two things: firstly, that adopting and adapting a conceptual vocabulary of medium specificity from the visual-plastic arts into poetry as a verbal art immediately means undermining the analogies set up: each transposition entails catachresis. And secondly, that for a poet to reflect on their verbal medium becomes a means not just of attending to the matière of language, and the repertoire of techniques at a poet’s disposal, but also of how poems might participate in shared acts of meaning-making. In this, questions of medium-specificity are bound up in artistic vocation. Or, one might say, the singular modes through which poems can “call” are inextricable from the shared “calling” of all art. This extrication is where we start.


The painter Alan Lowndes once quipped: “You know why painters like to have writers around? So they will write about them.”[8]

Fig. 4. Alan Lowndes, Portrait of W. S. Graham, undated, with doodles drawn on it in Graham's hand. Reproduced with the kind permission of Valerie Lowndes. Image courtesy of Anthony Astbury.

Although he did not specify which writers he had in mind, it would not be much of a stretch to surmise that he was thinking, at least in part, of Graham. Both were based in and around the artistic community centered on the Cornish fishing port of St Ives, which since Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth had moved there in the mid-1930s had come to be recognized as the center of British modernist art production. Moreover, Graham is perhaps most famous for the elegies he wrote for four of the painters there: “The Voyages of Alfred Wallis,” “The Thermal Stair” (to Peter Lanyon), “Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch,” and “Dear Bryan Wynter.” The elegies to Lanyon, Hilton, and Wynter are particularly interesting as performances of intimacy: at once acts of private grief and public eulogy. The private and public axes of these poems can hardly be disentangled; part of the poems’ testament of friendship lies in their shaping the artists’ posterity, thereby setting up not only painter but poet as public figures.[9]

Graham was already aware of the entanglement of public and private address in an earlier poem to Bryan Wynter, “Wynter and the Grammarsow,” published in 1970 (Wynter died in 1975): [10]

 . . . Of course I try to separate

Any regard for you from the made

Object before me. Maybe in a kind

Of way it is legitimate to let

One’s self be added to, to be moved

By both at once, by the idea

Of the person, and of the object

Adrift stationary in its Art law.[11]

However, the public-private entanglement is most acutely the case in “The Thermal Stair,” written after Lanyon’s death in 1964.

Fig. 5. Peter Lanyon, Thermal, 1960. Oil on canvas. 72.4 x 60.4 inches. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Peter Lanyon Estate. Image courtesy of Tate Images.

The poem’s first “publication” took the form of a reading Graham contributed to a BBC Radio program celebrating Lanyon’s life and work, which aired on February 26, 1965, six months after his death: the poem thus functions as a very public work of commemoration and critical appreciation. Such commemorative, critical work is equally operative within the poem itself, as intimate address gives way to a broader reflection on painterly and poetic making. The poem stages a dialogue between Lanyon and Graham, both as friends and as archetypes of painting and poetry, respectively. Their friendship, by virtue of art, becomes a public friendship, and a friendship that outlives Lanyon’s death. As the poem registers this, it reflects back not simply on the aspirations of “Art,” but also on its own condition as a work of language.

The genre of elegy is programmatically concerned with the possibilities and limitations of poetic calling—its inability to overcome absence, mitigated by its work of memorialization and mourning, whereby it might create, in the poem itself, a surrogate presence. “The Thermal Stair” is self-consciously elegiac in this regard. The poem’s opening, “I called today, Peter, and you were away,” twins the intimacy of everyday friendship with the inventio of classic elegy: Graham searches for a place from which “to speak and soar to you from” (New Collected Poems, 163).[12] He “call[s]” on his friend, but also calls to his friend, and through this “call” seeks to reanimate in his language the no-longer-animate friend. In this, the poem aligns itself with those lyrics that “call to be calling,” in Jonathan Culler’s phrase, “both to display their poetic calling and to mark the belief that language can sometimes make things happen.”[13] As in Culler’s “poetic calling,” Graham here links the “call” as speech act to the “calling” of vocation—or, in this poem’s less exalted vocabulary, the poet/artist’s “job.” In asking Lanyon to “[f]ind me a thermal to speak and soar to you from” Graham alludes to Lanyon’s 1960 painting “Thermal,” but also to his having taken up gliding in 1959 (New Collected Poems, 164). A painter always fascinated with the Cornish landscape, Lanyon turned to gliding as a means of obtaining an aerial view of the land; it also brought him a physical immersion in thermals and updraughts, and increasingly his paintings attempted to make sense of such atmospheric pressure on canvas.[14] But it also led to his death, from injuries sustained after a crash landing. The thermal not only becomes a symbol of poetry’s calling, but also of Lanyon’s sacrifice to his own calling.

Indeed, the conversation the poem goes on to stage is precisely about what it takes to be an artist, and to what end:

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. (Graham, New Collected Poems, 164)

Graham had first used the phrase “maimed for the job” in an early worksheet for his 1957 poem “The Dark Dialogues,” seven years before it found a home in “The Thermal Stair”—indicating that the poem was not simply a spontaneous response to Lanyon’s death, but the culmination of many years’ reflection on the vicissitudes of artistic vocation.[15] It was a phrase to which he would regularly return in the years to come: “I think my phrase in Lanyon’s poem is true although I can make fun of it. I mean I am ‘maimed for the job’”; “Here I am, Elizabeth, somehow ‘maimed for the job’, making my poetry up”; “I write the poetry that I have steered all my life into making.”[16] That he calls this a “making” also refers back to “The Thermal Stair”: the aim is “to make / An object that will stand and will not move.”

The recurrence of these phrases in different permutations is indicative of how condensed Graham’s poetic idiolect had become by the mid-1960s, but also points to his multidimensional understanding of what was entailed by poetic “making.” The term “making” conjures up the Scottish tradition of the “makar,” and the etymological root of poetry in poiesis. Even the desire to create “[a]n object that will stand” is, within this idiolect, an articulation of the poet’s vocation. Throughout his letters he describes a successful poem as one that “stands”: in 1943 he writes to his fellow Scottish poet Edwin Morgan that “three poems I mentioned earlier will stand with me I think,” in 1956 he tells Roger Hilton: “I’ve finished two poems that I think will stand.” And in 1970, again to Hilton: “I try to speak. I try to make an object which will stand.”[17] “Stand” comes to signal the art object’s autonomy from the artist, or as he puts it in “Wynter and the Grammarsow,” “the object / Adrift stationary in its Art law.”

In a review of The Nightfishing, the influential critic Donald Davie complained that Graham was aspiring to create “an artefact, not a communique.”[18] He could admire the poetry’s success on these terms (“it is the making that counts, not what it is made of”), but he did not approve of such an aspiration. Whatever one thinks of Davie’s aesthetic affiliations, it was a perspicacious account of Graham’s project; as Graham wrote of the long poem “The Nightfishing,” in a 1955 letter to Alan Clodd, director of Enitharmon Press: “With all its mistakes and blemishes I think it is a knit object, an obstacle of communication, if you like, which has to be climbed over or gone round but not walked through” (Nightfisherman, 141). Davie’s complaint is not just that Graham produced aesthetic objects, but that these objects were willfully obscure; for Graham there is an internal coherence between the two—between being “knit object” and “obstacle of communication.” His brief 1946 essay, “Notes on a Poetry of Release,” the only concerted statement on poetic craft he published, had made this clear: “language . . . is obstacle and vehicle at the same time.”[19]

In his letter to Clodd he continued: “I think it just might make its wee disturbance in the language.” The phrase “disturb the language” was something of an informal mantra for Graham, but the only time the word “disturbance” surfaces in his poetry is when he describes the effect of Bryan Wynter’s painting:

SOUND a Wyntermade

Disturbance of what

We expect light to do.

Hold it Hold it CUT (“Wynter and the Grammarsow,” New Collected Poems, 186)

If poetry’s aspiration is to “disturb” the language through its making, painting disturbs light itself: its medium would be not just the plastic support, but the visual field as a whole.[20] The trope of “disturbance” surfaces in his elegy to Lanyon also. Graham’s initial sketch, “On the Death of Lanyon,” ends: “If he was a painter who was good I only / Know that because he disturbed the best in me.”[21] By the final version this has been refigured as conversation in which Lanyon tells Graham

That words make their world

In the same way as the painter’s

Mark surprises him

Into seeing new. (New Collected Poems, 164)

Disturbance is now figured more gently as “surprise”; what was “Wyntermade” in “Wynter and the Grammarsow” is here conceived of as made by word or visual mark. But in each case, what is “made” is not simply the artwork, but, for poetry, the “world” of words, and for painting, the possibilities of light and seeing. Poems, Lanyon teaches Graham, are not things made, but things that make. He then goes on to give an example:

You said “Here is the sea

Made by alfred wallis

Or any poet or painter’s

Eye it encountered.

Or is it better made

By all those vesselled men

Sometime it maintained?

We all make it again.” (165)

The slippages in this passage seem to undermine the earlier confidence: “any poet or painter” is strangely diffident in its capaciousness, and then Lanyon suddenly shifts tack, to ask if the world is better made by seafarers than by artists (Alfred Wallis was both). At this juncture he seems to have dissolved any claim to the singularity of artistic, let alone poetic, making. The consoling “We all” does little to resolve this problem.

Such vacillation is reminiscent of “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens, a poet who was an abiding influence for Graham. As that poem reaches its climax, it finds itself torn between two claims for artistic “making.” On the one hand, the singer the poet-speaker and his companion observe

            was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,  

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.

This claim, however, is diluted almost immediately:

            there never was a world for her   

Except the one she sang and, singing, made. [22]   

In other words, her song makes not the world, but her world; “the world / In which she sang” is no longer an intersubjective, collectively inhabited world, but a place of solipsism.

Shortly afterwards, Stevens’s speaker observes the lights of the fishing village, which “portioned out the sea / Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night” (Collected Poems, 111). The “[b]lessed rage for order . . . The maker’s rage to order words of the sea” is, it transpires, not the sole preserve of the poet-maker after all; as with Lanyon’s invocation of “those vesselled men,” it is the mastering of the sea which stands as the paradigmatic achievement of human “making.”

Stevens, like Graham, is left with the task of re-establishing the singularity of the poet’s making—of their vocation as poietes. Perhaps this explains the strikingly elevated diction that accompanies his description of the fishing village, with its punning “emblazoned zones,” the dense internal rhyming, and the way the prosodic prolongation of “arranging | deepening | enchanting” cuts against the largely iambic cadence that preceded it. As Lanyon in “The Thermal Stair” puts it, the singularity of poetic making lies in words’ capacity to “surprise [us] into seeing new.” But where Stevens’s poem thereby achieves some solace, Graham’s is permeated by the anxiety that poetry will be unable to live up to its exalted task. In part this arises from its elegiac awareness that the surrogate presence it creates will not stand in for the absence of the person addressed; however, it also operates within a broader reflection on the friendly but fraught rivalry between poet and painter. For painting offers a solidity that poetry lacks. “Give me your hand, Peter,” Graham asks, “To steady me on the word.” The poem continually puns on “air,” at once the sky Lanyon glided through, and insubstantial song. A buzzard in the sky “slides off the broken air”; the “early beam / Engine” of local tin mines “broke / The air with industry”; and finally: “Climb here where the hand / Will not grasp on air.” This reaches its apotheosis in the final section, when Graham says: “give me your painting / Hand to steady me taking the word-road home” (New Collected Poems, 165–66). “Give me your hand” as gesture of friendship and aid is transposed into a collaboration between painting and poetry. Or rather, painting comes to poetry’s aid so that the poem is able to orient itself in its chosen material: words.

At this juncture, Lanyon’s person and painting do not simply stand as an example for Graham to emulate, as person and poet, in terms of the poet-artist’s “calling”; his example necessitates a reflection on what kind of medium poetry itself is—and how the “painting hand” might steady his inhabiting of word and air. In a letter to Roger Hilton on November 7, 1966, and thus around the time of the composition of “The Thermal Stair,” Graham plays on this locution: “Lend me your painting I (eye) for a mo that I might look through it and distinguish the significant shapes of my always personal world” (Nightfisherman, 206). But between “eye” and “hand” lies the salient distinction between painting as visual art and as plastic art; and, as we shall see, it is painting’s plasticity that is most powerful for Graham in poetry’s attempts at “shaping” its world.


If this is made explicit in poems from the mid-1960s, it was already being articulated two decades earlier. In the “Notes on a Poetry of Release” Graham channels Stéphane Mallarmé’s bon mot, reported by Paul Valéry in his 1939 Oxford lecture “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” that “a poem is made of words, not of ideas”:

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 words in a certain order, good or bad by the significance of its addition to life and not to be judged by any other value put upon it by imagining how or why or by what kind of man it was made. [23]

Graham’s assertion that words are a poem’s material resource goes beyond the kind of formalism he might have picked up from Valéry, however. His own compositional practices attended to the thingness of the words themselves, as he mulled on what “certain order” they might take. Ben Nicholson wrote to the critic Herbert Read in 1944 that “Graham’s method of working at his writing seems like my method of working at my painting,” though he does not specify what these methods were.[24] The painter Robert Frame, who lived with Graham in a collective of artists in Sandyford Place, Glasgow, in 1942, offers a more detailed account of Graham’s “method”:

In preparation for the final draught [sic] of his poem, he liked to compile long lists of words; these were taken from dictionaries and thesauruses or from memory: they were usually typed out, one word below another. These lists of words were the bricks from which the finished work was constructed. As poems are made not from great ideas, fine sentiments or powerful observations, but from words, it followed logically that, in the poet’s technique, words had to come first. (Frame, “W. S. Graham,” 62)

It appears that this practice endured throughout Graham’s writing life. In a letter to Robin Skelton, a friend and perhaps his greatest patron, dated December 8, 1972 (three decades after the time of Frame’s recollection), he writes of his poem-in-progress “A Dream of Crete” that “it covers nearly my whole wall and really has to be hacked to pieces and put together again half the size” (Nightfisherman, 266).[25] The bricklayer has become, it would appear, a butcher.

The fact that Frame incorporates almost wholesale the phraseology of “Notes on a Poetry of Release” indicates not only that Frame was well acquainted with that text, but also that the ideas guiding the “Notes” were already being worked out during Graham’s first forays as a poet. Frame is in no doubt of the importance of Graham’s exposure to the compositional practices of his artist interlocutors. He continues:

Perhaps this method could be related to Surrealism, an artistic movement much in the air in England in the forties. Devices like verbal automatism and the free play of the unconscious are used consistently by the Surrealists; in Sydney’s case the emphasis was altered, to borrow a term from painting, by a “feeling for the medium,” just as a painter’s feeling is for the quality of his paint. These ideas might well have derived from the conversation and example of our mutual friend, Jankel Adler, whose most outstanding virtue as a painter was his acute sensitivity to the matière (as the French call it) and the extraordinary imagination with which he used it. (Frame, “W. S. Graham,” 62–63)

For Frame, it is Adler’s “acute sensitivity to the matière” that had the most impact on Graham; this would lead not to an adoption of the techniques Adler employed himself, but rather to a corresponding sensitivity to a very different matière. Frame here places Graham at the crux of two competing artistic movements (and, we will see, competing impulses in his verse): surrealism and constructivism. He also identifies one of the guiding paradoxes of Graham’s poetry, and perhaps the key to understanding the interrelation between his work and that of the artists he was close to: on the one hand, Graham insisted on the peculiarities of poetry as a verbal art; on the other, he adopted practices from visual/plastic arts, both where they provided analogies in order to conceive of language as artistic support, and where they might offer means of exploring the possibilities and limits of this support. In other words, his reflections on medium specificity arise out of a long engagement with artists working in a very different medium, and take place simultaneously through attending to points both of convergence and of mutual incommensurability.

How are we to gauge such points of convergence and incommensurability? When Lanyon tells Graham that “words make their world / In the same way as the painter’s / Mark surprises him / Into seeing new,” this “In the same way” is neither questioned nor elucidated. It has been a commonplace in criticism to attempt to propose a strong analogy between Graham’s aesthetic development, and the work of the painters he was close to. His friend of the late 1940s, Sven Berlin, observed in Graham a “sculptural vision—a need to get behind images and words seeing them all round and through to the other side,” which he attributed to “the result of living near visual artists and stone cutters.”[26] Berlin, himself primarily a sculptor, was writing of 1949’s The White Threshold when he identified this “sculptural vision”; most subsequent criticism has focused in on painting, and concerns Graham’s poetry from the 1950s onward.

Neil Corcoran is one of many to treat this in terms of figuration and abstraction:

Graham spent most of his later life in Cornwall, among a community of artists who, beginning as figurative painters, gradually moved towards abstraction (without necessarily, in all cases, wholeheartedly or permanently embracing it). . . . Their move away from figuration towards self-reflexively “painterly” values, towards a primary concentration on the material itself and the material’s behaviour, undoubtedly influenced Graham’s own linguistic experiments.[27]

Similarly, for Ralph Pite, Graham “shared with the painters a concern with work in which abstract and figurative meet; that is, in which the medium (paint or language) encounters ‘something other than itself’—a landscape or the selfhood of the artist or the ‘effects which . . . things produced.’”[28] Pite then goes on to read Graham’s poem “Hilton Abstract” as “join[ing] urgency with cool, the adolescent’s hot blood with aloof intellectuality, philandering with unworldliness”; in this regard it not only reflects Roger Hilton’s rather tempestuous personality, but also “repeats the tension and contention of post-war abstract art” (Pite and Jones, W. S. Graham, 68). Peter Maber also attempts to identify such analogues, although in relation to Bryan Wynter rather than Hilton:

By 1956 Wynter’s painting had eschewed all explicit traces of representation, characterised by its all-over chains of brushstrokes with no specific focal point, so that the viewing eye is left to wander; then, around 1960, landscape traces returned to his canvasses, but in abstracted, element states that can never be categorically pinned down. Complexity and directness engage in an ongoing debate, one sometimes leading to the other, while at another moment seeming mutually exclusive terms. These are precisely the polarities and convergences that Graham’s poem [Wynter and the Grammarsow], and even his poetry as a whole, negotiates.[29]

For both, Graham’s work becomes a kind of latent art criticism, interiorizing the problematics of his contemporaries’ painting into verse. W. N. Herbert, by contrast, argues that Graham has adopted the techniques of his peers, and their forerunners: “Like the cubists with perspective, he reduces the referential play of language, the recessional space in which narrators strut and landscapists shape, to a deft area of echoes, perfumes, keys and janglings, that will allow us only infuriating glimpses round its shoulders.”[30] This would imply that Graham’s debt to painterly abstraction contradicts what Charles Altieri identified in modernist American poets, where “[t]he crucial question . . . is not whether poetry can adapt the same principles of formal syntax that the painters employed, but whether it can respond in its own ways to the transformations of ethos and agency made possible by locating the semantic force of the work in the qualities of authorial action to which the work becomes testimony.”[31] For Herbert, it is precisely a question of adapting this syntax. This relation is further complicated by Graham’s own description of his 1955 poem “The Constructed Space”: “It is meant to be as ‘abstract’ as I can make it, unvisual in its images and suggesting no place or atmosphere” (Graham to Alan Clodd, February 9, 1955, Nightfisherman, 143). When abstraction is displaced from painting to poetry, it abstracts away from the visual as such, adopting, and adapting, post-cubist treatments of perspective onto poetry's own verbal-plastic medium. Yet there is also a metonymic slippage at work, as the problematics of pictorial perspective and depth are refigured around the perspectives and depths of verbal art.

Herbert’s denial of “recessional space” in Graham’s poetry, however, overlooks both the openness of Graham’s linguistic play, and the continual commitment to place elsewhere in his poetry—both the place set up by the poem, and the places the poem inhabits. As Graham puts it in a late interview, he aspires in his poems “to make a place at that time where you can feel more truly in.”[32] In these respects Graham would seem closer in spirit to Lanyon, whose work Patrick Heron characterized as an attempt “to reconcile the shallow space of Cubism with the infinite depths of landscape.”[33]

Heron’s observation can help situate Graham’s poetics within a broader set of debates in postwar modernist art theory. When Corcoran sees the St Ives painters’ turn to abstraction to involve “a primary concentration on the material itself,” he is effectively echoing the account Clement Greenberg gives of modernist painting in general.[34] Graham’s artist peers, however, never did fully subscribe to the Greenbergian model (Pite, “Abstract, Real, And Particular,” 66–67). In the mid-1950s, the moment of greatest artistic upheaval for these painters, Heron wrote: “the illusionistic operation of any image recorded on a flat surface is painting’s inherent magic, its unique power. . . .  The merest scratch of a line on a white surface induces sensations of recession—of an imagined form advancing out of or falling back through the place where the marked white surface stands.”[35] Pace Greenberg, Heron suggests that no mark on a flat surface leaves flatness intact. As Pite puts it, “the medium (paint or language) encounters ‘something other than itself’”: it is precisely the exposure to something “other” that characterizes the “mediacy” of medium, distinguishes medium from matière. Heron saw this as the point at which he and his peers in St Ives were in disagreement with the Abstract Expressionists. Of the Tate Gallery’s 1956 exhibition, “Modern Art in the United States,” which introduced Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and others to British audiences for the first time, Heron wrote: “I was fascinated by their consistent denial of illusionistic depth, which goes against all my own instincts as a painter. Also, there was an absence of relish in the matière as an end in itself, an absence of worked-up paint quality.”[36]

Heron’s commitments to both illusion and the thickness of pigment might seem contradictory—idealist on one hand, materialist on the other. Yet within his argument they are internally consistent: what is at issue, precisely, is a problematic of the phenomenality of depth, grasped through a matrix of questions concerning not just abstraction and figuration, but also of the coexistence of different modalities of space and of referentiality. For Graham too, the intersecting problematics of space and referentiality provide a backdrop for two of the central terms in his conceptual-poetic vocabulary: construction and abstract. Graham had taken to calling his poems constructions by 1944: “The poet must make use of the ‘inner word’ but with it construct carefully and certainly,” and a few months later, “I construct in sound” (Nightfisherman, 17, 21).[37]

In 1944, the word “construction” was, in the UK art world at least, most associated with the works in perspex that Naum Gabo had been calling “constructions” from the mid-1930s onwards.[38] Yet Graham might just as easily have taken the word “construction” from the Greenock shipyards. In his “Notes on a Poetry of Release” he intimates as much. Not only is the poem to be thought formalistically as “a successful construction of words,” but also the poet should “be the labourer carrying the bricks of his time and on the scaffolding of an unknown construction.” (Nightfisherman, 379, 381).[39] Sven Berlin finds it significant that Graham, like himself but also like Gabo, had been a trainee engineer; indeed, he sees Graham's engineering background as integral to his “sculptural vision” (Coat of Many Colors, 73, 144).

If the enduring importance of “construction” in Graham’s poetic vocabulary bore the imprint of Gabo, he was not alone. Lanyon had taken to making “constructions” as studies for his paintings from the mid-1940s, and wrote of Gabo’s “space constructions” that they “construct space—and it is space that interests me” (Peter Lanyon: 1918–1964, 280). Graham too put together an installation of constructions for a reading he gave at Newlyn Art Gallery in 1960.[40]

Fig. 6. Installation of constructions for Newlyn Art Gallery reading, 1960, from Nightfisherman, n.p. Photo copyright the Nancy Wynne Jones Estate.

Gabo’s constructions were also crucial to Heron’s insistence that all pictorial abstraction entails depth. Not only do the constructions “brilliantly pursue the definition of a concept in terms of space, and space only,” but they also intimate that illusion is “the sensation of a spatial configuration existing behind (and occasionally in front of) the surface of the picture” (Heron, “Space in Contemporary Painting,” 43). As such, abstraction “is inseparable from the sense of space,” and “space is the ‘medium’ in terms of which any pictorial configuration has its being.” (45). The problematic of landscape versus abstraction is thus absorbed into a wider conceptualization of painting as a primarily spatial medium.

In the same year as Heron’s article, Graham was composing “The Constructed Space.”

Fig. 7. Manuscript of “The Constructed Space.” Reproduced with the kind permission of the W. S. Graham Estate. Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland. NLS Acc. 13727.

The poem bears an uncanny resemblance in its lexis to Heron and Lanyon’s writing, describing its eponymous “space” as an

                                    abstract scene

Stretching between us. This is a public place

Achieved against subjective odds and then

Mainly an obstacle to what I mean. (New Collected Poems, 162)

Where Heron and Lanyon are concerned with pictorial space, Graham’s is a “space” of communication. Here again, Graham takes up the conceptual framework of “Notes for a Poetry of Release”: language is “vehicle” in constructing this space, but the space is “obstacle” to the communication itself. Similarly, when he asks “what lonely meanings are read / Into the space we make,” there is an echo of the “Notes”: meanings are “read / Into” our speech through the “space” that is opened up by our speaking. As he put it in the earlier piece, “The poem is the replying chord to the reader. It is the reader’s involuntary reply” (Nightfisherman, 381). But now the “chord” has become a “silence”:

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. (New Collected Poems, 162)

This is the first instance of what will become a recurring figure in Graham’s mature poetry: that the poet constructs a silence which furnishes the space for communication, a silence that will be filled in with words. Thus in “Approaches to How They Behave” (also published in the 1970 collection Malcolm Mooney’s Land, but written in the late 1960s), he writes of “Having to construct the silence first / To speak out on” (Graham, New Collected Poems, 182). When “The Thermal Stair” depicts a “maimed” artist whose job is “Love / Imagined into words or paint,” he signals one further departure from the austere formalism of the “Notes”: technical virtuosity gives on to a thinking of artistic calling—both as vocation, and as the modalities of communication.

If the vocation of the painter is the “disturbance / Of what we expect / Light to do,” then the poet’s vocation here seems to be not just disturbing the language, but thereby tracing, even engendering, a space for, space of, communication. What is “constructed” is the space in which we communicate, an “abstract scene” opened up by an “abstract act.”[41] Within this “abstract scene,” we will read meaning into words put there by another, will draw sound from out of the silences between us. This then suggests a further analogy with pictorial abstraction: where for Heron, Hilton, Lanyon, and others, abstraction signified a shift from representing figures within the field of the visual to a study of the emergence of the field of the visual as such, Graham’s poetic abstraction moves away from individual acts of meaning-making towards charting the emergence of the field in which meaning-making takes place.[42]

Such abstraction belongs to the medium of poetry in two senses: language as a material resource (its syntactic, lexical, phonological structure and so forth), and the “caught habits” of linguistic communication.[43] In his letters, however, Graham aligns poetic abstraction with its technical repertoire—and, more precisely, with impersonal rhythmic pattern. A notebook sent to Wynter in November 1958 contains the reminder:

I remember that always somewhere under the live and speaking idiom of the Voice in poetry there is the count, the beats you can count on your fingers. Yes always under the shout and whimper and the quick and the slow of poetry there is the formal construction of time made abstract in the mind’s ear. And the strange thing is that that very abstract dimension in the poem is what creates the reader’s release into the human world of another. (Nightfisherman, 162)

That which creates intimacy, which allows the individual “Voice” to speak, is the “formal construction of time made abstract”: Mallarméan formalism meets the constructions of Stein, Gabo, and the shipyards. To Ruth Hilton (wife of Roger) on January 24, 1966 Graham makes a similar claim: “Art expression is a voice between two things. Abstract formality and the very human gesture. And one doesn’t work without the other” (197). And, when asked to comment on his poetics in 1974, he writes: “Although I love the ever-present metronome in verse, I am greedy for my rhythmic say. The gesture of speech often exists, moving seemingly counter to the abstract structure it is in.”[44] In a draft poem dated October 8, 1971, and published by Skelton under the name “The Particular Object,” the object in question is a metrical foot, – ∪ –, which is addressed as “you dear abstract object” (Graham, New Collected Poems, 317).[45] Jeremy Noel-Tod has suggested that Graham’s use of the line break should be understood as emerging out of his close connection with the St Ives painters: “Appropriately for a poet who lived so long among artists, the line-breaks of Graham’s later work draw attention to themselves with a graphic and even plastic force, in order to draw a live individual out of the mountain of ‘almost physical language’.”[46] What Noel-Tod sees happening in Graham’s line breaks is at work in both his depiction and his deployment of meter as a whole: it is when the line break points to a prosodic pattern not subordinated to semantic emphasis, after all, that it attains an autonomy to shape speech rather than merely be shaped from out of speech, thereby disclosing its “plastic force.”

Language is a “plastic” medium in two senses. On the one hand, it is “almost physical”; but on the other it is characterized by a protean capacity for being reshaped, reworked, subsequently to reshape and rework in turn. At those moments when “the formal construction of time made abstract” surfaces inside a “live and speaking idiom,” we are alerted to both forms of plasticity. This is central to one of the most distinctive features of Graham’s “rhythmic say”: the way that stanzas come to rest in iambic cadence. Thus, when he writes in “The Thermal Stair” that—

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.

—we should note how the final line, “An object that will stand and will not move,” resolves into pentameter.[47] The pentameter cadence also resounds in the closing statement of “The Constructed Space”: “Yet here I am / More truly now this abstract act become.” In the former, the object’s ability to “stand”—its autonomy from its author, its objecthood—is secured by the abstract constructions of meter; in the latter, the insistence on “abstraction” is echoed in its metrical resolution (here made more conspicuous by the syntactic inversion that both facilitates this pattern, and is exacted by it). At such moments, as Graham puts it in “Approaches to How They Behave,” “I / Was tripped and caught into the whole / Formal scheme which Art is” (New Collected Poems, 182). What poetry takes from painterly abstraction is twofold: its awareness that art itself is a “formal scheme,” and the need for any such scheme to emerge out of the specific materials of a medium at once verbal and plastic.

Plastic and Visual

Where his painter contemporaries were turning to abstraction in order to “distur[b] . . .  what / We expect light to do,” Graham’s poetic abstraction was part of a thematization of the sites and problematics of communication. His resources were “unvisual” images and the “count” of meter. We might then distinguish two kinds of analogy with painting and sculpture: firstly, that where painting/sculpture turns to abstraction to explore the modalities of vision, Graham’s abstraction concerns the modalities of communication; secondly, that Graham adopts from painting/sculpture an attentiveness to the plasticity of his own verbal medium. This implies a fissuring, in painting, of the visual from the plastic—that Graham adopts plasticity at the expense of the visual. However, this is apparently overturned by Graham's draft experiments, which run from 1965 to 1972, with what he called “visual of ideas of Kandinsky’s deep seaweed ribbon painting.” At such junctures, Graham is overtly attempting ekphrastic description.[48] All that ultimately made it into print during Graham’s lifetime was the line “Kandinsky’s luminous worms,” from “Implements in their Places” (1970–72), but his manuscript sketches show the extent to which Graham worked through a set of verbal motifs, before deciding, as he told Clodd, that it “came to nought” (New Collected Poems, 251).[49]

What kind of ekphrasis is this? “Deep seaweed ribbon painting” might suggest a specific work (although Kandinsky titled no painting thus); alternatively, it might indicate a particular style of Kandinsky painting, and hence constitute what John Hollander has termed “notional ecphrasis.”[50] One undated draft puts together the following image:

The choir of urchins and the sea-stars sing

From their dark ledges and Kandinsky’s ribbons

Of weed with yellow follicles lean with the moon.[51]

Another worksheet from the same file, however, describes “a black / Ribbon of weed with follicles / Influenced by Kandinsky’s eye.” This would indicate that Kandinsky is being deployed to provide a general “visual idea,” rather than the poem incorporating specific motifs from a specific work.

Skelton dates these drafts to circa 1968. If so, the first extant Kandinsky worksheet is from a draft for “Malcolm Mooney’s Land” (February 5, 1965). This evokes

                                    The killer pack

Viciously after the tongues of the great sound

Starfish, urchins, electric plankton dredged

Up from Kandinsky’s pressured tranch.[52]

But here too, “Kandinsky’s pressured tranch” could imply either a specific painting, or a more generic repertoire. Either way, it is striking that Graham’s response to Kandinsky’s abstract work is to identify individual figures, something that seems to contravene his earlier poetics.

These Kandinsky sketches resurface throughout Graham’s letters and worksheets of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A letter from January 1966 is interrupted with the evocation of “Electric plankton. Gigantic microcosm. Speckled colliding nebulae. The little shocks in the labyrinths of the silent areas. Kandinsky’s dredge from the nether deep” (Graham to Ruth Hilton, Nightfisherman, 196). Then, also in 1966, a manuscript draft sees him testing out several variations of the phrase “a nest / Of electric creatures from / Kandinsky’s deepsea dredge.”[53] Graham produced two draft poems under the title “Kandinsky and Cousin Bridget” in 1966–67, the latter of which ends by describing the sky as “like a hoisted deep / Sea dredge of creatures,” an image then taken up in the (again unpublished) poem “Beginnings Idiom Invention.” Here       

            the lit sky

Looking down swings over

Us like a hoisted deep

Sea dredge of creatures.[54]

An even more extended description survives in a letter to Roger Hilton which, although undated, is estimated by the editors of The Nightfisherman to have been written in late 1969 or early 1970:

From a deepsea sac Kandinsky dumped

His individual trawl. A list. Certain

Sea-stars, frail urchins from lost ledges,

Yellow-follicled weeds which only waved

From far above, sad horses from twenty

Fathoms down, long-pronged darlings

Of their dark territory, frilled worms

Of light, moving cucumbers who are not

Sex symbols, and printed ribbons of gigantic

Weed which are even saying something on their

Own, torn-off anemones, their frills

Still waving in the air, and some small fish

Maybe who have not been blown up by the

Changed pressure . . .  (Nightfisherman, 236)

The closest Graham comes to completing these is in the poem “The Dredge,” although this too remained unpublished during his lifetime. This poem starts:

With you present I empty out

The deep-sea dredge. Is there any

Creature which interests you? You

Must watch your feet and put this down

In your life-book and begin

A new curiosity. On this deck

A knot of seaweeds and creatures

Squirms. Kandinsky’s micro worms

Are still alive under the weed

            To nose out at us two who read. (New Collected Poems, 305)

As the sketches accumulate, we see Graham circling round the same motifs and gestures, revising and reworking, searching for alternative points of entry, or ways of incorporating the visual ideas into a broader poem. Throughout, he employs a logic of figuration—and in three senses. First of all, there are the individual figures which populate the poems: Kandinsky’s painting becomes a “sac” in which is deposited a whole “trawl” (or “tranch,” or “sea-trench,” or “deepsea dredge”) of “starfish, urchins, electric plankton”; of “electric creatures”; of “urchins . . . sea-stars . . . ribbons / Of weed with yellow follicles”; of “Sea-stars, frail urchins . . . Yellow-follicled weeds . . .  sad horses . . .  frilled worms / Of light . . . cucumbers . . .  ribbons of gigantic / Weed . . .  torn-off anemones . . .  some small fish / Maybe”;  of “seaweeds and creatures . . .  micro worms.” Further worksheet sketches describe “this streaming heap, iodine / Acrid,” “brittle stars, / A beast on broken stilts . . .  A torn tentacle tip,” and even a “black angler” and the “line” (presumably of a fishing rod) that “comes in / Quivering from the floor of the main.”[55] Figuration here operates through resemblance, indeed through metaphorization, attempting to give name to these abstract configurations of line, shape and color. This is a language far removed from the “unvisual . . . images” of “The Constructed Space.” Indeed, the surrealist impulse, not just in its linkages of images but the images themselves, here seems to trump Graham’s commitment to a constructivist aesthetic.

However, the visualization is not restricted to the individual figures; Graham also attempts to place them within a recognizable scene. And here we find a second logic of figuration. In addition to describing what is in the painting, and even creating a scene that places these figures into relation within that painting, Graham employs different strategies of deixis and narration to situate the poem as speech act: “Remember,” starts one draft, in imperative voice to an indeterminate reader-addressee; “Kandinsky dumped,” starts another, constructing a narrative of the act of placing all these figures onto canvas, so that the contents of the “trawl” are transfigured into paint, then refigured into verse. And finally, “With you present I empty out / The deep-sea dredge”: at once address and narration, and where the “I” itself becomes indeterminate, hinged between painter, describer, and inhabitant of the painting, turning to speak to the addressee only by way of this painting—a painting which by now is as much poetic invention as pre-existing artwork.

The development of the motifs across these different sketches indicates a third kind of figural logic at work: that of contiguity. There are some metonymic substitutions from one draft to the next (planktons become creatures become worms; electric becomes luminous), but for the most part the substitutions proceed through sonic and verbal slippage: “dredged up” from the “tranch” becomes “sea-trench,” then “trawl,” then “deepsea dredge”; “pressured tranch” is expanded into “towering pressures of the sea-trench” and then further into “have not been blown up by the / Changed pressure”; “tongues” resurfaces aurally in “long-pronged,” as “dredge” does in “lost ledges,” and as “skiller,” “brittle,” “stilts” and “frilled” do in “frills / Still.” In “The Dredge” itself, it is at those moments where the lines most resemble a “list” of the various images that the poem’s verbal-vocal density is most conspicuous, with the rhymes of “squirms” with “worms” and then “weed” with “read.” The final line of the second stanza of “The Dredge” also gestures towards an iambic cadence, one further instance of metrical resolution in Graham’s verse practice: “To nose out at us two who read.” As generative metrists have demonstrated, verse lines made up entirely of monosyllables have a particular metrical indeterminacy, always admitting of alternative interactions of weak and strong syllables.[56] To read “To nose out at us two who read” as tetrameter would be to endow the abstract formality of the meter with an agency over the words’ voicing. The words are “plastic” both in the sense of insisting on their physicality, and in the sense of shaping and being shaped in turn.

The drafts thus translate abstractions into figures, thereby charting the emergence of these images into the visual register of description; in so doing, they also perform the emergence of a field of linguistic sounding. The poem’s speaker and addressee cease to “watch” the creatures and start, instead, to “read” them. These “creatures” are, he says in “Kandinsky’s Ribbons,” “Your medium,” and indeed what Kandinsky ultimately offers Graham is one further point of entry for the abiding concern of his poetics: his own multifaceted questioning of medium. Again, this shifts from a visual register into the plasticity of verbal sound: simultaneously, and reciprocally, material and mutable.

Can this also be said of Graham’s only published poem to adopt the conventions of ekphrasis, “The Found Picture”?[57] The picture in question “is of the Early Italian School / And not great, a landscape / Maybe illustrating a fable,” though it soon becomes clear that it does indeed illustrate a fable: Adam and Eve discovering their nudity immediately after tasting the apple.[58] Graham’s interest is in Adam and Eve’s awareness that they are being watched, and their attempts to hide from a God who observes them whilst “hiding” from view himself. This latter is of especial fascination: insofar as the picture gives figural form for something abstract—God—it is doing something akin (at the level of technique, if not theology) to Graham’s own Kandinsky sketches.

In his ekphrasis, Graham does not simply behold and describe the picture, but sets up a matrix of beholding. At one level of beholding, Adam and Eve “turn / Slowly toward each other”; at a further level they “are aware” of being watched by “A third creature,” and “turn their tufts from out of his sight” (New Collected Poems, 239). This third creature

Is not a bad man or a caught

Tom peeping out of his true time.

He is a god making a funny

Face across the world’s garden. (239–40)

When the god is “hiding,” he inhabits a third level of beholding, in which Adam and Eve are the beholders and God the beheld. But at a fourth level, each of these figures is beheld: that is, in the field of vision that belongs to the picture’s beholder, where the hiding is not simply a withdrawal from the visible, but something itself visible, performed to an audience, designed to be seen. This level of beholding is complicated further by the material opacity of the picture itself (which, as “found,” had presumably once been “lost”). The picture is “Under its varnish darkening,” and the god is only visible when “I slant the canvas” and “look in  / . . . under the cracking black.” That is, Graham’s ekphrasis also takes in the picture’s physical decay over time.

This physical decay is not just a “darkening,” however. In a somewhat counterintuitive locution Graham writes: “the painted face is faded with light,” and follows up this image with one of only two full rhymes in the poem: “They turn their tufts out of his sight.” The semantically overdetermined light/sight rhyme, worn from historic overuse, gestures toward the very visualization that the matrices of beholding would deny. Yet the major instability of this visual field arises from the unstable identities of beholder and beheld, such that the poem continually dissolves any hierarchical organization of vision within the picture, or within the poem’s depiction of the picture. The opening stanza runs:

Flame and the garden we are together

In it using our secret time up.

We are together in this picture. (239)

At first, “we” seems to point to “Flame and the garden”; then “we” are in the garden; then “we” are in the picture. “We” might denote Adam and Eve, or might denote the community of spectators that, in the shared act of beholding the picture, is transformed into a “we.” The following stanza, focalizing outward to describe this “landscape,” would reinforce our sense that the speaking voice is an external spectator. And yet, when the poem ends by asking “What shall we say to the hiding god?” it would appear that “we” is, once again, Adam and Eve, situated within the frame. But such complications are at work at a local as well as a structural level. “We are those two figures barely / Discernable in the pool . . . ,” Graham writes. But who is “we,” and who is doing the discerning if not another “we”? The lines' hermeneutic uncertainty is further complicated by the line break and the lack of punctuation, each of which open up syntactical vacillation: we are those two figures barely; then we are those figures barely / Discernable, and subsequently barely / Discernable in the pool. “We” are figures that we can barely discern, but these figures are in fact reflections in a pool, which it transpires is itself “under / The umbra of the foreground tree”: a reflection in a shadow, out of the foreground, and hence at least triply withheld from sight. In addition, the poem continually doubts the claims it makes: the picture is, after all, “Maybe illustrating a fable.” When Graham writes “Or this is how I see it,” we are brought to question the reliability of the poem’s beholder-narrator: its description of what it sees is also the translation of a visual medium into words. The two figures are “yearning in // Their wordless place,” and when “They turn their tufts out of his sight” this takes place “In this picture’s language not / Wanting to be discovered.” Again, the poem’s line breaks introduce additional indeterminacy of syntax: they do not want to be discovered; the picture’s language does not want to be discovered; god’s sight is in this picture’s language . . . [59]

Such slippages elide not simply the identities of beholders and beheld, but also the different levels of beholding, and indeed the very distinction of what is interior and exterior to the picture. Earlier drafts demonstrate that this instability was hard won. The February 1975 draft starts “Flame and the garden they are together,” whilst in the September 1974 letter, the second stanza of the first section had immediately served to “frame” the picture: “It is not easy to enter,” he writes, thereby situating its speaker as definitively outside, before describing the picture itself as “[a] cave-mouth on the flat within / Four gilt sections with mitred corners” (University of Victoria, File 16; Nightfisherman, 280). To frame the picture, he describes its frame. In this early draft, the physical decay of the picture fixes it in place as an object; in the final version, by contrast, it gives off an opacity that interrupts our fixing it in place.

This shared beholding then receives an additional participant in the poem’s third and final section. Structured around the imperatives “Observe,” “Now look,” and “See,” the lines bring one further spectator into play: the reader. Just as in “The Dredge,” ekphrasis here serves as a vehicle for address—a means of constructing a space for communication. But here, the address is complicated by the indeterminate “space” of beholding and communicating that has been set up, as Graham explores both the poem’s ability to trace the visual field, and the instabilities of this field. In his comments for Vinson and Kirkpatrick, Graham had described his “major themes” as “[t]he difficulty of communication; the difficulty of speaking from a fluid identity; the lessons in physical phenomena; the mystery and adequacy of the aesthetic experience; the elation of being alive in the language” (Vinson, “W. S. Graham comments,” 575).  But this seems less a case of “speaking from a fluid identity” than of bringing this fluid identity into existence from out of the speaking. And in “The Found Picture” this moved beyond the question of verbal communication to comprehend the visual itself, where identities, these physical phenomena, and indeed aesthetic-perceptual experience, are not secured within the field of vision, but rather are shaped by the interrelations of seeing and being seen.

John Hollander has argued of ekphrastic poems that, whilst they “purport to speak up for the silent picture, to make it speak out in some way,” they are first and foremost works of “writing” (The Gazer’s Spirit, 90). He takes this to mean that “what ‘speaks’ in iconic poems is their use of a complex set of generic, schematic, formal, and other rhetorical conventions”: ekphrasis, just as it gestures towards a different art medium, refers back to the specificity of its own medium. For Hollander, this is to be understood in terms of convention, something that fits with his project of outlining an ekphrastic tradition; Graham’s ekphrasis, whilst evidently embedded in this tradition, expands outwards from a genre piece into a far larger exploration of language as simultaneously obstacle and vehicle.

Throughout “The Found Picture,” this exploration is organized around problematics of vision and opacity: not just the matrix of beholding, beholders, and beheld, but also the fluidity of these subject positions within the poem; not just the material opacity of the picture described, but the poem’s own linguistic opacity, organized around its indeterminate pronouns, its syntactic suspensions, its line breaks. The poem’s visualization of the painting is thus absorbed into an exploration of the plasticity of its verbal medium; once again, this plasticity is at work both through the words’ materiality and through their mutability: the instability of the visual field is produced by the way the poem works its addresses, its pronouns, its line breaks, its wordplay, into continually evolving shapes.

Graham attunes us, I have argued, to poetry’s plastic medium: yet both terms require parsing. A plastic medium is characterized at once by its materiality and its mutability; a plastic medium would encompass the verbal material, the technical repertoires available, and the milieus and modalities of communication.  Graham’s poems continually work at the plasticity of words—their sounds, their syntactic indeterminacy, their multiple logics of figuration, their situatedness in spaces of communication, but also language’s propensity both to shape and be shaped, reshaped, to work on the world, and to be worked and reworked in turn. As they reflect on and disturb their medium, the poems become studies of the vehicles of and obstacles to communication; they chart the emergence of the sites of communication, but also to embody such sites. Whereas scholars have disputed whether Graham is a poet of hermeticism or of community, once we see Graham to be exploring a medium which both withdraws into its opacity and in such withdrawal opens up the space for a multidimensional “calling,” it becomes clear that the two are inextricable.[60] Starting from the somewhat laconic rallying claim that “the poem is made of words,” Graham in his mature work lays bare the full complexity that such making entails. In this, he comes to stand as a crucial, albeit as yet underappreciated, figure in the history of the radical rethinking of medium that was integral to the advances of modernist painting and sculpture, but which is no less one of the major achievements of modernist poetry.



My thanks to Ed Krcma and Jeremy Noel-Tod and the two anonymous peer reviewers at Modernism/modernity, for their comments on earlier drafts of the essay, and to Debra Rae Cohen and Sunshine Dempsey for their editorial acuity.

[1] See Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 295.

[2] Many of these works will be exhibited at Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, and Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, in the fall of 2018, to celebrate Graham’s centennial.

[3] These friendships are well documented in David Whittaker, Give Me Your Painting Hand: W. S. Graham and Cornwall (Charlbury, UK: Wavestone Press, 2015).

[4] Letter to Tony Lopez, March 30, 1981, in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W. S. Graham, ed. Michael and Margaret Snow (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), 366. As various critics have noted, his artist friends were themselves also resistant to being lumped together in a “school.” Lopez’s monograph was published in 1989 by Edinburgh University Press.

[5] Robert Frame, “W. S. Graham at Sandyford Place,” Edinburgh Review 75 (1987): 60–65, 62–63.

[6] Rosalind Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 2 (1999): 289–305, 296.

[7] See Samuel Weber, “Impart-ability: Language as Medium,” in Benjamin’s -abilities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 31–52, especially 34–36.

[8] Cited in Alison Oldham, Everyone was Working, in Norman Levine’s catalog to the exhibition, Alan Lowndes Paintings 1948–1978, Penwith Galleries, 1979), 52–53.

[9] Regarding the tension in Graham’s work between the public-communicative and private-inward poet, see Natalie Pollard, Speaking To You: Contemporary Poetry and Public Address (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially 49–52; Matthew Francis, Where the People Are: Language and Community in the Poetry of W. S. Graham (Norfolk, UK: Salt, 2004); Peter Robinson, “Dependence in the Poetry of W. S. Graham,” in Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 69–98.

[10] “Gramersow” is a Cornish word for “woodlouse,” and Graham had taken to using the word, with its demoticized spelling, to describe himself.

[11] W. S. Graham, New Collected Poems, ed. Matthew Francis (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 186–87.

[12] This is echoed in his elegy to Wynter, which channels William Carlos Williams in stating “This is only a note / To say how sorry I am / You died” (258).

[13] Jonathan Culler, “Why Lyric?” PMLA 123, no. 1 (2008): 201–206, 204.

[14] See Margaret Garlake, Peter Lanyon (London: Tate Publishing, 1998), 67, and David Nowell Smith, “Peter Lanyon’s Soaring Flight,” Fortnightly Review, November 25, 2015.

[15] The lines of this early draft run: “I hope I do not write / Only for those few / Others like myself / Poets maimed for the job” (W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, File 20). The W. S. Graham Fonds is part of the Robin Skelton Special Collection at the University of Victoria. Skelton had been a friend of Graham's since the late 1950s, and emigrated to Canada to take up a post at the University of Victoria in 1963. In the late 1960s he was tasked with developing an archive of British literature at the University of Victoria, and arranged for Graham to send him all draft materials from this period, in exchange for a monthly stipend. This arrangement ran from June 1972 until Graham obtained a civil list pension in 1974 (see Lopez, 6). This was Graham's first stable income for almost twenty years, and whereas before he largely discarded drafts and sketches, he now preserved them. As a result, the University of Victoria collection is the most detailed archive of Graham's work, although it is largely focused on an eight-year period (1967–75).

[16] Graham to Ronnie Duncan, October 31, 1972 (Nightfisherman, 266), to Elizabeth Smart, July 22, 1973 (267), to Rosalind Harris May 24, 1974 (278).

[17] Graham to Edwin Morgan, September 22, 1943 (Nightfisherman, 15); to Roger Hilton December 13, 1956 (154); to Roger Hilton June 13, 1970 (244).

[18] Donald Davie, “Three Poets,” Dublin Magazine 30, no. 4 (1955): 38–40, 39.

[19] W. S. Graham, “Notes on a Poetry Release,” in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W. S. Graham, ed. Michael and Margaret Snow (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), 380.

[20] Around the time of composition of this poem, he wrote to Roger Hilton, “The representational thought we superimpose onto the neverending flat plane must result in some disturbances which, at least to the painter, are a hieroglyph of a world with values we had never experienced before, an extra to one’s life, an addition to one’s range of sensitivity” (Nightfisherman, 219).

[21] W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, Notebook 3.

[22] Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 110–111.

[23] Paul Valéry, “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” in The Art of Poetry, trans. Denise Folliot (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 52–81, 57; W. S. Graham, “Notes on a Poetry of Release,” 380. He had written “POETRY’S MADE OF WORDS” in a letter to his friend and early supporter William Montgomerie, dated August 20, 1944, two years before the publication of the “Notes” (Nightfisherman, 21). The shift from “poetry” to “a poem” is one further indication of his insistence on the thingliness of the poem.

[24] Quoted in Chris Stephens, “Introduction” to The Constructed Space exhibition catalogue (Ilkley, UK, 1994), n.p.

[25] He would then write of another (ultimately unfinished) poem, “With the Dulle Griet in Canad”: “it has great possibilities and it’s got to the stage of being on the wall” (Graham to Skelton, Nightfisherman, 287).

[26] Sven Berlin, The Coat of Many Colours (Bristol: Radcliffe, 1994), 144.

[27] Neil Corcoran, English Poetry Since 1940 (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1993), 49–50. Ned Gooding remarks a comparable shift in Roger Hilton’s painting, starting in 1957—the year after he met Graham and relocated from London to Cornwall. This later work exhibits “greater openness of his composition from 1957 on—a more atmospheric and aerial, or aquatic, pictorial space, a kind of weather” (cited in Oldham, Everyone was Working, 69).

[28] Ralph Pite, “Abstract, Real and Particular: Graham and Painting,” in W. S. Graham: Speaking Towards You, ed. Ralph Pite and Hester Jones (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2004), 67.

[29] Peter Maber, “‘Strange to Language’: W. S. Graham’s Bryan Wynter and the Problematics of Verbal-Visual Communication,” Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 4, no. 1 (March 2012): 33–49, 38. In another article on Graham and the St Ives School, Maber also seeks out analogies of stylistic resemblance: “We might find a parallel between the poem’s [“Hilton Abstract”] repeated lines and the repeated figures which recur time and again in Hilton’s paintings of the period; such repetition might also be said to draw attention to the surface of the poem, to its physical reality on the page, and to its artificiality—providing still further points of connection with Hilton. . . . Just as Hilton’s flat surfaces begin to recede and project, and his forms to soften and to move, so Graham’s form melts and his textures vary” (Peter Maber, “‘The poet or painter steers his life to maim’: W. S. Graham and the St Ives modernist school,” Word and Image 25, no. 3 (2009): 258–71, 264).

[30] W. N. Herbert, “The Breathing Words,” Edinburgh Review 75 (1987), 101­–02.

[31] Charles Altieri, Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 223.

[32] Quoted in John Haffenden, “Interview: ‘I Would Say I Was a Happy Man’,” Poetry Review 76, no. 1/2 (1986): 67–74. Compare to Peter Lanyon, “I paint places but always the Placeness of them,” from a letter to Paul Feiler, 1952 (in Andrew Lanyon, Peter Lanyon: 1918–1964 [Newlyn, UK: A. Lanyon, 1990], 125).

[33] Patrick Heron, quoted in the Hayward Gallery catalogue Peter Lanyon: Air, Land, Sea (London: South Bank Centre, 1992), 6.

[34] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 87.

[35] Patrick Heron, “Space in Contemporary Painting and Architecture,” in The Changing Forms of Art (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955), 46.

[36] Patrick Heron, “The Americans at the Tate Gallery,” in Painter as Critic. Patrick Heron: Selected Writings, ed. Mel Gooding (London: Tate Publishing, 1998), 102. He would later write: “the fact is that our attitude of indifference to American art came to an abrupt end in January, 1956: and it was the contents of a single room at the Tate Gallery that did the trick—a mere canvas or two apiece by Rothko, Still, De Kooning, Tobey, Pollock, Motherwell and Kline, principally” (Patrick Heron, “Influences and Affinities: Americans at the ICA / Tobey, Wynter and César” [1958], in Painter as Critic, 146). Pollock was first shown at the ICA in 1953.

[37] The first of these is most striking, as moments earlier he had written “I’ve read Stein’s PICASSO. I liked it very much,” before going on to reflect on “the position of surrealism to making poetry” and citing Edith Sitwell: “Rimbaud, masculine and powerful, provoked the unconscious by perfectly voluntary methods, and at the same time remained master of the treasure-trove of his draggings; Surrealism and its imitators, all of them feminine, are passive, [and] endure the inner word.” The original (with the interpolated “and” that Graham leaves out) is from Sitwell’s introductory essay to Helen Rootham’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations (London: Faber & Faber, 1932), 9–49, 42. Sitwell is in fact translating the French critic François Ruchon, and prefaces this by with the rather arch observation that Rimbaud “has not . . . had so fortunate an influence invariably” (41). This quotation is notable not simply for the association of the “feminine” with passivity, but also given Graham’s own apparently masculinist adaptation of it through the invocation of the need to “construct” with this “inner word.” The tension between surrealism and construction is already operative here, reframed not as a question of aesthetics but of compositional practice, and indeed, of the overtly gendered question of an artist’s mastery over their materials. Sitwell also mentions Rimbaud’s influence on Stein, who, she suggests, “carried Rimbaud’s system of dissociation and reassociation even further than Rimbaud” (40–41). In Sitwell’s essay Stein is placed in opposition to the surrealists, and although Graham is enthusiastic about surrealism where Sitwell is censorious, he too adheres to this schema. Which of Stein’s texts entitled Picasso Graham had in mind is not specified, yet each might offer a glimpse into his thinking of the period. Her 1912 text begins “One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were certainly following was one who was charming. One whom some were following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were following was one who was certainly completely charming” (A Stein Reader, ed. Ulla E. Dydo [Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993], 142). Her 1938 portrait of Picasso describes how he “commenced . . . at the end of the harlequin or rose period to harden his lines his construction and his painting,” a technical advance which led to producing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Gertrude Stein, Picasso [New York: Dover, 1984], 16). The former speaks directly to Graham’s dictum that “the poem is made of words”; the latter to the physical composition of art, not just as visual but, crucially, as spatial medium.

[38] Graham is likely to have met Gabo in St Ives in late 1943, just before he composed this letter: Gabo was there for the duration of the Second World War, at the invitation of Nicholson and Hepworth; Graham was living nearby, and in contact with Nicholson since earlier that year.

[39] The construction is “unknown” insofar as, Graham argues, “The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know” (Nightfisherman, 380). Here again Graham is indebted to Sitwell’s overview of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and the claim that poetry can attain the unknown.

[40] See Graham, Nightfisherman, photo 17.

[41] Indeed, a notebook from the period suggests that the poem’s initial title was “The Abstract Space” (W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, Notebook 1). It appears only to have been changed when the third stanza was added.

[42] Here, in fact, is a further discrepancy from Altieri’s account. Altieri sees abstraction to involve a return to “the structuring activity of the artist,” but for Graham, the agency is displaced onto a language that is abstracted away from intentions (Altieri, Painterly Abstraction, 38).

[43] Indeed, a 1949 notebook indicates that Graham’s focus on the “abstract” in poetry was filtered through his reading of Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction” as much as his responses to abstract painting: here he intones to himself: “It Must Be Abstract” (W. S. Graham, “From a 1949 Notebook, given to Elizabeth Smart in the 1950s,” in Edinburgh Review 75 [1987], 25–36, 32).

[44] “W. S. Graham comments,” in Contemporary Poets, ed. James Vinson and D. L. Kirkpatrick (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1970), 575.

[45] This foot is known as a “cretic” or amphimacer. See Matthew Francis’s note on the poem in Graham, New Collected Poems, 368.

[46] Jeremy Noel-Tod, “‘So, Farewell / Then’: W. S. Graham, E. J. Thribb, and the Shaping Line-Break,” Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 4, no. 1 (2012): 23–32, 30.

[47] Interestingly, in his instructions on reading this poem aloud to Anthony Astbury, he says the delivery should remain “easy like casual speech,” indicating that the irruption of metrical cadence should never wholly give up its “live and speaking idiom” (Letter not dated, though the reading was November 5, 1977. Greville Press Archive, Brotherton Library, Leeds University, Box 15).

[48] Letter to Alan Clodd, February 5, 1970, National Library of Scotland, Acc. 12468/7.

[49] Graham, New Collected Poems, 251; Letter to Clodd, National Library of Scotland, Acc. 12468/7.

[50] John Hollander, The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1995), 4.

[51] W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, File 20, undated. The sketch is given the name “Kandinsky’s Ribbons” by Robin Skelton, and published first in Aimed at Nobody: Poems from Notebooks (reprinted in Graham, New Collected Poems, 304).

[52] National Library of Scotland, Acc. 12468/7.

[53] National Library of Scotland, MS. 26019.

[54] W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, File 19.

[55] W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, File 20.

[56] See Natalie Gerber, “Stress-Based Metrics Revisited: A Comparative Exercise in Scansion Systems and their Implications for Iambic Pentameter,” Thinking Verse III (2013): 131–68.

[57] Michael Thurston and Nigel Alderman see this as a further instance of “notional ekphrasis” (Reading Postwar British and Irish Poetry [Chichester: Wiley, 2014], 121); however, it is no more clear that this is not based on a specific painting than it is. As with the Kandinsky sketches, Graham seems to be playing on the indeterminacy between the two; see Graham, New Collected Poems, 238–40.

[58] Its first two proposed titles were “Of the Early Italian School,” in a letter to Bryan Wynter, September 25, 1974, and “About 1500 Artist Unknown,” in February 1975 (Nightfisherman, 280; W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, File 16). The poem entered into final draft stage around January 1976.

[59] The February 1975 draft is even more stringent in this regard, merely saying of the figures: “They are not to be spoken to” (W. S. Graham Fonds, University of Victoria, File 16).

[60] See Francis, Where the People Are, and Pollard, Speaking To You.