Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The tidiness of W S Graham’s untidy dreadful table

untidy dreadful tableAmong the sacred objects given to and preserved at the Scottish Poetry Library is the “Untidy Dreadful Table” written of by W S Graham in his extraordinary poem of that title. (Not that I’ve been to the library, but you can see the table on their site.)

The top has certainly suffered some wear, and photos show it to be strikingly patterned with long striations (from cutting food??) and shorter burns, apparently from cigarettes. The burns are surprisingly long, as if a cigarette lay fizzing away while Graham typed or wrote, and I’m struck by their even spread and variety of angle, and by the circumstance that few of them seem to overlay each other, as if Graham selected a new gap each time. Less a palimpsest than a construction.

The accumulated result has the appearance of calligraphy or of a piece of abstract art, of tachisme. Which is not surprising, given Graham’s own visual “installations”, the expressive qualities of his written worksheets, his strong friendships with painters – John Minton, the Two Roberts, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Bryan Wynter: some of Wynter’s painterly mark-making provides, if not a similarity, at least a point of comparison.

If the burns suggest unknown letter forms, if the table is “covered with words”, what is it saying?

untidy dreadful table 2
With apologies to their original photographers, I’ve cropped and heightened some online images of the table, to bring all this out. Here’s the poem, too.

untidy dreadful table 3Untidy Dreadful Table

Lying with no love on the paper
Between the typing hammers I spied
Myself with looking eyes looking
Down to cover me with words.

I won’t have it. I know the night
Is late here sitting at my table,
But I am not a boy running
The hide and seeking streets.

untidy dreadful table 4I am getting on. My table now
Shuffles its papers out of reach
With last year’s letters going yellow
From looking out of the window.

I sit here late and I hammer myself
On to the other side of the paper.
There I jump through all surprises.
The reader and I are making faces.

untidy dreadful table 5I am not complaining. Some of the faces
I see are interesting indeed.
Take your own, for example, a fine
Grimace of vessels over the bone.

Of course I see you backwards covered
With words backwards from the other side.
I must tackle my dreadful table
And go on the hide and seeking hill.

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One response to “The tidiness of W S Graham’s untidy dreadful table

  1. reaperuk@aol.com September 26, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Initially, from the description I thought this latest RW posting must be about YOUR dining-room table!!

    Have read a lot about W.S. Graham in the course of reading about Minton, The Two Roberts & some of the Cornish painters, incl. Hilton, Wynter & Frost. Scottish-born he was quite a character (+ drinker & hell-raiser) & in the 40s & 50s thought as highly of as a poet (referred to at that time as Neo-Romantic) as Dylan Thomas. Like DT he was (unusually for the post-war crew) not gay … & had a v. long-suffering wife, another poet, Nettie Dunsmuir!

    I presume the photo. below is of him – not seen one of him young before – & if so he looks remarkably like Colquhoun … don’t you think … must be the Scottish connection?

    Nigel Collins as reaperuk@aol.com

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