W S Graham: “sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls”
Though it’s not really intentional, the couple of poor pieces I’ve done here relating to W S Graham happen to concern his tutelage of other poets, namely John Knight and Burns Singer. We have already met Burns Singer in the company of Christopher Logue, so let’s complete the circle to find Logue and Graham in each other’s company, with, for good measure, a bit more tutelage in hand.
As Ezra Pound’s merciless editing was to Eliot’s The Waste Land, so, it seems, though in a smaller way, was Graham’s waste paper basket to Logue’s first collection, Wand and Quadrant; once Graham had knocked the book into shape, it was duly rejected by Eliot at Faber’s, to be published in Paris under the imprint of Logue and Alexander Trocchi’s Merlin periodical.
I’ve already pondered on Logue’s early medievalism; an obsession with falconry and castles doesn’t quite fit with his later persona, but this in itself doesn’t seem to have been an issue with Graham. I don’t own a copy of Wand and Quadrant (it would cost between £50 and £200 for that privilege), but Merlin One (May 1952) contains two long Logue poems of the period; the better of the two, untitled, lies somewhere between the Pound of Canto I and the later Logue “account” of Homer’s Iliad. It’s all very argonautical and surprisingly good:
And here they came:
three ships, three sails, three hundred oars
white into red as twisted in the light thin
as the leaf’s edge, in again, dark bent under darker blue.
The clustered winds speak out between their stays
the men speak out, the names are where they sail,
and at the steering pole clinched hands to mark
sky guided measures into the coma of distance.
If this was among what Graham scanned, I hope he liked it. Perhaps Logue’s seafaring aspirations appealed to him. Conversely, quite why Logue, on first meeting Graham, should consider that he “looked like a sailor” is unclear, but given the latter’s Greenock heritage and his forthcoming The Nightfishing, it’s a canny enough remark.
In 1952 Graham was in Rome, courtesy of Princess Margherita Caetani. Logue was there too, and had already taught alongside Nessie Dunsmuir, Graham’s then separated better half, at the Berlitz language school in Paris. Logue takes up the tale, very readably, in his 1999 memoir Prince Charming:
I was in a trattoria near the Spanish Steps, wondering how long I could make my coffee last, when a voice behind me said: ‘I, too, have fallen from a great height.’
This came from W S Graham – ‘I answer to Sydney’ – the Scottish poet, who had tracked me down through Caetani’s doorman.
Eight years my senior, with sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls, Sydney looked like a sailor. In Rome for six months, he had improved his circumstances by moving in with the young Danish woman who rented the rooms above his own, paid for by Caetani, now sublet for cash. Eliot was his publisher. ‘He loves gossip,’ Sydney said. ‘He told me that Hemingway went to the lavatory in Pound’s Paris hotel and pulled the chain so hard the cistern came off the wall and knocked him out. Then he claimed his bruises were from defeating three Lascars in a street fight. Cheer up. Tomorrow we will visit Keats in the English cemetery.’
The bus stopped by the Pyramid of Cestius. We bought sandwiches at the cemetery gate. Inside, it was quiet, planted with pine trees, birds twittering on high. Keats’s grave was just a mound. Shelley’s stone some way away. Sydney had a flask of red wine and two paper cups. I had a guidebook containing Hardy’s poem ‘At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats’:
Who, then, was Cestius,
And what is he to me? –
Amid thick thoughts and memoirs multitudinous
One thought alone brings he.
I can recall no word
Of anything he did;
For me he is a man who died and was interred
To leave a pyramid
Whose purpose was exprest
Not with its first design,
Nor till, far down in Time, beside it found their rest
Two countrymen of mine …
We ate our sandwiches and drank the wine. On the bus back Sydney said: ‘They were not my countrymen.’
“That’s where my words are”
Later: ‘You must publish a book. A poet without a book is no poet at all. Spouting is for those who can judge by ear. Not many nowadays. “There’s my book,” you say – “that’s where my words are.”’
A book with my name on it appeared in my mind’s eye. I brought my folders over to Sydney’s place.
‘This one’s no good,’ Sydney said – throwing it into the waste-paper basket.
‘I spent a lot of time on that.’
‘Then you wasted your time. This is better. Yes. Put it over there … read this one out.’ I did.
‘Now do you see what’s wrong with it?’ I knew what he was going to say. ‘It starts well enough. Then it starts to wobble. The meaning gets a bit ho-hum. Then just here’ – pointing – ‘it picks up again. Therefore’ – folding the page – ‘miss out the middle and in she goes.’
So my first collection, Wand and Quadrant, was assembled and sent, with a covering note from Sydney, to Eliot. At most, it had three poems worth printing. Eliot returned it with a friendly letter. When I got angry with him, some years later, I threw the letter away. The message was: keep going, work harder, read more.
Logue goes on to recount how Graham, still clearly relishing the older-man-as-initiator role, marks this literary occasion by taking him – ‘for reasons of health’ – to a brothel smelling of disinfectant, where benchfuls of clients await their turn clutching numbered tickets. As his own turn draws closer, Logue loses his nerve and flees the dismal warehouse. The sub-text here is his own sexual timidity, but I find I like him all the better for what might just be a principled abstention.
“Out into the waving nerves of the open sea”: an Alfred Wallis on the cover of WSG’s Letters
And speaking of sailors gives an opportunity to mention that Rachael Boast and Andy Ching, on behalf of the W S Graham Estate, are desperate to get sight of a BBC Monitor programme on the Cornish painter Alfred Wallis; this film on the nautical naïf may well feature Sydney himself. (Presumably it’s the episode listed here, from 1967.) If anyone can confirm that Graham did indeed appear in the programme or knows where a copy can be tracked down, please let us know. Thanks.
The images here of Graham in 1952 are both by John Deakin. You can’t have too much Deakin. Click to enlarge massively.