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)

Category Archives: 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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Burn as the singer burns his song

A little more on the death of Burns Singer. (To be transferred to the unscrolling pages above after a while.)

Singer died in September 1964. In the Times Literary Supplement of December 17 appeared a poem, “In memoriam: Burns Singer”, by W S Graham. But this was not submitted by Graham, who later wrote to regret its publication. (Was it sent in by Marie, Singer’s widow?) Graham’s letter was printed in the January 21 1965 edition. His objection that this rhymed sonnet was not representative of his work seems fair, but at this distance he sounds too dismissive, maybe, of this piece of “fun”. The last three lines of the second stanza are as good as anything he wrote.

The letter has been reprinted in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W S Graham (Carcanet 1999), but I can’t see the poem anywhere else, so here it is, along with the letter.

Nor can I see in Burns’ Collected the corresponding piece for Graham. And did Graham ever write an “adequate” piece in memory of Singer, as he hoped to? Nothing in his New Collected seems to fit …


In memoriam: Burns Singer

Burn as the singer burns his song, and sing
Your signs around you and yourself toward
The best, I say. One singer burnt his tongue
And gave to tears what his grief could ill afford.

Always and always night enamours me more
Than ever. So here we are, you and I,
Thought up out of silence for an instant here
Under the ancient hardware of the sky.

O engineer, evangelist, jailed among
The bastards of the lions of your pride.
The dead are beckoning bright and clear
Yet undiminished by the surrounding tear.

Burn as the singer burns in the half of grief.
You scald the face of silence when you laugh.

                                        W. S. GRAHAM.

 

“IN MEMORIAM – BURNS SINGER”

 Sir, – I have just returned from Greece to find in the TLS a poem – “In Memoriam – Burns Singer”, by W. S. Graham. I wish to state that this was not submitted by me.

These words were written for fun ten years ago in an Aberdeen pub. Jimmy (Singer) wrote one for me too and we both decided they were impossible. I saw Burns Singer about three months before his death and he suggested it was worth publishing. I disagreed completely.

The thing is that this poem is not representative of any work I have done or do now, and, as such, will give a wrong idea of the kind of poet I am.

I hope sometime to write a poem for Burns Singer which will be adequate.

                         W. S. GRAHAM.
Woodfield, Gulval, Penzance, Cornwall.

Burns Singer, forgotten bad boy of British poetry

I’ve been meaning to do something on Burns Singer, aka Jimmy Singer, blond boy wonder / bad boy of the ‘fifties poetry scene, ever since the late Gordon Wharton confessed to me that he’d hit Singer with a bottle of wine at a literary party in 1955. Singer’s attack in Encounter on the poetry of William Empson is now on my Empson page, and I had thought of putting Singer on the W S Graham page, given that he was very much an acolyte of Graham’s. But Singer seems significant and interesting enough to deserve a page of his own, so here it is (or use the final tab above). So far, I’ve focused on his life, death and larger-than-life persona. For someone so universally and fiercely unpopular, he seems to have inspired an equally fierce affection in some. A look at the poetry will come later – it’s well worth looking at.

Remarkable that Singer links so many personalities peppered across this blog: Empson, Graham, Wharton, Dylan Thomas, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, Benjamin Creme, and George Barker … Though I guess the ‘fifties bohemian scene was something of a small world.

This is the world’s starvation centre.
I sit with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde
Listening to letters Sydney Graham once sent or
Barker shook down when words stuck in his side.

Word and flesh: the good poetry of the Irishman Rodgers

“Recently I’ve been reading good poetry by the Irishman Rodgers. Do you know his good poem about Christ on the waters?” asked W S Graham in a letter of August 1946.

“Bertie” Rodgers at the BBC microphone

Well, not too many of us do know the work of the Ulster poet W R Rodgers, though here and there in the blogosphere there twinkle isolated instances of appreciation. At one time, “Bertie” Rodgers was almost the other half of Louis MacNeice, and a key name in Ulster regionalist writing. His 1941 collection Awake! was much applauded. A former Presbyterian minister, he moved to London in 1946 to work for the BBC, becoming better known as a reviewer and broadcaster. In late 1947 Graham sent him a copy of his own The White Threshold, and sought his advice on his own forthcoming American visit; by now they were obviously on good terms. In 1952 Rodgers’ second and last collection, Europa and the Bull, appeared. After that the poetry tailed off somewhat, though some later items were included in a 1971 Collected. The selection Poems is currently advertised by The Gallery Press, but otherwise Rodgers’ poetry appears quite out of print. The online introduction to Rodgers’ papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland includes a useful biography, and a published biography by Darcy O’Brien is also obtainable.

Awake! is an uneven collection, but it includes some substantial and considered pieces from the late ‘thirties that are pretty Audenesque both in their language and in the aerial detachment of their social viewpoint:

It is a pity that distance releases us
From the quick retort, the tight resistance,
The press and prison of sanctioning wills,
Unseals the quivering and undriven heart
That in the burrows of imagination
Runs from the kennelled hound and hears the horn
Of to-morrow’s hunt; distance enlarges it,
Lets loose the schoolboy to spit and jeer,
Lets loose the arrogant engineer,
Allows assault upon a serene people
And clangs death’s bell in every heady steeple.

 (“The Far-Off Hills”)

Despite the very clanging death’s bell and the rhyme too far of “steeple” in the last line, this is most intelligent and well crafted verse. However, as the earlier run of “burrows”, “kennelled hound”, “horn” and “hunt” might hint, Rodgers was sometimes too ready to chase the extended metaphor. His long poem “End of a World” kicks off with a circus image that parades the lion-tamer Discipline, the snake-charmer Sentiment, the lariat Intellect and the sly Illusionist. At this point he runs out of big top turns and unaccountably throws in the wild pig of Contempt, closely followed by locusts of hate that eat everyone’s fig-leaf sensitivity and grass-skirt insularity.

A few years later, this straining of conceits has been succeeded by a much happier straining of language, presumably under the influence of Dylan Thomas. A very fine example is the “good poem” that caught Graham’s attention, “Christ walking on the Water”, which first appeared in Horizon for September 1943:

O what a cockeyed sea he walked on,
What poke-ends of foam, what elbowings
And lugubrious looks, what ebullient
And contumacious musics. Always there were
Hills and holes, pills and poles, a wavy wall
And bucking ribbon caterpillaring past
With glossy ease. And often, as he walked,
The slow curtains of swell swung open and showed,
Miles and smiles away, the bottle-boat
Flung on one wavering frond of froth that fell
Knee-deep and heaved thigh-high. In his forward face
No cave of afterthought opened; to his ear
No bottom clamour climbed up; nothing blinked.
For he was the horizon, he the hub,
Both bone and flesh, finger and ring of all
This clangorous sea.

“Miles and smiles” is maybe a pun too far, but it’s easy to see why Graham enjoyed the tumbling and audacious exuberance of the language here. (It would indeed sound good done in an Ulster accent.) The poem finishes as Christ, his confidence draining fast, clambers into the boat:

                                    Looking over the edge
He shivered. Was this the way he had come?
Was that the one who came? The backward bowl
And all the bubble-pit that he had walked on
Burst like a plate into purposelessness.
All, all was gone, the fervour and the froth
Of confidence, and flat as water was
The sad and glassy round. Somewhere, then,
A tiny flute sounded, O so lonely.
A ring of birds rose up and wound away
Into nothingness. Beyond himself he saw
The settled steeples, and breathing beaches
Running with people. But he,
He was custodian to nothing now,
And boneless as an empty sleeve hung down.

He falls asleep in the bottom of the boat, “curled like a question mark”. The full text, on the Horizon page, is here, and well worth reading. Other Christian pieces collected in Europa and the Bull are similarly admirable, but we can’t finish without acknowledging the complementary side of Rodgers’ work, the blatantly and cheerfully erotic, as in “The Net”:

Quick, woman, in your net
Catch the silver I fling!
O I am deep in your debt,
Draw tight, skin-tight, the string,
and rake the silver in.
No fisher ever yet
Drew such a cunning ring.

Ah, shifty as the fin
Of any fish this flesh
That, shaken to the shin,
Now shoals into your mesh,
Bursting to be held in;
Purse-proud and pebble-hard,
Its pence like shingle showered.

And so on for four more verses. Crikey. Rumbustious stuff for a Presbyterian parson … I shall never look at a trawler in quite the same way again. And “cunning” is a great pun here. The poem’s closing lines “draw the equal quilt over our naked guilt”. Maybe “guilt” is pronounced with a bit of a wink, but there is still some tension here; this is not quite the fully reconciled “credal sexuality” of Jack Clemo, but one has to admire Rodgers’ attempt to bring together the Word and the flesh.  Awake! and Europa and the Bull are not too easily found on the second hand shelves, though when they are, they are not often expensive. They’re well worth a browse; there is much to dig out and admire in Rodgers’ “good poetry”.

Benjamin Creme and the circle of the Two Roberts

Another painter once allied to the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, added to their page, here. (Scroll right down to the bottom.) An odd one this, in the sense that Benjamin Creme, the young Scottish painter of the ‘forties, reinvented himself quite extraordinarily in the ‘seventies as the Theosophical prophet of the coming Maitreya. Ah well, that’s what happens when you read Wilhelm Reich and start messing with an Orgone Accumulator …

But it’s his earlier career that links to the Roberts. And wonderful paintings they are, too. Forget crop circles: this is the real stuff.

“He turned my head a bit”: W S Graham and John Knight

A bit of lit crit on the connections between the very marvellous indeed W S Graham (left) and his friend and fellow Cornish poet, now largely forgotten, John Knight, with some thoughts on Knight’s writing and its shared concerns with Graham’s. Somebody might already have tackled this, but if they have, I don’t know of it. Anyway, it’s on a new page (tab above) called Clusters concerning W S Graham, with the idea of adding further clusterettes in the future. (Graham’s protegé Burns Singer might be a good subject at some point in time.)

Can you hear me?

The invading gospel of Jack Clemo

Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin

In the deep wood dwells a demon
Taller than any tree –
His prison bars are the sailing stars,
His jailer is the sea.

He walks the white hills of Egypt
Reading the map of clay
– And through his night there moves the light
Artillery of day.

(Charles Causley, “Homage to Jack Clemo”)

A few paragraphs in honour of the deaf (for most of his life) and blind (for much of his adulthood) Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who died in 1994. For many years Clemo lived in the same tiny cottage in the heart of the Cornish china-clay quarries – “the lunar and lunatic landscape of the moon: a weird, white world dusted over with the colour of sex,” as Cornish balladeer Charles Causley put it. (A geometric landscape also vividly shown in the paintings of Herbert Truman.) Somehow Clemo maintained a vivid awareness that sustained his writing to the end, even though in his deafness and blindness his mother, and later his wife Ruth, could communicate with him only by tracing letters by fingertip on the palm of his hand.

Though Clemo’s work is not particularly well remembered these days, Bloodaxe and others have kept him in print over recent decades, and there is a decent amount about him online, such as this informative obituary, portrait photos at the National Portrait Gallery, his diaries and manuscripts, together with books from his working library at Exeter University, a nice reminiscence by T R Hummer of a visit to the Clemo’s in Weymouth in the ‘eighties, and so on.

He was content to write simply, often in lines of varying length chopped up by persistent terminal rhymes, for he mistrusted, on religious grounds, all forms of sophistication:

I cannot speak their language; I am one
Who feels the doggerel of Heaven
Purge earth of poetry …

(“The Excavator”)

Having shunned any development of poetic form, he is celebrated now mostly for his sheer Cornishness, or for his remarkable overcoming of background poverty and physical disabilities. But to me, what is extraordinary in his work is its defining theological content; Clemo’s austere non-conformist upbringing and the transcendent austerity of his surroundings met with the demands of a sensitive and sensuous nature that had to struggle with the imprisonment of sensory deprivation, to make for a stark, uncompromising, Calvinist mysticism that mellowed only in his later years. Reading Clemo is a direct challenge to anyone’s warm and fuzzy Christian certainties. His God, if not silent or obstructive –

There squats amidst these pyramids
The Sphinx-mood of a Deity …

(“Clay-Land Moods”)

You would not hear my voice
And how could I hear Yours
When you were slamming, slamming all my doors?

(“Prisoner of God”)

– is downright persecutory. For Clemo, the Calvinist notion of predestined election became a “divine bludgeoning”, a dark working of the relentless, imprisoning will of God. (Though such individual election is not exclusive; the non-elect are not conversely damned.) In “The Excavator” this will is compared to that machine’s sadistic gouging of the violated material of the clay-pit:

The bars now hinged o’erhead and drooping form
A Cross that lacks the symmetry
Of those in churches, but is more
Like His whose stooping tore
The vitals from our world’s foul secrecy …

… Keep far from me all loveliness, O God,
And let me laud
Thy meaner moods, so long unprized;
The motions of that twisted, dark,
Deliberate crucial Will
I feel deep-grinding still
Under the dripping clay with which I am baptized.

The clay-pit speaks of Christ because it is a de-beautified and anti-natural world. Sentiment or beauty, flowers or music, are inadequate or mistaken expressions of the divine, given that Nature is merely the surface of a fallen creation:

If you were nature’s child
I could not love you, for I shun
Corrupted trees and flowers which the sun
Kindled in disobedience …

… Hell snickers in the chatter of a starling,
And fleers in each sunrise,
Because one Eastern tale
That makes creation pale
Is known to me and true.
The Christian nightmare holds me, darling –
Creatively, as I hold you.

(“The New Creation”)

Only the baptism of the believer can make a person “lovable” (in the fullest sense of that word). Love is

… full-grown Dogma’s offspring,
Election’s child,
Making the wild
Heats of our blood an offering.

(“A Calvinist in Love”)

(“Dogma” here is an entirely positive term – doctrine received on the authority of the church and scripture, rather than on the basis of experience or reason – as distinct from our casually pejorative use of “dogmatic”.) This possibility of redeemed sexual love (“creed-embedded marriage”) was a central preoccupation of Clemo’s, much explored in what he termed his “strange contacts on spiritual and emotional borderlines”. In his 1949 autobiography Confession of a Rebel he makes a remarkably powerful and accessible case for the sensual superiority of a non-ascetic and unashamed puritanism:

The Christian and the unbeliever inhabit different worlds, and nowhere is the gulf between them wider than in sex experience which seems most common to all men. The thrill of being in love is short-lived for the worldling because it is for him a process entirely inside Nature and therefore soon burnt out. The Christian, however, cannot be burnt out in his love for a woman because he has already been burnt out in the stress of conversion; the life that animates him spiritually is no longer his own but Christ’s. This divine life controls his sensuous reactions, so that the feminine glamour which is to the “natural” man irresistible is to the Christian physically repellent, while the unadorned simplicity which the worldling finds dull and unexciting is for the Christian an object of sensuous ravishment. When St Paul forbade Christian women to wear jewellery or use artificial beauty aids he was merely recognizing the existence of this law – a law which the modern critics of Paul’s attitude to sex seem never to have heard of. Christianity does not condemn the glittering fashions of sophistication because they rouse sexual desire but because for the Christian they paralyse it … I do not suggest that Christians reach this level automatically; but I do insist that this is a fundamental law of Christian experience and not a pathological peculiarity of my own.

(My emphasis. The argument is male-centrically worded, but is capable of a two-way application.) With the sermons of C H Spurgeon and the novels of D H Lawrence sat in happy adjacency on his bookshelf, Clemo could bring together – without a thought of irony – the cross of Christ, his penis and a mechanical digger in a single image:

I fondle and understand
In lonely worship this malicious tool.

No wonder that some of his churchgoing neighbours considered him, as he recalled, an “uncouth village fundamentalist with an unpleasant erotic streak”!

His insights, won at such personal cost, command respect and demand serious consideration by Christians, particularly at a time like ours when the versions of cheap grace offered by a thin teenage evangelicalism on the one hand, and an apologetic, conforming and reductive liberalism on the other, appear symmetrically unsatisfying.

Charles Causley (looking very schoolmasterly) with Clemo

A small afterthought: one puzzlement to me is why Clemo and his fellow poet W S Graham seem to have shown no awareness of each other’s work, given the extent of their shared years in Cornwall. Clemo was befriended by Charles Causley, who in turn was in touch with Graham, as the latter’s letters show. Poles apart they may have been in many ways, but what might they have made of each other?

Back from oblivion: tracking the poetry of Gordon Wharton

New page added (tab up the top, or go here), devoted to an attempt at a proper appreciation of the poetry of Gordon Wharton, whose first three small collections were published from 1954 to 1957, but who has recently made a startling comeback, fifty four years on, with an excellent new collection, Towards Oblivion. A British poet who certainly deserves to be read and recognised.