“He turned my head a bit”: W S Graham and John Knight
“… the boy with the crooked nose … he turned my head a bit, and he was a Great Poet,” wrote W S Graham in 1982 to Rina, widow of his friend John Knight. The stature of Graham’s poetry, especially his later work, is now assured, so if anyone was in a position to recognise great poetry, it should have been Sydney Graham, and his generous statement demands examination. Knight’s traces have largely evaporated, and his work is now little known, though his books are still easily available. So who was John Knight, and was he indeed a “Great Poet”?
It’s a common enough name, and the internet is, confusingly, littered with mediocre poets who share it. But our John Knight was born in 1906 and raised in Cornwall. By the ‘fifties he was working in the civil service in Manchester, where he was active from 1957 in the Peterloo Group of poets and artists, founded by Robin Skelton, Tony Connor and Michael Snow, to whom he was close. By 1960, when the group disbanded, he was in Ealing, London, and his first collection, Straight Lines and Unicorns, was published that year by the Cresset Press. His work was published in Agenda, Ambit, TLS, The Poetry Review, The Spectator and others, and read on the BBC. In 1966 he and Rina retired to Cornwall, where he was nearer to Graham, whom he had met earlier in London.
It’s not clear to me when he started writing. His 1960 collection is said in the sleeve note to represent “years of devoted craftsmanship and exploration”. By then he was in his fifties, a couple of decades in advance of his fellow Peterloo poets Skelton, Snow and Connor. His approach was essentially neo-romantic (there are nods in his work to William Blake, Christopher Smart and John Clare), which suggests a beginning in the late 1940’s. At any rate, he was probably a late starter. He acknowledged the input of T S Eliot’s housemate and editor John Hayward; he may well have sent poems to Eliot (one imagines that many hopefuls did), who would have been shielded by Hayward. (Though “Tommy E”, as Graham called him, had been instrumental in Faber and Faber’s publication of The White Threshold in 1949. Did Graham point Knight in that direction? Whatever the case, at least he got some quality feedback.)
In July 1959, when Straight Lines and Unicorns was imminent, Graham wrote to Knight that publication was “a good thing”, as it was “right that your poetry should be available … you are one of the fairly few people I am pleased has got published.” However, Graham clearly approved anyway of publication on principle, given that the awareness of audience shifts a poet’s work onto a different level: “… it helps to create a tension in the speaker (you) when the speaker knows he is being listened to.” Or as he later put it to Knight: “… the awareness of having more ears cocked to your word is good for the word.” The shaping of the medium by the relation between writer/speaker and reader/listener was becoming a major concern of Graham’s. It’s not clear how far Graham’s encouragement at this point was meant as an endorsement of Knight’s writing.
Straight Lines contains 48 poems, some of which must be early. Though there is the promise of a convincing voice, I find it overall a fairly irritating read, much as Sidney Keyes or Kathleen Raine are likeable but annoying. The weaknesses in content are obvious: neo-romanticisms that drift into the clumsily metaphysical and portentous: “Speak, unicorn with speckled wings … The hosts of Merlin rise again, wild daffodils within the mind” (“Invocation”), “Fate knocks upon the outer door, Death on the door within” (“The Death and Birth of Simple Simon”); a pseudo-Gnosticism that vaguely proposes an alternative or inverted Christ narrative: “Adam, who wrote the Song of Songs, was once a cell in Lilith’s mind” (“Invocation”); occasional limp surrealism: “I dance alone upon a cutting tooth … I crawl alone upon a bridge of night” (“The Flutes”); and outdoor descriptions that easily become tedious, as in “Courtship Dance”, a lengthy versification of the mating ritual of the redshank.
Equally transparent are the weaknesses in Knight’s technique: a frequent fondness for cheap paradox or oxymoron: “greed of giving … lie of truth” (“The Range of Night”), “footsteps that come through the door are going away” (“Silence is Truthful”), “gentle with thunder” (“The Quick Dead”), “quiet roars” (“The Voice”), “timeless movement of clocks … darkness shines” (“Night Poem”); strained portmanteau coinings: “unknows”, “deatholds” (“Three Faces”); an affected and mannered casual register: “it’s thought … at all events” (“Island of Clocks and Ghosts”), “that’s as may be, I say” (“Poem of the Fancy”), “I suppose I should say … Well, you see” (“Father to the Man”); over-calculated repetition and leaden rhymes (“Three”); and in many places affected self-interruptions or italicised second voice interpolations. In his acknowledgements, Knight confesses that what must be one of the best lines in the book – “Wanders the proud sea-skimmer, shambles the drowned” – was unfortunately an unconscious borrowing from John Heath-Stubbs.
And yet … At rare moments an authentic note does flare out with integrity, where Knight manages to impose some economy on his phrasing, and where the novelty of his constructions heightens enigma rather than serves showiness – even if only in the odd stanza or two within a poem:
Kiss us a dear word,
idle, sudden and dusk song;
though we think it absurd
after labouring all the day long,
go, dance with the dark third.
(“Poem, if he had a Daughter”)
And my father’s mother
in the unbelievable town.
I remember one sun of day
they took me into a deep dark of house.
(“Spare a Yesterday”)
There is maybe a hint of Graham in the latter. At this stage, Knight was far from a “great poet”, despite Graham’s warm, if generalised, encouragement of Straight Lines. Was Graham a careful enough judge of others’ work? (We might consider in this context his early enthusiasm for W R Rodgers, or his patronage of Burns “Jimmy” Singer.) But a few years later, his praise was unambiguous and considered. After listening to Knight’s poems read on the Third Programme in February 1966, he wrote:
Nessie and I have just turned the invention off and what a great pleasure it was, John, to hear your good poems. The statements came out with a good poetic shock and each poem’s shape was satisfying and astonishing. They had the timbre of authority …
A good shock, satisfying shape, the timbre of authority – that’s a pretty comprehensive set of qualities. Material from this period was later to appear in Edges of Fact, Knight’s second and last collection which was published posthumously in 1977 by Michael Snow’s Stonemark Press at St Ives, in an edition of 500. He died in 1975. (The only other publication I can see under this imprint is Margaret Snow’s short collection of 1979, Love the Elusive Creature.)
Edges of Fact rounded up 27 poems, of which three had already appeared at the tail end of Straight Lines, but were now made part of a longer sequence. The earlier weaknesses are still in evidence, such as the unsubtle Jungianism of “Anima”, or the “loud silence”, “dumb words” and “transparent lies” of “The Meeting Place”. But they are now much reduced and constrained, and things are distinctly tighter and more focused. I imagine that Graham would have approved of such passages as:
If, one day,
you walk, or I,
down this green track,
the other dead,
We shall take
hands to walk,
dear, and speak
of (let’s say)
That great yellow
that’s gone suddenly by …
(“Descant from Silence”)
Listening to the 1966 radio broadcast, he had singled out (if only for its title) “Elegy for the Trouser Gods” from the sequence “Six Elegies and a Makelight”. Much of this is still stretched and florid, but in places it achieves something rather better:
All a vast inswirl of falling ocean
sand scouring down the sandbars laid
down across the deep channels of being
since the deathgod struck in a black
tantrum of thunder the fiddler and his nine
maidens into ten tablets of No.
The christfish leaps up the fall.
Dying is ill; but death’s
a direction, that’s all.
The Gods in their well-cut trousers, lords
of the world’s death!
Even Knight’s ear for the vernacular is now far sharper and more inventive:
I met Lazarus in the Cat-in-Hell,
half-seas-over, by no means under …
I met him again in the Dick-and-Whistle.
He was stone cold sober as a cod in the arctic.
Notably Grahamesque are parts of “A Round in the House”:
Suppose I’m here now, listening,
and you to me, what shall we talk about,
strangers, with the open voices of friends?
Choose where we start, in the end,
there’s only, to speak of now, you
(and, among you, me).
Everywhere wings of starved birds
have been lying among withered speech, where bright words
are opening now, or they are dropped
by the ebbing myth at the cross-curved
edges of fact, swirled by the wind, and death.
Everywhere bones, life turned to rock,
the flowering dead, the wind keening
the memory of next year’s birth, mixing
(deep under sea) true words with those
we utter; one here and then
swims into poem.
“The memory of next year” still jars, but on its own cannot unsettle the whole thing. The opening stanza is very near to Graham’s voice; “Can you hear me?” he would ask on introducing a radio reading in 1979. The connections and disconnections between poet and readers established in the act of reading are not only acknowledged, but are brought into the focal area of the poem. The landscape is simultaneously real and metaphorical; the shoreline is set at “the edges of fact”. The observed behaviours of the natural world become metaphors for language, and language becomes the central metaphor and medium by means of which the self is actualised, as a “true word … swims into poem”.
This prompts the question of who was copying whom. Was Knight merely following Graham at a distance, or was there in fact some cross traffic? In the sense that both sought a more economical mode that could still house the concerns of their earlier, wordier romanticism, and that this mode came to acknowledge the centrality and self-awareness of language, they certainly shared an agenda and a direction.
The last lines of the last poem of Edges, “An Acre of Furze”, provide an amused acknowledgement of just how far Knight had travelled, and Snow edited well in making them, literally, his last words:
When the sacred unicorns escape into time, our time,
I shan’t be here, but
when the seventy times seven archetypes assemble
perhaps a humble acre
of furze will flaunt more heaven than any array of lilies.
I shall make wine.
Wine-making was Knight’s other pursuit. (“You old bugger, winemaker, you,” Graham had called him.) The lilies and unicorns of arcane symbolism had been left behind on the astral plane, allowing the humble acre of the actual to flaunt its greater heaven. Knight may not have been consistently a “great poet”, but he did achieve his own small moments of greatness. His wine had settled, matured and become fine.
A 1960 letter from John Knight to a Mrs Dorothea Graham - no relation of WS, apparently, but a friend of his mother. Mrs Graham has approved of 'Straight Lines and Unicorns', and has recommended Teilhard de Chardin.