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)

Tag Archives: W S Graham

Hello sailors: Christopher Logue meets W S Graham meets Alfred Wallis

"sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls"

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.

img_0001The 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"

“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

“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.

 

 

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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.

Consolidating the Roberts

More dissident nostalgia! My big page on the Two Roberts, painters and roisterers Colquhoun and MacBryde, now has nine encounters with the twosome, including the reminiscences by Arthur Berry and Cedra Osborne from previous posts, plus three new excerpts from memoirs of the Roberts by Anthony Cronin, Julian Maclaren-Ross and John Moynihan.

Cronin by Patrick Swift

In his 1976 memoirs of bohemia, Dead as Doornails, Anthony Cronin devotes some thirty pages to the Roberts, every one worth reading. His writing is crafted, snappy, beautifully observed and frequently hilarious. In addition to the Roberts, he is excellent on Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Doornails is obtainable for the price of a small sandwich on Amazon – recommended!

Cronin’s, of course, is the primary version of the famous episode when Colquhoun, brandishing a carving knife, is said to have pursued MacBryde around the front garden of Cronin’s Wembley digs at the height of a thunder storm, both men stark naked. But he is also good on MacBryde’s declining years after the death of Colquhoun, and gives a touching account of his funeral. And unlike some Roberts-chroniclers, he clearly looked closely at their paintings. One could excerpt almost any passage with profit, but I’ve chosen some of his core descriptions of the boys.

maclaren-rossThe first time that Julian Maclaren-Ross met Robert Colquhoun the latter is reported to have said “And you call yourself a Scotsman? You look like a bloody phoney …” – a comment that Maclaren-Ross clearly felt to be uncalled for. On the other hand, if the latter had been in his customary rig – long, fawn, belted “teddy bear” coat, buttonholed carnation, dark glasses and a gold topped cane – Colquhoun’s reaction might have been understandable. When Maclaren-Ross first met MacBryde (separately), the latter, “wearing a fringe and a kilt,” exclaimed “I don’t doubt he’s as scared of me as I am of him.” First impressions, then, were not especially sympathetic. But here, excerpted from his Memoirs of the Forties, is something of what Maclaren-Ross made of C & M on more extended acquaintance. To be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps. But who was the kilted blacksmith “Shawn” who kept them company?

Young Moynihan at the typewriter

The late (and legendary) football writer John Moynihan’s Restless Lives, 2002, is a gossipy, though sometimes painful, chronicle of the earlier careers of his parents, the painters Rodrigo and Elinor Moynihan (Elinor Bellingham-Smith). It includes a strangely distant and waspish portrait of the Roberts, mainly Colquhoun, with some salacious detail on the hetero side of his sexuality. (Apparently Colquhoun “much admired” the Cockney singer Georgia Brown, later to find fame as Nancy in Oliver!) More sympathetic towards the unhappy figure of John Minton, Moynihan seems to have regarded the Roberts mostly as feral gate-crashers. But then, the Moynihans were at the Chelsea end of the Soho-Chelsea axis, where bohemia interfaced with the establishment. Here are one or two of the few more interesting bits. (It’s doubtful, by the way, that W S Graham was alone in using speed, as reported by Moynihan. The benzedrine he is said to have “snorted” would have been in inhaler form. And might account for some of the volubility of his earlier work … But stealing bedroom ornaments?)

(My pieces on various painters influenced by the Roberts, and their mentor Jankel Adler, are now on a separate ‘Followers’ page, here, updated by the addition of my earlier post on Louis le Brocquy. Portraits of C & M, including self-portraits, remain on the ‘Encounters’ page. After all this gossip, it might make sense to take a look at aspects of the Roberts’ own work in due course …)

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.