Graham’s poems continually reflect on the difficulties of communication. On the one hand, they are guided by an impulse to communicate: “we want to be telling / Each other alive about each other / Alive”, he writes. But on the other, we invariably miscommunicate, or end up speaking into silence. It is no surprise so many of his greatest poems are elegies: he speaks to dead friends with intimacy and tenderness, but knows they cannot hear. Indeed, for Graham, this is the condition of all poetry:
Speaking to you and not
Knowing if you are there
Is not too difficult.
My words are used to that.
But if this sounds overly tragic or offputtingly philosophical, Graham’s poems are always playful and inventive. He wrote poems addressed to his cat, poems about playing a fruit machine in the local pub, his poems are full of wordplay, in-jokes, snippets of nursery rhymes and slang from his childhood. This comes back to his impulse to communicate, to have shared experiences through words, to reach another’s soul momentarily. These poems flit between the serious and the silly: their playfulness is central to what makes them profound.
These are also poems that will take you on a journey. Graham grew up in the shipbuilding town of Greenock, west of Glasgow, and lived most of his adult life on the far west coast of Cornwall, looking out onto the Atlantic. But he is just as much concerned with journeys of the imagination. His most famous poem, ‘The Nightfishing’, is not only an evocative description of setting out to sea and battling the elements, but about personal epiphanies. ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ is about Arctic exploration, but also about travelling cold, desolate expanses of words. He is a poet who not only journeys through language, but makes language go places.
Where does language go, then? Well, one place is—the reader. Graham’s poems are constantly in search of a reader. As he once wrote:
I say this silence or, better, construct this space
So that somehow something may move across
The caught habits ofl anguage to you and me.
The poet may provide the words, but it is the reader/listener who brings the meaning. Early in his career Graham described the poem as a ‘replying chord to the reader’. We as readers are continually invited to remake the poems, so they live forever anew.
Why should you want to be the reader the poems are searching for? Most of all, it’s because the poems are breathtakingly beautiful. Graham once said that what inspired him to write was ‘the elation of being alive in the language’. Not only does Graham evoke this elation in his readers, but he makes us elated at what language can do, again and again. Everyone who reads Graham will have the experience is being deeply moved by individual images or phrases. Our personal favourite is the ending to ‘The Dark Dialogues’:
Yet over the great
Gantries and cantilevers
Of love, a sky, real and
Particular is slowly
Startled into light.
Constructing Spaces at National Poetry Library is a free interactive reconstruction of WS Graham's creative space, to celebrate his centenary year. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the materials on display and participate in the construction of this space.