Dead Letters: W S Graham and elegy | Brian Lewis

This is only a note
To say how sorry I am
You died.

(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)

The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics tells us that the primary functions of elegy are ‘to lament, praise and console’.  Elegy (in contemporary English literature) is a category distinct from ‘poems of remembrance’: it is shaped by different pressures and ideas of audience.  Elegy tends toward the quiet, the meditative, the private.  Few of the ‘commonplace texts’ familiar from English funeral services are elegiac in tone, content or form.  Elegy depends (at least in part) on a heightened sensitivity to detail (the details in and through which we ‘read’ the departed) to achieve presence and affect; it is too personal, too particular, to be offered up in a public setting.  Conversely, the apparent anonymity of the ‘commonplace text’ lends it a pliant quality that allows it to be ‘made personal’ (or made habitable); brought into use for the occasion, it is shared, understood, held in common.  Public mourning and private grief are separate, unlike conditions.

It’s interesting to consider that two of the nation’s favourite poems of remembrance, Henry Scott Holland’s ‘Death is nothing at all’ and the anonymous ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, are both cast in the second person: the dead are addressing the listeners.  The burden (of loss, of lamentation) taken up by elegy is lifted here in the promise of ‘Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same that it ever was.’  While these texts lack the particularities (of character and circumstance) that we find in elegy, they can take on an almost conversational intimacy, a sense of being personally addressed: a familiar, consoling voice.  Yet this familiar, consoling voice, enhanced by death’s authority, is also commanding the listener: ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’. ‘Speak to me in the easy way which you always used’.  Instructions from the dead to the living.

W S Graham

W S Graham

The absurdity of the living addressing the dead (in poetry) has often been remarked upon.  As Peter Reading observes: ‘Corpses cannot read.’  For W S Graham, ever mindful of the hazards and responsibilities that ‘the obstacle / Of language’ presents, the poem is always a unique (and unrepeatable) way of speaking towards an other who may or may not be absent.

Speaking to you and not
Knowing if you are there
Is not too difficult.
My words are used to that.

(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)

In a statement for the Poetry Book Society bulletin (Spring 1970), Graham volunteers this account of his practice:

I am always very aware that my poem is not a telephone call. The poet only speaks one way. He hears nothing back. His words as he utters them are not conditioned by a real ear replying from the other side.

He hears nothing back.  He does not expect to hear anything back.  Whether addressing the living or the dead, Graham is writing against distance, against silence, listening intently but without the stimulus of an answering voice.  The poems, then, are not telephone calls (despite their intermittently conversational tone): the form they more closely resemble is that of the letter.  Much of Graham’s work developed through (and sometimes outgrew) his private correspondence, and we are often invited to read these letters as poems – and his poems as letters.  This tendency is apparent in his first collection (Cage Without Grievance, which includes two titular ‘Letters’) and becomes explicit in the late work, which offers poems such as ‘How Are The Children Robin’, ‘Dear Who I Mean’ and ‘Yours Truly’.  Each of these poems (or letters) is shaped for a particular addressee, with its own freight of concern, enquiry, and incident; each acknowledges the difficulty of getting a message across a distance that, for Graham, changes with each new approach (addressing a ‘silence before one just as difficult to disturb significantly as before’, as he remarks in a letter to Robin Skelton in 1970).  This difficulty, this distance, gains in amplitude in Graham’s elegies for the painters Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter; however, it does not make communication – or the effort of communication – impossible.  The letters are ‘undeliverable’, yet consistent with Graham’s intention; to find ‘a way of speaking adequate for the moment’.  The marking out of the ‘new’, grief-given distance (between poet and addressee) is achieved, in each elegy, through Graham’s skilful use of the language shared by poet and painter; a mix of parochial detail, cryptic jokes, and conversational echoes. It locates the reader (the poem’s recipient, rather than its addressee) in a world constructed from the mutual terms of the writer and the artist (‘terms’ encompassing a shared vocabulary and the conditions of its use).  Graham’s intention, however, is not simply to record the passing of an intimacy, but for the poem to achieve its own (and enduring) intimacy, an object inflected by a particular way of speaking and by a particular way of hearing; an object, finally, to be encountered by others, ‘an object that will stand and will not move’.

Peter, I called and you were away, speaking
Only through what you made and at your best.

(‘The Thermal Stair’)

The poem for Lanyon closes with an appeal to the painter to ‘remember me wherever you listen from’; a surprising inversion of the ‘memorialising’ conventions of elegy (in which the deceased are ‘remembered’), it also enacts the means by which the addressee is called into the present, while acknowledging the distance that separates the speaker from the listener.  Lanyon’s absence is figured simply and repeatedly as ‘away’; the speaker makes a rhetorical plea (‘Lanyon, why is it you’re earlier away?’) but does not pursue the investigation.  Conversely, the ‘way of speaking’ adopted in ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’ is exploratory, searching, not only in the questioning of the deceased Wynter (‘Do you want anything?’, ‘Are you there at all?’) but also of the absence he has gone into, that Graham cannot, by his own admission, get to:

Bryan, I would be obliged
If you would scout things out
For me. Although I am not
Just ready to start out.

(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)

Bryan Wynter by Roger Mayne

Bryan Wynter by Roger Mayne

The poem’s enquiries are softened by familiar, informal phrasing (‘Anyway how are things?’) which initially recalls, then complicates, Henry Scott Holland’s advice to ‘put no difference in your tone’ (‘Dear Bryan Wynter’ is tasked with acknowledging and managing the ‘difference’ wrought by death; as indicated in its opening lines, the work of addressing this is almost entirely a matter of tone).  In part, this reflects a commitment to maintaining the correspondence (or to not abandoning it); the ‘letter’ brings news of Graham’s domestic rituals, the weather, and the landscape (albeit unsettled by idiosyncratic turns – ‘I’ve washed /
The front of my face’, ‘The house and the whole moor / Is flying in the mist’ – which suggest that the ‘familiar’ has itself become unmoored).  It also amounts to a further inversion of elegiac convention: here, the living are attempting to console the dead.

This is only a note
To say I am aware
You are not here.

(‘Dear Bryan Wynter’)

If not here, then where?  A ‘news of no time’ (offered to Wynter) is also a news of no place.  Death figures prominently in these late poems, as does dream, and Graham often seems to be mapping out a territory that lies somewhere between these two states.  In several poems, death – and the dead – are encountered in remembered dream; at times the encounters are stark, confrontational (‘The Visit’), at others calm, conciliatory (‘Falling Into The Sea’).  The limits of death, dream, the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’ lie somewhere outside the frame of the poem, or are suspended by (and within) it.  The changing world is in abeyance; dream becomes memory, which then hardens into place.  Perhaps the most tender and affecting example of this late style is ‘To Alexander Graham’, addressed to the poet’s father, ‘many years under the ground’.  The poem is as much an elegy for a lost, irretrievable time and place as it is for his father: Graham’s childhood in Greenock, the town he longed to return to in his last years but ‘would never get back to’ (a theme also taken up in ‘Loch Thom’, in which the poet’s ‘homecoming’ is the dream of a boyhood recovered through the particulars of place).

Lying asleep walking
Last night I met my father
Who seemed pleased to see me.
He wanted to speak. I saw
His mouth saying something
But the dream had no sound.

(‘To Alexander Graham’)

The difficulties of communication are manifested in the ‘silent dream’; an effect of the dream’s soundlessness, however, is that the poem’s gestures and setting are pared to their essentials, making for one of Graham’s plainest and most personal works (in a letter to Robin Skelton in 1974, Graham remarks of the poem: ‘I think maybe, Rob, I wanted it to be understood by my father if, perchance, he overhears it.’).  The dream-encounter takes place on ‘The Old Quay in Greenock’, a quay which the poem assembles from little more than ‘the big iron cannon’ and ‘that one lamp they keep on’, in which Graham sees his ‘father standing / As real as life’.  The absence of sound withholds (or appears to withhold) a spoken message from the father to the son, from the dead to the living, unreadable and undeliverable.  The encounter is suspended, unresolved; the son is left to trace the father’s remembered presence through ‘the quay’s tar and the ropes’ and to address questions to his absence (‘Dad, what am I doing here? / What is it I am doing now?’).  He hears nothing back.  Yet this ‘way of speaking’ towards (and about) the father achieves an understanding that outlasts the silence:

I think he wanted to speak.
But the dream had no sound.
I think I must have loved him.

(‘To Alexander Graham’)

Read and listen to ‘The Thermal Stair’ and ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’ here. The full text of ‘To Alexander Graham’ appears here.

All poems appear in Graham’s New Collected Poems (Faber and Faber). Peter Riley’s review (for Jacket) is highly recommended and can be accessed here.

The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W S Graham is published by Carcanet.


2 Comments on “Dead Letters: W S Graham and elegy | Brian Lewis”

  1. mrswaggy says:

    I love those poems.

  2. DRM says:

    Cracking article on some cracking poems. Thanks, Mr Lewis.

    For those interested, this is probably the most authoritative article on Graham I’ve ever come across. It compliments the one above nicely, so do read it if you have the time:

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