Meet The Grammarsow

The Grammarsow brings Scottish poets and poetry to Cornwall in the footsteps of WS Graham. We take 2018, Graham’s Centenary, as our inaugural year. Our inaugural poet is Calum Rodger. Watch this space for events, happenings and updates. TTBB

Falmouth 2019

6pm Saturday 21st September  — the Vicar’s Retreat, the Seven Stars pub, Falmouth — FREE EVENT

Grammarsow poet Stewart Sanderson joins from Glasgow. Penryn poet David Devanny reads poems from his recent Cornish coast path walk and introduces a GPS poetry app. The event will be a celebration of the legacy of WS Graham and a consideration of coastlines.

The Seven Stars was established on Falmouth Moor in 1660 and has been run by the same family for seven generations.

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Zennor 2019

7pm, Weds 18th Sept — St Senara’s Church, Zennor — FREE EVENT (donations for Church Bell Fund)

The Grammarsow: Coast Poems feat. Stewart Sanderson, Mark Goodwin and Des Hannigan

As part of St Ives September Festival, The Grammarsow presents an evening of poetry mapping the Cornish coast and celebrating the legacy of WS Graham. Grammarsow poet Stewart Sanderson joins from Glasgow. Mark Goodwin reads to launch Coast Poems, a GPS poetry app by Penryn writer David Devanny. Morvah poet Des Hannigan reads from his new book The Long Deep.

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Introducing Stewart

The Grammarsow welcomes Stewart Sanderson in 2019. His residency will be in September.

Stewart is a poet from Glasgow, just a few miles up the Clyde from Graham’s birthplace in Greenock. His two pamphlets, Fios (2015) and An Offering (2018), are published by Scottish small press Tapsalteerie. Twice shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, he has been the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, as well as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jessie Kesson Fellowships. Find out more about Stewart at

Year Two

Calum Rodger at Percella Point (photo: Andrew Fentham)

A belated Happy New Year from the Grammarsow. After the year of wonderful WS Graham Centenary events, we’re working to keep the Grammarsow going in 2019 and beyond. Watch this space and TTBB.

Penwith Hundred

Upon the occasion of WS Graham’s 100th birthday, as the end of the Centenary year edges closer, thoughts on the inaugural Grammarsow.

Calum Rodger looking to Gurnard’s Head from Zennor Head (photo: Andrew Fentham)

An aim of the project is to in some way bridge the gap between Greenock and Cornwall. Graham inescapably was a writer a long way from home and later poems (‘Loch Thom’, ‘Greenock at Night I Found You’, etc.) express a longing for the land left behind. For the reader in Cornwall, the poet can only be understood through the lens of his Scottishness; the reader in Scotland may feel themselves stranded without experience of the landscape in which the poet lived and worked, the places he wrote about with strange names like Ding Dong or Gurnard’s Head. Prohibitive distance deprives Scotland of the cultural legacy of an important figure in its recent history. In Cornwall too, the legacy demands interrogation and celebration, not least in the Centenary year but also going forward, as it is impossible to disentangle the poet from the place and community through which he moved.

Community became our answer to the problem of place. Graham dubbed himself ‘an expert in aloneness’ in a late letter to Ronnie and Henriette Duncan, but the letters have the poet reaching out from his various isolations. Matthew Francis suggests that the poems too ‘constantly affirm the value of relationships with other people’, tenderly addressed, as they frequently are, to others. So we reached out. Our idea was to provide a research opportunity for a Scottish poet to visit Cornwall, and to provide a platform for them to perform here too. The first poet was Calum Rodger who came down from Glasgow.

Calum Rodger on Porthleven Pier (photo: Andrew Fentham)

Building the project put us in touch with artists and organisations locally and nationally whose shared interest was the exploration and promotion of the Graham legacy. Poet Bill Herbert directed us towards poet Rachael Boast who, on behalf of the Graham Estate, was able to tell us what was programmed nationally for the Centenary. Our urge to make something happen in Cornwall saw us work with Vicar Elizabeth Foot and Warden Gilly Wyatt Smith of St Senara’s in Zennor to stage an event in the Church as part of St Ives September Festival, helping to raise money for the Church Bell Fund. We were also in touch with writer David Whittaker and were able to attend his Festival talk on Graham at St Ives Art Club. A second, more intimate Grammarsow reading took place in the back room of The Seven Stars in Falmouth and featured the Grammarsow’s own David Devanny.

Falmouth-based writer Mac Dunlop had introduced us to Morvah-based writer Des Hannigan. A Scotsman in Cornwall himself, Des had been acquainted with Graham and written about it in his recent book The Almost Island. He met us in Zennor one day and showed us Morvah. There happened a brief chance meeting with artist Rowena Scotney whose ekphrastic felt and needle-punch works respond directly to poems by Graham and others, before we also visited Gilly Wyatt Smith’s Yew Tree Gallery. We then called in at The Gurnard’s Head pub (a Graham haunt, uphill nearby a cottage he lived in with Nessie Dunsmuir) for our second chance meeting, this time with John the Fish and others of Des’s friends from their days performing at the Count House folk club in Botallack. Des would read poems and share recollections to kick off our Zennor reading.

Des Hannigan reading at St Senara’s (photo: Becky Screeton)

The event was atmospheric, readers taking to the pulpit to enjoy the acoustics, Bryan Wynter buried outside, the Tinner’s Arms calling through the dark. That the event was well-attended on a Wednesday evening in rural Cornwall told us something of Graham’s current reputation. We were pleased to have Bradford poet Bruce Barnes in attendance. Katharine Heron wrote later to say she too had been along. But also exciting was to meet people for the first time: locals, Graham fans, those with their own stories of the poet to tell, and some with Centenary events of their own lined up. After Des’s engaging set came Andy Fentham (another of the Grammarsow’s own) with a suite of poems relating to Graham and the St Ives School. Last up was Calum.

Calum Rodger reading at St Senara’s (photo: Becky Screeton)

It was always to feel vital having both Des and Calum’s reading voices bring to life their individual selections of Graham poems. Des, in Cornwall some fifty-odd years, was also able to reflect upon his relationship with the local area, and personal encounters with Sydney Graham. It was as thrilling to hear Calum’s typically eloquent description of what the Graham legacy meant to him as a young Scottish poet encountering Cornwall for the first time. And this surpassed only by hearing Calum’s own work in such a space. He is an outstanding performer. Part of the Grammarsow Mission felt complete.

We hope we did justice by Calum for the other part. The day of the St Senara’s reading we had seen work by Wynter, Lanyon, Hilton et al. at Tate St Ives, seen Alfred Wallis’s house and his Leach-tiled grave. The morning after, we would walk from Zennor Head to Gurnard’s Head as in ‘Enter a Cloud’ and again visit The Gurnard’s Head pub. Later that day we would pass through Madron to see another of Sydney and Nessie’s former houses. The Grammarsow’s ambition to photograph Calum playing the fruit machine like Garfield Strick in the King William IV would be thwarted by the pub’s selective opening hours. Who knows what use, if any, to match real buildings or landscapes with Graham’s self-conscious constructions? It doesn’t sound like an idea he’d like. What we can say is that we now know Calum better, as he too now knows us, back in our discrete alonenesses at opposite ends of the UK. The space between us is Malcolm Mooney’s Land, and yet we find ourselves gathered together around the poet’s words. Matthew Francis helpfully highlights these particular words from ‘The Dark Dialogues’:

because always language

is where the people are

Huge thanks to any and everyone involved in any capacity with The Grammarsow this year.

Gurnard’s Head (photo: Becky Screeton)

Graham at Warwick (1979)

WS Graham reading at Warwick University on 23rd October 1979. From the Writers at Warwick Archive:

Warwick Arts Centre in 1976

Poems include ‘Falling into the Sea’, ‘The Alligator Girls’, ‘The Fifth of May’ and others, which would remain uncollected until 1990. Useful to observe the dynamic between poet and audience as Graham attempts to get his meaning across ‘the constructed space’.


6pm – 7:30pm, Sat 15th Sept — The Vicar’s Retreat, The Seven Stars pub, Falmouth — FREE EVENT

photo by Becky Screeton

Grammarsow poet Calum Rodger will read alongside Andrew Fentham, David Devanny, and more. The event will be an exploration and celebration of the WS Graham legacy in Cornwall and Scotland in his Centenary year.

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photo: Becky Screeton

John Minton & Sydney Graham

‘Mark Gatiss on John Minton: The Lost Man of British Art’ is available on BBC iplayer until 15th September 2018:

WS Graham liked painters and painters liked WS Graham. Publisher David Archer moved to Glasgow from London during the war and became patron to an art scene which included the Two Roberts (MacBryde and Colquhoun), Benjamin Creme, Robert Frame, JD Fergusson, and the displaced Polish painters Jankel Adler and Josef Herman. Archer, whose Parton Press had also launched debuts by Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne and George Barker, published Cage Without Grievance in 1942 and Graham mixed and drank with artists at the publisher’s Scott Street Art Centre, and at Fergusson’s The New Art Club. Upon landing in Cornwall the poet introduced himself to Ben Nicholson: ‘I’m living here near Praa Sands in a caravan a friend’s lent me. I’ve been here three months and I would like to talk to someone.’ He went on to cultivate relationships – some sanguine, others tempestuous – with many of the St Ives artists, most famously Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon.

After Graham’s own relocation, the Glasgow scene migrated to London and the poet would cadge lifts to get there. But Tony Lopez notes, ‘Graham, who was from the outset a hugely ambitious poet, was also painfully aware of his humble background and ill at ease socially with the metropolitan Fitzrovia crowd. He found it difficult to meet people unless he had had a few drinks and his London trips turned into binges.’ The Roberts shared their Notting Hill studio with (among others) John Minton, and hosted parties there. Graham’s letters to Minton from penury in Cornwall are those of a man gasping: ‘You shouldn’t write a wee note like that on the book all about being roaring drunk. It’s too much.’ Mark Gatiss describes a gregarious Minton profiting artistically from the studio arrangement yet tortured by an inconvenient attachment to Colquhoun, having ‘plunged himself’ into Soho upon being discharged from the army for admitting his homosexuality.

John Minton, photographed by Rosalie Thorne McKenna

Difficulties in grouping post-Auden-pre-Larkin poets led to Graham’s early work being labelled neo-romantic. Dylan Thomas, whose legend outweighs his influence, is the only other British poet to whom this label is frequently applied. Graham did acknowledge Thomas’s influence and met him in London, whilst also being regularly accused by critics of aping him. (Letter to David Wright: ‘But I suppose it’s to be expected.’) Graham’s later isolations typically include the geographic, financial and stylistic. Was he earlier also the lone disciple of Thomas? Graham’s writing would grow its own grain but perhaps too late to uninstall Thomas as a convenient behavioral model.

Minton’s neo-romanticism, Gattis suggests, gives expression to ‘a private angst’ and sees the artist ‘retreating from a world of anxiety into one of bucolic fantasy and private mystery.’ Such world-building is essential to Graham’s poetry and letters: the page-tundra of ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’, the ‘instant’ of ‘The Nightfishing’.  From the beginning the letters are aware of themselves as constructions:

‘I’m lost in foxes of falling down. Dear Johnny I can write nothing today I see now I’ve begun. Christ you are a very good person, and not many I see around. It’s so fine that you’re not comfortable. For Jesus sake work hard. But phone me as you said you would, remember. It is to write quicker and say why love encumbers as the kiss sets free, and why eye sparks and shines and builds my heart, or why the sky is held aloft over the shires of England by my making, keeping, constructing, own blue eye.’ [4th July 1944]

The Nightfishing (1955) has Graham’s first significant use of the poem-letter, ‘Seven Letters’, later to become his standard form: poems addressed to a (named or unnamed) correspondent whether titled letters or not. After the long hiatus between The Nightfishing and Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970) the form would return married to a new self-reflexivity.

‘The words are mine. The thoughts are all

Yours as they occur behind

The bat of your vast unseen eyes.

These words are as you see them put

Down on the dead-still page. They have

No ability above their station.

Their station on silence is exact.

What you do with them is nobody’s business.’

from ‘Approaches to How They Behave’

Here was Graham emerged fully from the shadow of Thomas, aided in his development by an ability to absorb influences from the abstract painters and constructivists he knew locally and in London. Gatiss credits an earlier trip Minton took to stay with Graham in Cornwall with a rejuvenating effect upon the painter: ‘you can almost chart his progression from painting to painting as he tried out new styles.’ But besides respite from ‘mounting tensions’ arising from Minton’s Notting Hill arrangement, it is the Cornish landscape to which Gatiss ascribes the progression before any contemporary influence.

It was Minton, not Graham, who would burn out like Thomas. Gatiss details heated arguments at Camberwell between painter and students upon the arrival from America of abstract-expressionism. This refusal to adapt came shortly before his suicide in 1957. Long gone the tutor who led his students up to Oxford Street ‘like the pied piper’, the artist now sidelined and humiliated by postwar contemporaries Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, craving but failing to secure election to the RA, once again hitting Soho hard. The documentary frequently references Minton’s energy, once as ‘like an adrenalin shot’ to a room. Graham had a similar reputation, though Charles Causley’s pastiche ‘Letter to W. S. Graham’ expresses relief that he was ‘not / The Wild Man / Of Madron I’d // Been warned to / Expect.’

The Cornwall sojourn reinvigorated Minton as did later trips to Corsica and Jamaica, Gatiss says, each a milestone in the artist’s development. Compare this to Graham’s two trips to Crete, both funded by friends and never translated into the full poem Graham intended, ‘The Dream of Crete’ remaining unrealised. After the second trip Graham apologised to Ronnie and Henriette Duncan who had taken him there, for ‘filling myself with ouzo … I am a nervous man feeling unloved and greedy and lyrically manic.’  Anxiety got the better of him on the island. Yet it is precisely this energy in Graham’s work to which Sean O’Brien points when highlighting ‘the sense of the poem as an event rather than a memorial, in the continuous re-addressing of abiding anxieties.’ On Corsica Minton preferred to work in the noon heat with the light at its most intense. Graham is more readily imagined working at Botallack o’clock, running on the ‘white friends’ procured from Sven Berlin and others, Nessie in bed asleep. It is nevertheless likely that the poet and the painter recognised something in one another.