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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
The Grammarsow is a trans-local project bringing Scottish poets and poetry to Cornwall. ‘Grammarsow’ (or ‘grammersow’) is the Cornish name for a woodlouse, and features in the poetry of WS Graham. Graham was a Scottish poet who lived and wrote in Cornwall. 2018 is the poet’s Centenary year and the inaugural year of The Grammarsow. The project uses Graham’s geographic arc as a bridge between communities, bringing Scottish poets to Cornwall in Graham’s footsteps. The Grammarsow heeds the poet’s call to TTBB (Try To Be Better).
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