W.S. Graham: Selected Poems

Seamus Perry writes:

Many poets end up having a hard life but W.S. Graham went out of his way to have one. His dedication to poetry, about which he seems never to have had a second thought, was remorseless, and his instinct, surely a peculiarly modern one, was that the way to nurture his creativity was to have a really bad time. ‘The poet or painter steers his life to maim//Himself somehow for the job,’ he wrote in a posthumous address to the painter Peter Lanyon. Apart from a brief and incongruous spell as an advertising copywriter and the occasional stint on fishing boats, he refused to succumb to the distraction of a day job; he didn’t write reviews or journalism; and as his books of verse were very far from bestsellers he had no money for most of his life until, in his mid-fifties, he was awarded a Civil List pension. ‘I am completely broke just now and the people I might borrow from are also broke,’ he wrote in an early letter, striking a wholly characteristic note. Twenty-five years later he was still writing to friends saying things like, ‘How terrible to think I never get in touch with you but to ask you for money. Can you please let us have £5?’ The letters convey a persistent sense of want which makes for sorry reading, as he runs out of paraffin again or makes omelettes with seagull eggs, though you often detect a flicker of stoic comedy: ‘I get on making tea and putting a sheep’s head on the hob to simmer – the beginning of a good graham broth’; ‘I’m terribly desperate for a pair of shoes or boots … I keep thinking there must be lots of men with old army boots they’ll never use’; ‘I’ve never been broker in all my life, ridiculously so … What a carry-on it certainly is.’[*]

(LRB 18 July 2019)