I recently spent a week with Graham on the island of Lanzarote. He was good company, his robust thinking a bracing antidote to lazy days on the beach. His ‘Selected Letters,’ published in 1999 by Carcanet, offer not just numerous insights into his craft, but also a somewhat humbling account of his everyday battle with economic hardship as he struggled with his mission: ‘I am a poet.’

In 1950, he joined the advertising firm of Messrs Foote, Cone and Belding and began work as a copywriter:

“friday dear crieff hows things for here i am

working away and writing great and enduring

copy about soda furcoats airoengines chanelle

etcetera and the rain kettledrums the pane and”

Writing, probably drunk and in the middle of the night, to Moncrieff Williams, has any poet sounded so unhappy? He does not endure it long, and scrounges (though always, it seems, with equal pain) off his friends and acquaintances to return to his life AS A POET back in Cornwall’s westernmost fringes, hauling the hocked heating oil along the coastal path. WS Graham carrying fuel

Then there is his lifelong love for Nessie Dunsmuir. We read of how long they were apart, she teaching English overseas as he, the poet, resists in his Cornish hovel. Of his passions for other women, and the letters, ardent and dazzling, he wrote to them.

He is weak, he is vain, he fights, he drinks, he bores strangers, charms strangers, irritates and exploits his friends, loves with great passion and sincerity. He is at all time and in all places a poet, working working working to bring forth another word ‘into the thorny world’. This is the fascination here, to see the poet’s life in all its simple difficulty. Not for Graham the urbane morning coffee at the well-endowed university before the writing masterclass, the blog with its links to the amazon pages that bear his name. For him, the £25 cheques for an accepted poem meant a meal on the table, a small debt paid, some coal on the inadequate fire.

JH Prynne

JH Prynne

In March 1981, Graham replies to Anthony Lopez and expresses doubt about being able to put aside two hours for a meeting. He then, politely, answers his questions about his poetry. He looks forward to seeing him at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in June of that year. Lopez is a postgraduate student at Gonville and Caius College, studying under JH Prynne. In October of that same year, I attend my first seminar in Prynne’s dark, serious study, where the hardback poems of WS Graham lie horizontal across a shelf.Graham book

DQ November, 2013

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