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a firm rebuke from Nessie: "Wheesht, Sydney, stop behaving like John Knox").

When I take he and Nessie to the village's only pub, the William IV, it is time for that kind of fun. He says, as a local man approaches, "You'll have to speak up, for this man is very deaf." This information is followed by a similar revelation from Nessie: "Speak very clearly, my dear, this woman isn't all there."

Of course, he could hear and she wasn't daft, but had the Graham's had long enough to prepare the way, I would have been shouting and deliberately enunciating the whole evening.

W.S. Graham's full humour seems to blossom best when it comes from the depth of his silence. "I should like a machine", he suddenly


announces, "which, when I wake, will rub my head and say: 'Good boy, good boy.'" We take up the theme: by the time the discussion is over his new machine is able to devote its capacities to even the wildest demands for attention and reassurance.

The need for attention and reassurance first came to light earlier in the weekend. The second bedroom at their cottage is separated from the master bedroom by a wooden wall, through which W.S. Graham's early morning appraisals, including a snatch or two from a operatic aria, can be heard clearly. There then comes the famous knocking on the wall. Knocking, touching, feeling

in a tactile way, are central to his disposition and are included in some of his finest lines of poetry ("Shut up. Shut up. There's nobody here./If you think you hear somebody knocking/On the other side of the words, pay/No attention. It will be only/The great creature that thumps its tail/On silence on the other side."). The knock should, of course, be answered in a like way. It is, however, easier said (or knocked) than done, and perhaps calls for the assistance of the head-stroking machine which my meek tapping obliges him to recommend.

Just as knocking is another manifestation of W.S. Graham's conception of private mystery, so are his attitudes to walking and eating. To walk with him is to be given the impression of someone who is potentially directionless and will wander, or run off, alone, at a moment's notice. Similarly, I have not, so far, seen him eat. When Nessie prepares a splendid breakfast at his writing table, he seems to interrupt himself, stares disbelievingly down at the full plates, turns his chair until only his back is visible, and says to the wall: "I can't watch you. Hurry up."

His function is precisely to the unwavering point: to love and demand love. His words to Nessie are often loving phrases implicitly expecting - and getting - their explicit response. Although these phrases are in a great tradition of such statements, verbal simplicity is not necessarily the only major way his love manifests itself.

Another, hugely important, way is by song. I have mentioned his love of opera. W.S. Graham has a splendid dramatic tenor voice. His face is transformed into a rising sun or fading moon when he sings. His voice lifts and sobs like a pulse; it soars into the morning sky and can fade with the afternoon into twilight and beyond.

By chance, I enjoy singing too, and this afternoon, he declares: "I am your son, a prince. You are a king. Come, my dear, let's have a duet in the style of Mozart. Make up the words, make up the plot."

Which is what we do for ten minutes, even fifteen. My king is hectoring, moralising, invincible. His royal son is full of heart-aching remorse. When the king forgives - as all such noble specimens must try to do - the sense of relief, unity and joy which break into song are worth a thousand conversations and a million explanations.

Of course, there are more direct ways for him to make love. Mostly, it is by unadorned enquiry: "Dear my boy," he suddenly says, lightly, immediately followed by a darkening of his face and an abrupt: "What's going on inside? What are you? If you haven't got anything to tell me, you know what to do. Come outside. I'll split your head like a melon."

Sometimes, such calls are not easily answered and, I imagine, that is when W.S. Graham sensibly takes respite from the incompetence of his fellow men by turning to his work. He has just started his first imaginative writings in prose. Reading one story to a group of friends results in tears of appreciation.

And then, at 1am, Nessie in bed, but probably not asleep, listening in that small house, where all sounds count, W.S. Graham reads his latest unpublished poetry. He becomes another being, the words spring out of him and his voice becomes the inspiration which has brought them about. It is effortlessly engulfing, an unrepeatable statement of love.

And when I ask him later to read 'The Thermal Stair', one of the poems of his that I like the best, dedicated to his friend, the late Peter Lanyon, the depth of that love shows through time and time again. No wonder he can write in that poem: "Give me your hand, Peter/To steady me on the word", and, after he has finished reading it, he writes at the head of the poem for me: "I have just read this to you, and I can still be broken into pieces."

Nessie must have heard it in the room above. As she knows, as he knows and now I know, this is a man capable of love and worthy of loving; a man who has rejected eveything which would impede, impair or destroy what he himself feels and values himself to be.

I tried to pay tribute to this extraordinary man in this poem:

Listen

Silence: he knows about that;
silence of the life-cycle,
butterflies in his head
and in his body, too:
what would crawl out,
how would it fly?

Would he be able to fly
(the walls of the room close in)
would he be able to move
a hand, a finger, a word?
He has worried for years,
to the point of death.

He became silent with space;
friends knew that exactly,
to whom silence was golden
like sharp, gleaming jewels, hard as love:
from which impasse he came.

Would he see the bird rising?
Would he hear the centre of the earth?
Strangers stared ahead ecstatically,
or some were calm, burning
like the black moorland burns
before it is swept by rain.

Memory is too slight a word:
his origins bury on
downwards into my heart,
blindly coming up for a breather
and silence changed to a sound:
where the butterfly is calling
his name, calling his name
until fears fall down,
wings of silence in the air.

Listen, he then says, listen:
the butterfly is calling
my name, calling my name;
my love, my love, what shall
I be now the butterfly
is calling my name?

At that place of silent sound,
his origins are being called
being called by name.

* * *


Sitting with W.S. Graham some years ago, he talked about how differently poets read their works. I think he implied some aspect of "performance" in it.

He also wondered how differently they might read works other than their own and thought a poem made up of first lines from his own work might make a suitable bench mark for such an experiment. It also might sound good, he added.

So here is a "poem" made up by me from first lines of W.S. Graham poesm (I have introduced end-line punctuation for self-evident reasons) for you to ponder, to read aloud and discover if you sound any different than you thought you would. (remember, though, that the poet himself will be listening, a slight smile of expectation and pleasure on his face!):

I always meant to only
SOUND a long blast,
Dear who I mean but more
In the small hours on the other side.
In reply to your last letter
I leave this at your ear for when you wake;
So does the sea,
The ear the answer.
This is only a note
Burned in this element,
Very gently struck
To set the scene. It is April;
To set the scene. The kirk;
To set the scene. The night.
Welcome then anytime. Fare:
This morning I am already if you are
Since all my steps taken;
Listen. Put on morning,
I have my yellow boots on to walk:
When who we think we are is suddenly,
A day the wind was hardly
Beginning to be very still.
Far from liberty at hand held for ever.
Meanwhile, surely, there must be something to say:
It does not matter how you are how are,
Are you to say goodnight;
come, dodge the deathblow if you can.
Gently disintegrate me
Here next the chair I was when winter went.
Now listen, for this I tell:
Night winked and endeared;
I love I love you tucked away -
There was when morning fell:
Language, ah, now there you have me. Night-time tongue,
This is only a note:
Men sign the sea.
Clearly I tap to you clearly
whatever you've come hear to get;
Each other we meet but live grief rises early,
Many without elegy interpret a famous heart:
Flame and garden we are together;
what does it matter if the words
Let me all ways from the deep heart;
What is the language using us for?
Shut up. Shut up. There's nobody here.

I hope your reading confirmed that poets collect their own atmospheres (even under these rather eccentric circumstances): like birds sitting on their nests.

I suppose I must have one: a cross between myself and how, ideally, I want to project what it is I feel.

Most of this is vocal, of course, so you can easily imagine the skeletal human being when you hear T.S. Eliot read; or the troubadour in Ezra Pound; or the crotchet in Edith Sitwell; or the resounding, flushed amplifications of Dylan Thomas.

I think a lot of this is learned, assumed, like any public persona.

Thus, George Barker hymned to you; W.S. Graham made/the lines/sound/like this in a crisp, Scottish way; Harold Pinter sounds like a soldier, ready for battle; William Empson moved over the words like an ice skater; Richard McKane resembles a favourite uncle offering tea to a favourite relative; John Horder wants you to lend him your ear and eye; David Gascoyne is trance-like; Jeremy Reed almost ties himself up in the seduction of his knots; Jay Ramsay is a cloud full of birds. In contrast, all the Russians I've heard, sound like telephone directories speaking (knowing the language though, might help!); and many others - too many - simply, and pretty boringly, assume the rational, level-headed tone of the teacher.

It's also interesting to speculate on the atmosphere of the poets you've never heard: would you be able to hear Rilke? How would Shakespeare himself come across?

But poets are not merely public. They are entirely silent for long periods of time, as they write.

I'm not sure what they look like then, because I have only rarely seen a poet writing poetry and when I have, they seemed entirely motionless and abstracted.

Perhaps the answer is to look at the paper on which they have been working (advisedly, after they have finished).

This is not an easily accessible task. Poets are precisely very private about such things.

However, I have recently had the good fortune to have several notebooks before me as I worked on editing W.S Graham's 'Complete Poems' (never published).

What came through was that the intensity of the creative work simply could only be sustained for short periods and was juxtaposed with lighter, often funny rhymes and doodlings, by way of natural relief.

W.S. Graham was good at both, beautiful handwriting included.

But the shaping, the actual work, repeated and repeated until achieved or otherwise, leaves me with the final image of a man completely alone, nourished only by his desire to communicate in a shape of words he finds acceptable, touching the stars where possible, his head down with the weight of it all, his eyes squinting at the sight of it all, his fingers searching achingly for the only connection possible to write the right thing in the right way.

Whenever we read a poem we like, we should think of that - and then read out loud what we have been fortunate enough to overhear!







This essay was first published in Envoi magazine and subsequently in "A Short Book of Poets" (Acorn Publications, 2001). Copyright Geoffrey Godbert, 2001 and 2007.


Geoffrey Godbert

A Memoir of W.S. Graham

Twenty-five or more years ago I visited W.S. Graham, possibly for the first time. I wrote a brief diary of the experience. This is it, complete with the present tense of those times:

The only way I can afford to visit W.S. Graham is by overnight non-sleeper train (a bus would have taken too long) from Paddington to Penzance. The ten-hour journey, crunched on a seat, sleeping fitfully as the night inevitably makes way for the dawn over the sea, leaves both the nerve-ends and complacency suitably ragged and alert: ideal for this particular odyssey.

W.S. Graham lives in a small, terraced cottage twenty minutes from Penzance at the village of Madron. He has lived in Cornwall for many years, although his Scots' accent is undiminished, as is his poetry, and, delightfully, his love of operatic arias which he brought down to the West.

With him is his wife, Nessie (Nessie Dunsmuir, also a poet in her own right) an alert, happy Scots' woman, and their wise cat. Both of them communicate successfully with their husband and master in a way each completely understands. As Nessie says: "When I first saw Sydney all those years ago, I thought, that's my man. I knew." The cat (whose name I never discovered) purrs approvingly. Certainly, husband's and master's affection for both companions is unalterable. He has dedicated his poetry to Nessie, and, on my visit, has recently completed a fairy story about the cat. In it, the cat's food is flown in daily, and exotically, from Russia.

If W.S. Graham is not at home when you call, he is probably out walking, so you wait.

He is, at 57, stocky, rosy-cheeked, his blue eyes wide, grey hair combed in what Nessie likes to refer to as ringlets. He will tell you that his hair is dyed grey, always has been; but soon he intends to let the natural colour grow through. It is a whimsical point, and one that is central to the way W.S. Graham views social time-passing and combats the day-to-day. "I have nothing" he says, not quite seriously, "because I have everything", a juxtaposition of opposites very dear to his heart.

He carries this attitude through to his clothes and his home. Both are well-used, casual, unselfconscious and loved: an eye-catching blue/grey corduroy jacket fits him encouragingly (although Nessie confesses, she might have overwashed it); large, yellow boots are worn with neat pride, poking out brightly from narrow trouser-bottoms. A ruffled shirt collar lies around his distinguished poetry-singing throat.

And so with his home. The sitting room is low, and appears to be made to accommodate him alone. (Nessie's presence is diaphanous, her femininity eminently capable of "disappearing").

It is a comfortable sprawl of open records, empty record sleeves, and books, which have a battered utility about them, as though in constant use.

W.S. Graham's paintings of Cornwall, along with other visual inspirations in the style of Alfred Wallis, decorate the walls and surfaces of the room, unless, I am told, he has a spate of giving away too many. By the window lies his large, low, pine writing table, a kitchen table suitably made for practical purposes. It is covered with papers and leaflets, as if in the aftermath of a whirlwind, for almost three-quarters of its depth. To one side is his seat and before that the space on the table for reading (aloud) and (type) writing his poetry. Also on the table are W.S. Graham's experienced hands, alive with smoke from a chain of cigarettes, while underneath their smoke, is the table top itself, remarkably decorated with patterns of cigarette burns, made, I imagine, when smoking is overlooked and a poem is on-going.

His hands are central to him as a figure of a man. They can do so many things: tie his wide, brown boot-laces, shave his face, hold a pen, and coax a typewriter keyboard into poetry. They also perform remarkable emotional acts, not least a tremendous backhand sweep across his mouth when he is about to enact some imagined scene. They also seem to be the vital weight which finally pulls him slowly over when he pretends to begin to fall. He particularly enjoys pretending to fall, especially when seated; the object is at first obscure, but is perhaps an instinctive, physical interruption to the mere conversation going on, a way of him saying "To hell with this. Real love means holding me up."

He is not a tall man, and has a solidity which is immensely embraceable: it is easy to understand anyone wanting to hold him, because, unlike the lean and hungry, his body is a very lived-in and human place. Underneath his shapely hair, which gives the impression of permanent anticipation, are his blue eyes, looking with intense alertness, and his eyebrows, falling, shaping and re-shaping themselves, giving the clearest indication of his inner moving. Sometimes, they change from mock-ferocity - will I this time remain ferocious? he dares - to childlike fun, registered only by the slant (or otherwise) of the creases beginning at his temples.

His evanescent humour is also a special mixture, a combination of a knowing body display, allied to a verbal pleasure of a very charming innocence (which very occasionally becomes cranky, immediately resulting in