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Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

This beautifully designed book is an affectionate portrait of the poet, W.S. Graham’s life in or near Praa Sands, Carbis Bay, Mevagissey, Gunard’s Head, Zennor and Madron, Cornwall. Whittaker provides a broad impressionistic view of Graham’s life and career, makes excellent use of his correspondence, charts key publications in his poetics and poetry, and his connections with numerous artists in Fitzrovia and Cornwall. The monograph includes more than sixty photographs and portraits of Graham and others in Cornwall, includes his major poems on Cornish artists Alfred Wallis, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Bryan Winter, as well as a useful bibliography.

Early on Whittaker quotes a 1981 letter to Gavin Saunders, where Graham acknowledges that his early poems are as good as his later poetry ‘with their own particular energies’. Graham’s sense that his poetry was producing a meta-language with sound and vision uppermost has deep connections with Dylan Thomas and the neo-Romantic and modernist artists of the St. Ives community. The St. Ives connection might be said to be their joint concern with objects and process. There is the related sense that they are also variously concerned with self and place. The second is that to some extent they are mostly living and working as exiles. Although Whittaker does not make the first connection explicit or pursue deeper links, he certainly acknowledges the second. He sees Graham’s connection with artists beginning with his work on the translation of an essay on Paul Klee by Polish artist, Jankel Adler for Horizon magazine in 1942. Adler’s art, particularly his stylized faces, can be seen in the sketches and doodles that decorate Graham’s letters.

Graham first lived in gypsy caravans at some distance from the creative hubs of St. Ives working hard at his craft. From April 1945 Sven Berlin, a sculptor concerned with process, became an avid drinking partner and supplier of Benzedrine tablets, and commissioned a poem on Alfred Wallis for his Poetry London Editions book on the artist. The relationship between the two built around Wallis and the sea is clearly important to both figures. Graham used Berlin to get a copy of David Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942 and introduced him to Johnny Minton visiting from London, who in turn taught Berlin how to monotype. There was clearly a strong work ethic amongst the St. Ives community at this time, and the impact of Wallis as a fisherman and sailor resonated with both Graham. He was drawn to the process of journey and return, something that Wallis had done as part of his working life. Wallis’s paintings are significantly devoid of human figures. He was not painting his life as such. It is tempting to consider these early connections with the sea, its language and local idiolects, and ‘Unenglish’ landscape’ as the reason that Graham chose to settle permanently in Cornwall. This local material finds its way into his subsequent poetry.

Graham worked on his poetics ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ first published in Poetry Scotland in July 1946, which Whittaker quotes extensively from:

‘The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is
made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing
soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words. It is
words of a certain order, good or bad by the significance of its
addition to life …

Each word changes every time it is brought to life. Each single
word uttered twice becomes a new word each time. You cannot
twice bring the same word into sound …

The poem is more than the poet’s intention. The poet does not
write what he knows but what he does not know …’

About the poem, ‘The Nightfishing’, he wrote to Charles Causley that
‘Leonardo da Vinci has curious drawings in his notebooks of poured water and its currents and momentum and storms and driven tides and in a way I wanted to use those kinds of very physical phenomena in whatever real action was represented.’

Whittaker shows Graham living a materially meagre existence in remote Cornwall participating within a community of outsiders drawn to work individually on the edge of society. This community allowed access to intelligent explorers in the visual arts. Roger Hilton, for example, saw painting as a self-contained object with its own self-referential rules of coherence based on colour and form without external referents. Clearly Hilton’s approach has parallels with Graham’s poetics.

Whittaker delineates Graham’s friendships with successive generations of St. Ives artists, from Berlin, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Winter through to Tony O’Malley and Bill Featherston and his various love affairs with Elizabeth Smart, Nancy Wynne-Jones, Ruth Hilton to produce a handy overview of the some of the important relationships in his life. Graham, who was not a loner, nevertheless appears as a lone figure, as distinct as his poetry. This is a useful celebration of W.S. Graham in Cornwall.

David Caddy 12th May 2016

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