“Here I am at my table in the middle of the night going over your book again and reading softly aloud (not to wake Nessie asleep upstairs) certain passages to try them on my tongue. M’dear (allow the Cornishism), it is a good rich book filled with new things for me. The quality of your voice I like. I find it immediately near me and not so far away as anybody might think. I think the advent of your verse is going to help our contemporary English poetry (Whatever that is.) and batter fashion a bit. You speak with the real authority in this `timeless’ voice. The critics, the reviewers, will take a long time scurrying about to decide how to receive you.”
The book W.S. Graham (1918-1986) reads aloud is C.H. Sisson’s Anchises (1976), as recounted in a letter to that poet on Jan. 24, 1977 (The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham, 1999). The critics still haven’t decided how to receive Sisson – or Graham, a poet I only recently started reading, thanks largely to Marius Kociejowski. The better English poets, despite a common language, often don’t travel well to the U.S. In The Pebble’s Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014), Kociejowski includes “`Do Not Expect Applause’: W.S. Graham in Performance.” He describes his first meeting with Graham, in 1976, when he introduced him at a reading in London:
“I had been asked, because astonishingly nobody else was available, to introduce him at the Poetry Society in Earls Court Square. Admittedly I didn’t want to: I knew nothing at all about him or his poetry and I’ve never been one to fake enthusiasm. Graham was, at that point, an unknown quantity for most poets of my own generation [Kociejowski was born in Canada in 1949], and already he was in danger of being forgotten by the one that came before.”
The 2010 special issue of Agenda (Vol. 45, No. 2) devoted to Sisson includes “A Jumble of Letters,” five of which he wrote to Graham. This one is dated Sept. 11, 1977, in which he praises Graham’s newly published collection:
“Implements in Their Places is a marvellous book. I don’t think there is any of it that is away from the sleight of your true hand, and of what other poet’s book, for many a year, can the like be said? Hardly a one.” He goes on: “More than anybody, you seem to have that determination not to speak –well, not to publish—until you have heard the authentic word, which is also the authentic rhythm.”
The friendship between Sisson and Graham may seem unlikely. Sisson for thirty years worked in the Civil Service, retiring in 1972 as director of Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Employment. He carried the rank of Under Secretary, though no one would confuse him with a stereotyped robotic bureaucrat. Graham conformed more closely to the image of poet-as-bohemian. Neither man, as poet, was a careerist. Neither played the poetry game, sucking up to the right people. Both were difficult and defiantly their own men. Graham had his problems with money and alcohol, as Kociejowski documents, while Sisson was sober and sober-minded. Their mutual admiration was rooted not in social/professional choreography but in their poetry.
In 1967, Sisson sent Graham a copy of “The Disincarnation,” a poem of one hundred six-line stanzas collected in In the Trojan Ditch (1974) and Collected Poems (1998). On Aug. 26, Graham acknowledges receipt of the poem and writes: “It’s a rare beast, on its own and apart from any prevalent trends. It is difficult usually to get articulate reactions from anybody the poet shows his poem to. May I, with all respect, and as somebody else concerned with the medium make some remarks about it.” Graham praises “the easy, throw-away, disarming” first stanza:
“The individual is the thing
Or it is either me or you.
Not care which way I sing
So long as I can somehow start.”
Graham goes on to read the poem like a poet: “I like the bare distribution (texture) of low-tension words.” And, “Anyhow I like the whole poem, as a technical object and what it says.” Nine days later, on Sept. 4, Sisson responds: “It is a satisfaction to know that the poem has been not only received, but read, and by such a reader. I am particularly grateful for your technical re-assurances. I thought this stanza was right for the purpose.”
On Dec. 31, 1967, Graham writes to Sisson: “Without diminishing at all the responsibility of the poet’s intention the poem never goes through the ‘space’ between the poet and the reader without distortion. But the distortion is necessary and its ultimate value in the mind of the reader is the poem plus his best effort of beholding.”
Kociejowski takes the first half of his essay’s title from what he calls “one of the great dramatic monologues of recent times”: “Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons,” collected in the beautifully titled Implements in Their Places (Faber & Faber, 1977). It was the last volume Graham would publish during his lifetime, though he lived until 1986. Here are the final lines of the poem:
“What can I say more?
Do not be sentimental or in your Art.
I will miss you. Do not expect applause.”