Monday, 19 November 2018


Listen. Put on light break.
Waken into a miracle.
     (from W S Graham's 'Listen.  Put on morning')

19th November 1918:  W S Graham's birthday.  It's good to see this rather neglected but brilliant poet being celebrated in his centenary year.

I first encountered his work in an anthology.  It was a short poem titled 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons'.  I was hooked.  I borrowed his Faber Selected and discovered there were another four wonderful verses to the Quantz poem.  To me Graham's work was an intoxicating mix of the lyricism of Dylan Thomas and the Modernist rigour of T S Eliot.

Graham was born and grew up in Greenock.  He left school at 14 to take up a draughtsman's apprenticeship and then studied structural engineering.  In 1938 he won a bursary to study for a year at Newbattle Abbey adult education college (later associated with Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown - warden and student respectively).  He's regarded as a Scottish poet, although he lived much of his adult life in Cornwall.  The Scottish Poetry Library acquired his battered writing table a few years ago.  His friends were artists, and the sketches and paintings he left on scraps of paper, letters and in books show that he could have been an artist himself.

There's an exhilaration and originality to the language of Graham's poems that I find irristible.  There's that very early poem:

Listen.  Put on morning.
Waken into falling light.

There are the Scottish poems such as 'Loch Thom':

... I walked backward from fifty six
Quick years of age wanting to see
... To find Loch Thom and turned round
To see the stretch of my childhood 
Before me.'

There is the cheerful, colloquial, yet serious tone of the elegy
'Dear Bryan Wynter':

This is only a note
To say how sorry I am
You died ...
I would like to think
You were all right
And not worried ...
Bryan, I would be obliged
If you would say scout things out
For me.'

'The Night Fishing' (trawler fishing) is to me a long roller-coaster of a poem.  I find 'What Is The Language Using Us For?' difficult but I get more out of it each time I read it.

But my favourite poem remains 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons'.  The poem is in the words of the Baroque composer Quantz, addressing his pupil.  I included this poem on a course called 'Words and Music' a few years ago.  My continuing education students asked me to write another poem in the voice of Quantz's pupil.

So I did.  It's called 'Karl's flute lessons' and I wanted to combine the tone of the original poem with an imaginative recreation of the lessons.  Here's a little extract:

Every lesson was a surprise.
He asked me once to play barefoot
so I could feel the floorboards
bounce back the music.

'The sound you make must be so real that you can
touch it, that they will put down their wine glasses
and thirst for your playing.'

© Mary Robinson 2018

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