From My Poetry Bookshelf – The Nightfishing by WS Graham

The second in my (weekly?) series of posts about poets whose work I go back to regularly, and whose writing has influenced my own work, is about WS Graham, particularly in relation to his poem The Nightfishing.

Born in Greenock in 1918, Graham moved to Cornwall in 1944, where he lived until his death in 1986. Whilst more well-known poets such as TS Eliot and Hugh Macdiarmid supported his work, Graham wasn’t particularly successful during his lifetime, and he lived in near poverty, surviving, just, on his income as a writer, until receiving a civil list pension of £500 per year in 1974.

Since his death, his reputation has grown (perhaps due to being championed by Harold Pinter .

Should you be interested, in finding out more about Graham’s life and work, there’s a brilliant article here in the London Review of Books.

https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n14/seamus-perry/what-a-carry-on

His most well-known poem may well be The Nightfishing, which was published in 1955 (to disappointing sales). I’m lucky to have a first edition of The Nightfishing, though for reading purposes I obviously tend to refer to my well thumbed New Collected Poems .

So what of the poem itself? It’s a long poem of circa 500 lines in seven sections. Seamus Perry, in the aforementioned review described it as “one of those rare poems that consciously sets out to be a masterpiece and pulls it off”. It starts on a fishing boat leaving harbour to catch herring, moving into a meditation on memory and recollection of the past.

Very gently struck The quay night bell

To quote Douglas Dunn from the forward of the New Collected, “could these opening lines of The Nightfishing be any more evocative, authoritative, exact, and as wonderful as they are?”

As with much great poetry, it is the silences between words that make all the difference. The language is clear and precise. There is use of repetition, rhythm and imagery in unusual and distinct ways.

Across our moving local of light the gulls go in a wailing slant.

Again, quoting Dunn’s commentary, “Graham’s is a poetry very much of voice or sound, but with doses of self kept to a minimum, although there can be heard an audible voice of character. He saw his poems as events, that would ‘disturb the language'”.

The poem, and much of Graham’s other work is rooted in place – in this case the fisheries of the Clyde of the 1950s, and yet it still has resonance today. It’s a poem to read in one go, and to re-read in it’s entirety or in part, picking up images and different interpretations on the way.

It’s also a poem to read out loud. Graham meant for his poetry to be heard – and would amend and rework his poems accordingly. You can hear him reading The Nightfishing here.

It’s one of my favourite poems. His collected works is an often referred to book on my bookshelf.

You can order it from Bookshop here (and yes, I do get a small commission for every book sold via this link!).

https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. Any comments welcomed.

From My Poetry Bookshelf – Mark Doty

This is the first in a new series of posts where I will be recommending poets and poetry books from my own bookshelf. They may be full reviews of specific titles, or more general pieces about why I like and return to specific writers / books or particular poems.

Part of my strategy for developing this blog this year is to be more outward looking – this may be in terms of poetry books, magazines, competitions, events etc.

There are a few reasons for this, not just that I don’t want to come across as a complete narcissist!

As for these particular posts, if you are interested in finding out more, and potentially buying the book I have recommended, you can find a link to my Bookshop.org page. I’ve chosen Bookshop as opposed to some of the more obvious options since they support local independent bookshops. Yes, if you do buy from my page I’ll make a small amount of commission, but that isn’t the real motivation (though it would be nice to make back some of my blog hosting costs!).

The first poet I am recommending is Mark Doty.

Mark is a resident of New York (hence the accompanying photograph of the High Line in New York, from my holiday there in 2019…different times). I have two collections of his – Theories and Apparitions (2008) and Deep Lane (2015) – both available from Cape in the UK.

Much of the poetry of both of these books is rooted in place. There are memorable poems whose starting points are apparently mundane – the closure of his favourite barbers – This Your Home Now (Deep Lane) , and a close encounter with a truck in downtown New York – Citizens (Theories & Apparitions). Both develop into something completely different – meditations on life, death, personal history and who we really are.

Deep Lane includes nine poems based loosely around a country lane near where he lives (or lived at the time of writing them). Nature poems that can also be seen as intimate poems of personal reflection. The language is beautiful, straightforward yet often with several layers to its’ meaning. Not all of which are apparent on first reading.

In both collections there are poems about other poets, often those whose work has influenced Doty’s own. In Apparition (from Theories and Apparitions), Doty encounters the ghost of Alan Dugan

Bitter wind off a metal harbor
and here’s Alan Dugan crossing 15th Street
as if he owns it, sharp new jacket
just the shade of that riffled steel

– why shouldn’t the dead sport
a little style?

There are many other ghosts in Doty’s work, and references to big issues and concerns, but to me the poetry, (at least in the collections that I have read), is never depressing or overtly sentimental.

As I’m new to this here’s a quote by Gerald Stern (another American poet) who sums up Doty’s work better than I could.

Mark Doty writes with absolute exactitude, with one eye on the ideal or absolute and one on the real; the ghost of Walt Whitman on one hand, and a laundromat on 16th Street in New York on the other. There is not a finer, more delicate, more sublime poet writing today in the English language. It’s a poet’s job to show us what we knew but never saw before; and it’s a poet’s job to tell us over and over what love is. Doty is this poet.–Gerald Stern

If you like what you’ve read then you can find both of these books on my expanding virtual bookshelf here;

https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

I’ll finish this post with the aforementioned Citizens, which I have read at a couple of open-mic events in the past (don’t worry – I didn’t claim it as my own!).

Any thoughts or comments welcomed

Citizens

The light turns and I’m stepping
onto the wide and empty crosswalk on Eighth Avenue,
nothing between the white lines but a blowing riffle

of paper when this truck –
all unnecessary red gleam – roars on the avenue from 20th,
the driver turns his wheels inches from my knees

even though I jump back
out of the way, and before I’ve even thought I’m yelling
what are you doing, act like a citizen

though it’s clear from the face
already blurred past me he’s enjoying this, and I shout Asshole
and kick at the place where his tire was with my boot.

If I carried a sharp instrument
I could scrape a long howl on his flaming paint job
(just under the gold and looming logo: DEMOLITION)

and what kind of citizen
does this thought make me, quivering and flummoxed
by contradictory impulses: to give a speech on empathy

or fling my double latte
across his back windshield, though who knows what
he might do then. He’s stuck in traffic and pretends

I’m not watching him looking
in my direction, and people passing doubtless think who is
this idiot fulminating to himself,

or probably they don’t;
they’ve got trouble of their own. Here’s a story:
two pilgrim monks arrive at a riverbank

where an old lady’s weeping,
no way to cross, and though they’ve renounced
all traffic with women, one man hoists her on his shoulders

and ferries her over the water.
Later his friend is troubled: How could you touch her
when you vowed not to?
 And the first monk says, I put her down

on the other side of the river,
why are you still carrying her?
 Midday’s so raw and dirty
I can’t imagine anyone here’s pleased with something just now,

and I’m carrying the devil
in his carbon chariot all the way to 23rd, down into the subway,
rolling against the impersonal malice of the truck that armors him

so he doesn’t have to know anyone.
Under the Port Authority I understand I’m raging
because that’s easier than weeping, not because I’m so afraid

of scraping my skull
on the pavement but because he’s made me erasable,
a slip of a self, subject to. How’d I get emptied

till I can be hostaged
by a dope in a flaming climate-wrecker? I try to think
who made him so powerless he craves dominion over strangers,

but you know what?
I don’t care. If he’s one of those people miserable for lack
of what is found in poetry, fine.

It’s not him I’m sorry for.
It’s every person on this train burrowing deeper uptown
as if it were screwing further down into the bedrock.

Heavy hands on the knees,
weary heads nodding toward the floor or settling
against the glass. When did I ever set anything down?