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.


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!).


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

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