Graham, (William) Sydney (19181986), poet, was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, on 19 November 1918, the elder child and elder son of Alexander Graham (18841954), marine engineer, of Greenock, and his wife, Margaret McDermid (18821940), shopkeeper. After leaving Greenock high school at fourteen, he completed an apprenticeship in engineering. In 19389 he attended Newbattle Abbey Adult Education Residential College, near Edinburgh, where he responded enthusiastically to the literature and philosophy courses. Early Scottish and Anglo-Saxon literature, modern writers including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, pre-Socratic philosophers, and Martin Heidegger were important influences, to which he later added Arthur Rimbaud, Marianne Moore, and Samuel Beckett.
After casual jobs in Ireland, Graham became a munitions engineer in Glasgow for a time during the Second World War, when he wrote The Seven Journeys (published later in 1944). David Archer, a publisher and philanthropist, provided him with practical support, publishing Cage without Grievance (1942) and facilitating lively friendships in Glasgow and London with, among others, Jankel Adler, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Dylan Thomas, and (F.) John Minton. Bohemian life promoted both Graham's development and heavy drinking. Published in 1945, 2ND Poems (a play on the words To Nessie Dunsmuir) continued the intense, romantic, semi-surreal language which both he and Dylan Thomas had derived in part from Joyce. Graham valued his early work (omissions from the Collected Poems, 19421977, 1979, arose from misunderstandings about available space), which was intelligently evaluated by the critic Vivienne Koch in American journals. She became a close friend. His Atlantic award for literature in 1947 and his teaching at New York University in 19478 increased his circle of friends. He also visited Greece in 1964 and 1977 and Iceland in the 1960s; some of his poems drew on those experiences.
Faber and Faber accepted The White Threshold (1949) and became Graham's principal publishers. T. S. Eliot, a director there, admired his excellent knowledge and craftsmanship and said at one of their meetings that Graham's poetry was difficult and would sell slowly because people did not like to think. His work certainly required the reader's full attention, which he gained at his impressive public readings in Britain and abroad, by the moving dramatic art and clarity of his definitive delivery. The Nightfishing (1955), Malcolm Mooney's Land (1970), and Implements in their Places (1977), the last two both Poetry Book Society choices, deployed a language increasingly transparent and exactly tuned to explore the essential separateness of each human experience in a world of flux. They displayed the desperate need to communicate, and the obdurate strangeness of language itself as medium and metaphor. Graham's themes were developed through sharply observed images, highly personal and presented with urgency through a musical poetry rich in structure and feeling. The work, like his own voice, had a Scottish timbre. The originality with which he enlivened and disturbed language was that of a thoroughly radical, modern, international tradition. This work, taken together with his simpler, lyrical pieces, made his achievement outstanding and of permanent importance.
Graham's poems, which did not fit any of the prevailing fashions, but nevertheless attracted a constant interest among serious readers, were published by several magazines in Britain, North America, and Europe, and were broadcast by the BBC. After 1944 Graham lived chiefly in Cornwall, often writing during the night after evenings spent with friends or literary visitors in his local pub. His work's excellence, together with his own professional integrity, inspired support from a number of friends, poets, and painters who gave practical help or bought manuscripts. His remarkable letters, mostly in private hands, run parallel to his poetry, showing his loneliness, need to communicate, and deep feeling for his many friends. They throw light on his working methods, often containing verse and detailed criticism. Full of word play, they are startling, honest, sharp, and deeply humorous. He concentrated on poetry almost exclusively, having worked only very briefly on the land, as a copywriter, fisherman, or auxiliary coastguard when living at Gurnard's Head in Cornwall. Small grants from the Arts Council helped and a civil-list pension of £500 a year was granted him in 1974.
Graham had curly dark hair, very piercing blue eyes, and was 5 feet 8 inches in height with a slim physique. He loved music and had a good singing voice. Proud to be Scottish, he was witty, positive, and assertive, dominating conversations and demanding patience from his friends, which was usually freely given. His generosity of spirit inspired much affection and respect. In October 1954 he married Agnes (Nessie) Kilpatrick (19091999), daughter of David Dunsmuir, miner, of Blantyre. They had no children, but Graham acknowledged a daughter, Rosalind, born in 1944 to Mary Harris. Agnes had been a fellow student at Newbattle. During their close relationship they lived in distinctly spartan conditions; she provided material as well as moral support and always steadfast encouragement. From 1967 they lived at 4 Mountview Cottages, Madron, Cornwall, where Graham died from cancer, after a long illness, on 9 January 1986. He was cremated at Truro crematorium, Cornwall, and his ashes were scattered on the River Clyde, Scotland.
Michael Seward Snow, rev.
J. Davidson and R. Duncan, The constructed space: a celebration of the poet W. S. Graham (1994) · T. Lopez, The poetry of W. S. Graham (1989) · The nightfisherman: selected letters of W. S. Graham, ed. M. Snow and M. Snow (1999) · personal knowledge (1996) · private information (1996) [Nessie Graham] · The Times (14 Jan 1986) · The Guardian (14 Jan 1986) · Glasgow Herald (15 Jan 1986) · The Cornishman (16 Jan 1986) · Irish Times (20 Jan 1986) · The Scotsman (25 Jan 1986)
National Archives of Canada, Ottawa
NL Scot., corresp. and literary papers
Royal College of Art, London
UCL | JRL, corresp. with Michael Schmidt
NL Scot., letters to Sven Berlin
NL Scot., letters to J. F. Hendry
NL Scot., letters to William Montgomerie and Norah Montgomerie
NL Scot., letters to Ruth Rosen with associated corresp.
NL Scot., letters to R. Crombie Saunders
University of Victoria, British Columbia, Macpherson Library, MSS and literary papers
BBC Sound archives, poetry readings 1960, 1968, 1978
M. Snow, photographs, repro. in The nightfisherman, ed. Snow and Snow · photograph, repro. in C. Barker, ed., Portraits of poets (1986)