Hearing the Words: ‘The Nightfishing’ by W.S. Graham

Louise Glück, in her essay Invitation and Exclusion[1], argues for poetry that requires a listener or a reader rather than that which is merely overheard, contrasting Eliot, whose ‘cri du coeur craves a listener who becomes, by virtue of his absorption, [the poet’s] collaborator’ with Wallace Stevens: ‘Stevens’ meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard’.  Some readers regard the work of W.S. Graham, with its enduring preoccupation with language, as metapoetry, exclusive because it is concerned with the writing of poetry, rather than with the world.  This is very far from the truth as can be demonstrated from an analysis of The Nightfishing, pivotal in the poet’s career. Graham’s poem is about the sea, about the real sea, ‘a grey green sea, not a chocolate box sea’, a poem which he hoped would make ‘somebody seasick ( a good unliterary measurement)’;[2] it is a very Romantic poem with its outsider hero off on a quest:

            Now within the dead 

            Of night and the dead 

            Of all my life I go.

                                                (p.105)[3]

Moreover, as the ‘seasick’ comment suggests, it is a thoroughly physical poem, written to be heard, whose hypnotic rhythms drew me in many years ago, before I even tried to understand it.

The opening of the poem, like that of Dante’s Inferno, places us somewhere that is immediately recognisable yet obviously allegoric, suggesting that the narrator has reached a crucial point in his life and is about to embark on a journey, we imagine, a journey of discovery:

                        Very gently struck

                        The quay night bell.

                        Now within the dead 

Of night and the dead 

Of my life I hear

My name called from far out.

                                                                        (p.105)

This summoning bell tolls or knells faintly throughout the poem, offering both a sense of mortality, especially since it is introduced here alongside the repetition of ‘dead’, and a feeling of security or stability as it anchors us to the land, to the quay from and to whose ‘open arms’ the voyager travels and returns. However, this is balanced or contradicted by the poet’s preoccupation with flux, often suggested to derive from Heraclitus. Be that as it may, Graham sees the instant as the only living reality, while all the moments of the past are a heritage of dead selves:

                        Within all the dead of

                        All my life I hear

                        My name spoken out

                        On the break of the surf.

                        I, in Time’s grace,

                        The grace of change, am

                        Cast into memory.

                        What a restless grace 

                        To trace stillness on.

                                                            (p.105)

The poem is a psychic drama and a poetic meditation dressed up in a very physical, tactile language of reality. Indeed, one of Graham’s themes or purposes is the relation of language to reality. In all his letters about the poem, Graham insists on the reality of the sea while also establishing it as a metaphor, something which becomes possible in this poem because the sea is envisioned as the ground[4] of being.  The Nightfishing is often recognised to be in a tradition of literary works about the sea; I have seen references to Moby Dick and The Wreck of the Deutschland. I am strongly reminded of The Ancient Mariner, particularly because of the dead selves Graham carries with him on his voyage.  Whatever its literary antecedents, the poem is strikingly effective in its evocation of the Atlantic waters fished by Scottish fishermen. When I first read the poem, I assumed that it was set off the coast of Cornwall, but the few geographical references are apparently to Scotland: ‘the Mor light’ ‘the Black Rosses’, ‘Skeer’, although these names are generically Gaelic rather than specific:

‘The place names in this section have a Scottish flavour, suggesting that Graham was thinking of a voyage beginning in the Firth of Clyde, and moving out past the islands.’[5]

                                               

          Graham did go out with fishing crews several times, so the poem reflects experience: ‘The undertow, come hard round,/ Now leans the tiller strongly jammed over/ On my hip-bone.’ (p.109) Or, hauling in the nets: ‘The headrope a sore pull and feeding its brine/Into our hacked hands.’ (p.113) The boat , with its ‘twin screws’ that ’spun sweetly’, the gear of nets, corks and bladders:

   Our mended newtanned nets, all ropes

            Loose and unkinked, tethers and springropes fast,

The tethers generous with floats to ride high,

            And the big white bladder floats at hand to heave.

                                                                                                (p.109)

all convey the reality of a working fishing trip.  The sea too as it changes through the course of the night is presented with painterly clarity, whether it is in the still moment of dawn after the nets have been set:

            Now round the boat, drifting its drowning curtains

            A grey of light begins. These words take place.

            The petrel dips at the water-fats. And quietly

            The stillness makes its way to its ultimate home.

            The bilges slap. Gulls wail and settle.

            It is us still.

                                                                                    (p.111)

or the heavy seas encountered on the return journey:

                                                The long rollers,

            Quick on the crests and shirred with fine foam,

            Surge down then sledge their green tons weighing dead

            Down on the shuddered deck-boards.

                                                                                    (p.114)

Knowledge of the sea and fishing lore feeds into the narrative:

            Yes, we’re right set, see, see them go down, the best

            Fishmarks, the gannets. They wheel high for a moment

            Then heel, slip off the bearing air to plummet

            Into the schooling sea.

                                                            (p.110)

The protagonist of the poem is the writer in the present moment of his life, but despite the abstract nature of this concept, he is presented in heroic, almost cinematic images:

                                                I turned out

                        Into the salt dark

                        And turned my collar up.

                                                                        (p.106)

There are echoes of old black and white naval movies as the hero ventures out with the crew on the mission and returns successfully with nets full of herring. Gerard Carruthers advances a loftier model for Graham’s fisherman, suggesting that the narrator is based on ‘the fisherman-apostle Peter’.  He argues that Graham’s poem is ‘underwritten by the account in Luke’s gospel where Peter has had a fruitless night of fishing on the sea of Galilee and is ordered back out by Christ. Peter proves his faith by following the command and being rewarded with a prodigious, miraculous catch’.[6]  Some of Graham’s language and rhetoric has a religious provenance; like Samuel, the narrator hears his name called: ‘I hear/ my name called from far out’ and he refers several times to ‘grace’, ‘Time’s grace, the grace of change’, the grace of the ‘instant,/ bound by its own grace’.  Nevertheless, the poem is wholly secular.To me, the narrator-protagonist is the hero of his own metaphysical romance, writing the story of himself in his head in a rhetoric which is often raised to match the heroic nature of the quest.

No matter how convincing and physical the detail of the fishing voyage, the poem is always metaphysical.  In his letter to Charles Causley, Graham writes:

…although I wanted to write about the sea it was not the sea only as an objective adventure ( if there is such a thing) but as experience surrounding a deeper problem which everybody is concerned with.

I mean the essential isolation of man and the difficulty of communication.[7]

This may be the central theme of the poem, though as Graham acknowledges in the same letter, others may read more or less into it. Certainly, he returns repeatedly to the difficulty of language in the context of time and change. He declares that only in the present instant is he alive and himself, so that it seems impossible for language and communication to be accurate and authentic: ‘Each word speaks its own speaker to his death.’(p.115) As if to reinforce the aliveness of the moment, much of the narration is in present tense, giving the impression that the ‘adventure’ is unfolding before us, moment by moment. 

            The air bunches to a wind and roused sea-cries.

            The weather moves and stoops high over us and 

            There the forked tern, where my look’s whetted on distance,

            Quarters its hunting sea.

                                                            (p. 112)

However, the poet’s view is neither as bleak nor as solipsistic as this argument might suggest. The next few lines in this stanza indicate the importance of memory, in a simile which extends the hauling in of nets to the metaphysical level: ‘I haul slowly/ Inboard the drowning flood as into memory,/ Braced at the breathside in my net of nerves.’ (p.112) A few stanzas later, there is a lapse into the past tense: ‘And then was the first/ Hand at last lifted getting us swung against/ Into the homing quarter’. (p.113) This is an implicit admission of continuity, as is the combination, in the next stanza, of the description of the voyage with the process of the poem:

            Into the running blackbacks soaring us loud

            High up in the open arms of the towering sea.

            The steep bow heaves, hung on these words, towards

            What words your lonely breath blows out to meet it.

                                                                                                (p.113)

Communication is possible, though difficult: ‘I cried headlong from my dead’. The poet’s language is built from the continuity of dead selves which have preceded the present moment and thus he is able to articulate his ‘ghostly constant’.(p.111)  It is the possibility of memory, continuity and communication that permit the inclusion of the ballad-style section 2, with its reference to his birth:

            When I fell from the hot to the cold

            My father drew his whole day’s pay,

            My mother lay in a set-in bed,

            The midwife threw my bundle away.

                                                                        (p.107)

and also, what seems to be a love poem, section 4, using, Graham claims, the rhythm ‘I took from an early poem I came across in the MSS of early Scots poetry, from the Ballantyne MS.’[8] Although the section reiterates the idea of change and death from one moment into the next, he sets this against the possibility of love and a home whose identity is not put into words:

            O my love, keep the day

            Leaned at rest, leaned at rest.

            What one place remains

            Home as darkness quickens?

                                                            (p.117)

So, despite, the difficulty of communication we realise that Graham is not speaking simply to himself; rather, he is speaking as himself and as a representative human being to others, with the hope though not necessarily the expectation of being heard. As he puts it in a later poem:

            What does it matter if the words

            I choose, in the order I choose them in,

            Go out into a silence I know

            Nothing about, there to be let

            In and entertained and charmed

            Out of their master’s orders?  And yet

            I would like to see where they go

            And how without me they behave.[9]

W.S. Graham is said to have been a man at once gregarious and shy, who sometimes found social interactions awkward but who enjoyed a number of intense and valued friendships. ‘The Nightfishing ’ overcomes isolation, not only in its address to the other in section 4, but in its recognition of companionship throughout the voyage. The ‘we’ he uses so often is not simply the collection of dead selves, but other members of the crew, those who set out and hauled in the nets alongside him. As they come back into harbour:

Moored here, we cut the motor quiet. He that

I’m not lies down. Men shout. Words break. I am

My fruitful share.

                                    (p.116)

 His poetry is difficult and his meanings often elusive but his focus on language arises out of his recognition of its centrality to our humanity, as that which articulates our ‘ghostly constant’ allowing us, despite our instant to instant, and final, mortality, the possibility of memory and communication:

            So I spoke and died.

            So within the dead

            Of night and the dead

            Of all my life those

            Words died and awoke.

                                                (p.120)

In addition to books cited above, I have found the following helpful:

Give Me your Painting Hand, W. S. Graham and Cornwall, by David Whittaker, Wavestone Press, 2015.

SINGER, LAVINIA. “Significant Shapes: W. S. Graham’s Painting Poems.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 60–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725259. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

WILKINSON, JOHN. “The Weight of Words: W. S. Graham’s Lyric Poetry.” Chicago Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2/3, 2018, pp. 40–57. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26725257. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.

Natalie Pollard, ‘The pages are bugged’: The Politics of Listening in the Poetry of W. S. Graham, The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 1–22, https://doi.org/10.1093/camqtly/bfq001


[1] Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1999

[2] Letter to Alan Clodd, 1955

[3] All quotations from ‘The Nightfishing’ taken from New Collected Poems, ed. Matthew Francis, Faber and Faber, paperback 2005.

[4] I recognise that this word seems inappropriate, but it is perhaps the flux and instability of the sea which makes it Graham’s founding metaphor.

[5] Note by Matthew Francis, editor of New Collected Poems,Faber and Faber, 2004.

[6] Gerard Carruthers Born in a diamond, screeched from a mountain pap, The Hugh MacDiarmid Lecture, 2018,Studies in Scottish Literature, p.18

[7] Letter 84 in The Nightfisherman, Selected Letters of W.S.Graham, edited by Michael and Margaret Snow, Carcanet, 1999

[8] Letter to Norman McLeod, number 95 in The Nightfisherman

[9] ‘Approaches to how they behave’, from Malcolm Mooney’s Land, New Collected Poems, p.178

2 thoughts on “Hearing the Words: ‘The Nightfishing’ by W.S. Graham”

  1. I’ve come across the work of W.S. Graham before but didn’t know much of the background on his work. Thank you so much for this article and for the references.

    Like

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