BMPF 2018 Honours Cornish Poet W. S. Graham

Several events on this year's calendar are dedicated to Graham's life and work.

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Had he been alive, this coming November writer and poet William Sydney Graham, more commonly known as W. S. Graham, would have been celebrating his centenary.

While his poetry remained largely under the radar in the life, with the endorsement of people such as Harold Pinter and Michael Schmidt Graham’s work has seen an steady increase in acknowledgment over the passing years. His poetry is now well known both critically and publicly for its portrayal of the Cornish landscape and its coastal life.

Born in Scotland, Graham moved down to Germoe in a caravan with his then-girlfriend in 1943. Apart from a brief stint teaching in America, Graham would spend most of his adult life in Cornwall, living in various places along the coast, such as Mevagissey, Gurnard’s Head, and Madron. As a result, Graham’s poetry is imbued with aspects of the Cornish landscape, and largely rooted in in the coastal environment.   

 The picturesque town of St Ives

The picturesque town of St Ives

Graham was a prominent figure in St Ives, which in the 1950s and 60s was had a thriving artistic community. He became close with many of the painters that lived and worked there, such Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton, apparently bonding with Wynter over their shared love of  puns. The artist’s abstract style of artwork would serve to influence Graham’s own writing over the years. 

His most famous and widely acclaimed work is considered to be his long poem The Nightfishing. Telling the story of a night with a group of fishermen in the North Sea as they work their way through a storm, it is drawn from his own experiences working with a local fishing crew in Megavgissey. The poem is ingrained in coastal and oceanic imagery, the writing simply laid out yet full of complex metaphors. Even from the opening stanzas the reader is firmly set in the place of a sailor going out to sea:

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Graham’s poetry sadly went largely unnoticed by the masses during his lifetime. He suffered through much financial hardship in his life, and had to at times rely on the generosity of his friends to supplement the finds his writing could not provide.

Luckily his posthumous reputation is growing, and at the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival this year we are celebrating his life and work through a number of different events. Writer, poet and critic Tony Lopez will be conducting a talk on Graham and his connection to Cornwall, while Luke Antysz and Tristan Sturrock will be respectively performing and narrating a solo dance piece based on The Nightfishing. These will hopefully do justice to the Scottish writer who embraced Cornwall as much as Cornwall embraced him.

by Seren Livie