Implements in New Places: Rafferty, Graham and Bunting

Alistair Noon

The front cover of the Etruscan Books edition of Seán Rafferty's Poems shows a black and white photograph of a kitchen rail holding a series of tools, not all of them culinary: a piece of string, a pair of scissors, a ladle, an indeterminate object, a griddle, a trowel, an old twist-and-turn type corkscrew, a pair of secateurs, a dustpan brush, a potato masher, and above them some hooks. It's an aptly chosen picture. Seán Rafferty's poetry is sharply drawn and makes no fuss about itself. Some of it looks at first sight as though it's in the wrong place – is it permissible for a twentieth-century poet to use the word "abyss", for example? The poems contain a few things you'd expect and a few things you wouldn't. They feel practical too. Not so much "Implements in Their Places", as W.S. Graham's final collection was titled, as Implements in New Places.

There are ten tools on that rail, which I'll take as standing for the ten sections of Poems (1). Short lyrics on maturity and mortality begin the collection, and lead on to elegies to Rafferty's first wife. A kind of generational change is enacted in the third section: a parent addresses a child, in poems touching on childhood, growth and adolescence. Section IV returns in part to elegy, but elegy of a very different kind, a variation on the international genre of the drinking poem, namely the landlord poem (Rafferty and his second wife ran a pub in Devon for many years). Among the customers, the dead are given epitaphs and the living are satirized. The fifth section gets out of the pub and onto the land, into fields and farmyards, with poems such as 'The mower late in graveyard grass' (see Edmund Hardy's contribution to this symposium).

The shift to VI, at the mid-point of the book, represents a break both thematically and formally: two longer poems deal firstly with the end of the Second World War, and then look back from the late 1950s to the pre-war era. Section VII retunes again, this time to ballads and Rafferty's music hall songs. And VIII veers off in yet another direction: a longer narrative poem, a kind of erotically charged burlesque fairy tale. The theme of the supernatural carries over into Section IX, which counts perhaps as High Rafferty, including such poems as 'I would be Adam…' (see Kelvin Corcoran's contribution to this symposium) and 'Salathiel's Song', mostly free verse now. Here and in the final section, the themes of mortality and of age's relation to youth return. That final section is made up mostly of shorter poems – sometimes wholly or partially meta-poems – which act as a sequence of codas.

Peter Riley mentions elsewhere in this symposium the "echoic" nature of Rafferty's poetry, including Pound's influence in 'The Return to Wittenberg', which formally and tonally clearly emulates 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberly' (as Sorley MacLean also recalls on the sleeve of Poems). Eliot says hello more than once, both loudly and in a whisper, in '1945'. The combination of clear-cut imagery with metre and rhyme reverberates with Yeats, and a detailed comparative study might well back up an intuitive sense that Yeats is the source or resource for many a theme, motif, tactic or phrasing in Rafferty. Though by no means always – I can't imagine the Yeats who put the High into High Modernism stooping to the drunken homeward rant of Seán Rafferty's 'The night's as dark as a sack', which ends 'Get up you son of a bitch.'

But I'd like to listen in less to "echoes" here than to the sound made by Rafferty and two other members present at the general meeting of twentieth-century British poetry, namely Basil Bunting and W.S. Graham. The work of each is different and distinctive, and my attempt to work out connections between them derives as much simply from my liking for their poetry as from their common background as British poets fishing by night, by obstinate isles, in the wakes of the Ezra, the Thomas Stearns and the William Butler. And I haven't read enough of plenty of other people to know if they'd fit in here too. Still, I hope the sum of the comparisons at least supports a view that Rafferty's best work can be put on the same kitchen rail as Graham and Bunting, and that points of commonality are there to be found.

Let's get the biographical stuff out of the way first. Rafferty (1909 – 1993) and Graham (1918 – 1986) were both Scots who relocated to the English West Country (Devon and Cornwall respectively), after stints in London. Bunting (1900 – 1985) was also a peripheral Brit, who'd lived in literary London a decade or more earlier than Graham and Rafferty, went abroad, and then resumed residence in Northumbria. All three – in different ways – were refusers or losers in the literary game of their time. This is most extreme in Rafferty: Graham had Faber as his publisher, even if it didn't help him much in terms of critical reception, and Bunting kept in touch with the Modernist Greats, which, in terms of a secure publishing career, also didn't help him much. Rafferty pulled pints. He spent decades writing but not seeking publication, and the attention that began to be paid to him a few years before his death makes Bunting's post-'Briggflatts' renaissance at the age of 65 look like early recognition. Nor did any of them go in overly much for published poetics and criticism: Bunting gave lectures and made a few statements, Graham wrote letters, and Rafferty's extant critical prose consists of a single essay on Blake.

The backgrounds and experience are also reflected in a similar balance of the rural and the urban in their work: predominantly country-based with a few trips into town. Rafferty works through his London period in Section VI of Poems, but besides this is largely Devonian. Bunting's 'Briggflatts' is mostly out in hedgerows, with urban and historical excurses. Graham walks round the Cornish coast, and even when he thinks his way back into his Clydeside shipbuilding youth, he can't seem to get out to the Greenock hills quick enough.

A further point of biographically derived comparison – but also contrast – between these poets are their elegies. In Rafferty's elegies to his first wife the voice is intimate but impersonal, with few biographical specifics. In the following poem, this leads to a double whammy, a shaping of personal feeling combined with a debunking of poetic tradition:

Many a man that sang of love
as though his love stands there
or lies unlatched and listens
for his footstep on the stair.
But sat beside a dying fire
unwilling and afraid
that he might climb to find a ghost
cold in his sheeted bed.
(Poems, p.26)

Graham was one to name names, with elegies named for the St Ives artists he hung out with as well as the elegy-like dream poem to his father, 'To Alexander Graham'. Bunting's elegies were few and fell outside the canon he screwed together for himself, but I'd venture that 'Briggflatts', in its drawing together of the strands of an entire life, isn't just an autobiography as its author described it, but also has a non-narcissisticly auto-elegiac aspect to it. I think it's a mark of the intensity of the work of these three poets that elegy or the elegiac were things which they could do successfully – the form taps into intense personal experience and emotion, and makes use of generalizable specificities.

It's not a huge step from the elegy to another form centred on an individual who is not tagged up as being The Poet, namely the dramatic monologue. The points of comparison here are: Rafferty's 'The Reid Laird Speaks Out', sections of poems such as '1959', most copiously and humorously the music hall songs, and most strongly a poem that might be the opening track on a Rafferty Best Of, 'Salathiel's Song'; Bunting's Japanese bureaucrat-turned-hermit, 'Chomei at Toyama' (a translation and condensing), and 'The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer'; and Graham's arctic explorer in 'Malcom Mooney's Land', or the flute teacher in 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons'.

Dramatic monologue invites the poet to go beyond the short lyric – having established a character, it's a shame to ditch them after ten lines. More generally, there's a push in all three poets to aim for something between what we now know as the max-40-line lyric of the poetry competition on the one hand, and the Massive Modernist Epic on the other. The comparison is strongest here between Bunting and Graham, both with several mid-length poems built around sections. Rafferty isn't much of a section man in terms of individual poems, but I think his strongly thematic grouping of the lyrics shows a mind working in a similar, if less ambitious way. The sections of Poems, to varying degrees, do amount to more than the sum of their parts.

Running parallel to this is the titling practice of Rafferty and Bunting, both of whom left most of their shorter poems title-less; Bunting gives them a number, Rafferty not even that. The practice can seem pretentious – the poets are playing off the classical model of Horace et al.. But it does convey an extra sense of objectivity and, given the right content, a kind of humility, allowing short lyrics to accrue more meaning from the poems around them, rather than be fixed under a title. The clarity and straight-forwardness of many a Rafferty poem just doesn't need the hand on the helm that a title gives.

The biggest divergence between these three poets is apparent on the micro-level. Bunting and Graham take English and hammer a new tool out of it:

I heard the telephone ringing deep
Down in a blue crevasse
(Graham, 'Malcolm Mooney's Land')

… Elegant hope, fever of tune,
new now, next, in the fall, to be dust.
(Bunting, Uncollected Ode 11)

In the Graham quotation, the line break and initial capitalization enable multiple readings: not just the telephone ringing deep down in the crevasse, but also the telephone ringing deep, and the self trapped in ice. 'Uncollected Ode 11' takes Buntingism to its extreme: the line is near-gutted of prepositions, articles and adjectives, even verbs. The intensity of form is on the level of syntax. Here comes Rafferty though:

Old men and their mythologies. I speak now
of Alfred Woodroll once was my one customer
(Poems, p.48)

Rafferty's characteristic feature here is the elision of a relative pronoun, the missing "who" in the second line. Both this and the habit of repeating lines and half-lines (see Peter Riley's contribution to this symposium) are not syntactic innovations on a par with Bunting's or Graham's, though they are distinctive and do enough for the region of the brain that deals with poetic style.

If Rafferty had lived in the age of digital flytings, and been the kind of poet to get involved in them, he and Bunting might have got into a blog war about the pentameter (2). In Bunting polemics, Chaucer's line was more or less a cheap foreign import which saturated the market and pushed out the actual prosody of English (an idea which, in its nativism and essentialism, oddly and paradoxically aligns Bunting in one way with the Movement and their emphasis on a specifically English tradition – I guess it all depends on how far you want to go back to construct your idea of national literary identity).

Rafferty's work, by contrast is permeated by the iamb, though more often in a slightly loosened up trimeter or tetrameter than in a fixed pentameter. Roughly three-quarters of the poems in Poems are rhymed (the statistic is very approximate as poems frequently make partial use of rhyme, half-rhymes, assonances etc.). The modernist poetic in Rafferty is less in the use or non-use of rhyme and metre, more in the openness to flexibility; not in the breaking of the pentameter, but in the placing of a few well-aimed cracks in the wood. The Imagist injunctive to 'compose according to the musical phrase, not the metronome' is differently implied in Rafferty's work: have at least the beat of the metronome in mind, but compromise whenever necessary to create the musical phrase. It's Pound's brief return to rhyme and quasi-metre in 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberly' that Rafferty works through in 'The Return to Wittenberg'.

The Rafferty poems I think of as being most Raffertyesque are the ones that catch a lyric feeling –

Who call this late their last goodnight?
their roads are dark, how far their bed?
Listen. Beyond our blindfold sight
are they the living we the dead.
Who call this late their last goodnight?
(Poems, p.64, all punctuation sic)

– or character: the bar-propping hunt fan Alfred Woodroll, for example. What's also characteristic is the willingness to employ the vocabulary of some Romantic poetry:

To translate silence as the braving bird
makes visible the storm, to chart
the alp and abyss by the level word.
(Poems, Revue Sketches and Fragments, p.24)

"Abyss" is charged up here by its phonic echoing and semantic counterpointing of "alp", in effect reliteralizing the word. And tied into this is Rafferty's readiness to really go for it with the big abstract nouns and rhetorical questions of

What has despair to give
or what can pride receive?
(Poems, Revue Sketches and Fragments, p.29)

The final poem of Poems states the poetics:

Poets you may read it in
William Yeats or Hölderlin:
care for language, learn your trade
nothing is that is not made
made to stand, transparent, fine,
like the glass that holds the wine.
(Poems, p.171)

The third line might be a commonplace of life advice for poets, but the interplay of the last three lines importantly reflects on where the whole project is going. They restate in an individual and concrete way that artifice is method, not result. That "like" has two layers to it, the second ironic: yes, the poem is like the glass that holds the wine, but it isn't the wine itself. The poem is a structure for something else. In Rafferty, often, the something else is consolation in the face of death, one's own and that of others. There's no need to get metaphysical here, simply to note that a connection to the real world in some way is implied here. Not – and this is the big ambition – poetry as a notional end in itself, nor delusions of grandeur and an attempt to recover the poet's role at the side of the king, but a personal, direct use and pleasure for collections of organs, cells and proteins.

The concerns are different: Bunting's with shaping the language, Graham's for struggling with it, and Rafferty's for more or less just getting on and doing it. But if the processes, perhaps the respective heights vary, these three seem to me to be part of the same mountain range. There they are, you will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them.

(1) For the origin and development of this sequencing, largely Rafferty's own work but continued after his death by Nicholas Johnson and Rafferty's daughter Christian Coupe, see Nicholas Johnson's Afterward to Poems.
(2) The two met in 1982. I don't know whether they exchanged thoughts on poetics. I'm unaware of any contact with or even knowledge of Graham on Rafferty's part.

I'm grateful to Nicholas Johnson for information on Rafferty's literary contacts, and to Daniel Andersson and Edmund Hardy for critical comments on this piece.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed