W. S. Graham joins Edinburgh's literary walk of fame

It has been described as Scotland's answer to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, with the words of the country's finest writers preserved in stone for posterity.

Now Makars' Court, the tribute to Scottish writers in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town, has welcomed another wordsmith to its illustrious ranks with the unveiling of a memorial to poet W. S. Graham (1918–1986).

A contemporary of Edwin Morgan and Hugh MacDiarmid, it was writer Dylan Thomas who really helped to champion Greenock-born Graham’s work. While close to other writers, he was also known as a ‘poet among painters’ due to his early friendships with artists Benjamin Creme, Robert Colquhoun and Robert Kilbride, and later, when living in west Cornwall, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, and Bryan Wynter among others.

Councillor Amy McNeese-Mechan, Vice Culture and Communities Convener for the City of Edinburgh Council, said: "Makars' Court is a highlight of the Old Town tourist trail and the addition of this new inscription celebrates the centenary of W.S. Graham’s birth. Scotland – and not least its City of Literature capital – has produced an extraordinary number of accomplished writers and Makars' Court at the foot of Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum is an excellent place to celebrate their work. Thanks to the generosity of sponsors, the flagstone will be laid in June with a ceremony led by Jackie Kay.”

The tribute, which will be unveiled by the Scottish Makar Jackie Kay, poet Rachael Boast and publisher Andy Ching on Thursday 14 June at 1:00pm, will read: 

W.S. Graham (1918–1986)

What is the language Using Us For?

(from the collection: Implements in Their Places, published by Faber and Faber 1977: page 199, line 1 in New Collected Poems, Faber, 2004).

It follows tributes in 2006, 20 years after his death, when memorial plaques were unveiled in Madron in Cornwall, where he spent his final years, and at his birthplace in Greenock.
Rachael Boast, speaking on behalf of the Estate of W.S. Graham which has sponsored the tribute, said: “Starting out as an apprentice draughtsman for a Glasgow engineering firm, W. S. Graham eventually became one of the most greatly admired Scottish poets of the twentieth century.

“He spent most of his adult life in west Cornwall where a growing colony of experimental artists came to respect the determination and acute self-criticism with which he pursued his poetry. Despite being somewhat overlooked in his lifetime, Graham’s work has aged well, and a generation of young, emerging poets are finding themselves galvanized by his example.

“His influence on today’s writers and readers, of all ages, and from across the spectrum of poetic appreciation, is strong. This commemoration of his life and work through the placing of a stone in the Makars’ Court will be a symbolic homecoming for the author, one which we hope significantly contributes towards preserving and promoting his legacy for future generations.”

About W. S. Graham

William Sydney Graham was born to a working-class family in Greenock in 1918 and educated at Greenock High School. He left school at fourteen and was apprenticed as a draughtsman to a Glasgow engineering firm, and for two years attended part-time classes in structural engineering at Stow College, Glasgow.

While serving as an apprentice he took up evening classes at Glasgow University to study Art appreciation and Literature. In 1938, he was awarded a union bursary that allowed him to attend the Workers’ Education Association college at Newbattle Abbey, near Edinburgh, where he studied, among other subjects, literature, philosophy, and drama.

Graham was lucky to make important literary contacts early. He met Edwin Morgan in 1937 and first encountered the Scottish modernist firebrand Hugh MacDiarmid in Glasgow during the early years of WWII. He developed a special rapport with Dylan Thomas, who not only influenced his early work, but also helped to champion it.

Graham taught at New York University during 1947–8. In 1948, T.S. Eliot accepted Graham’s fourth collection, The White Threshold, for publication, and Faber and Faber remain his primary publisher. In 1954 he married Agnes (Nessie) Dunsmuir.

Graham’s work investigates language and community and asks key philosophical questions in an engaging, energetic and often humorous way. He is unusual in that he might be thought of as a poet among painters. He spent most of his adult life in west Cornwall where a growing colony of experimental artists came to respect the determination and acute self-criticism with which he pursued his poetry. He became close friends with Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, and Bryan Wynter, for whom he wrote elegies which are among his best-loved poems. He also became friends with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Robert Brennan, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, and Karl Weschke, among others.

This circle of friends impacted significantly on the development of his work. His background in engineering gave him a keen sense of structure and use of space, this applying as much to poetry as to engineering, or to painting. New poems from this period — including ‘Hilton Abstract’ (published in the New Statesman and Nation, January 1957) and ‘The Constructed Space’ (Poetry, October 1958) –show his work becoming more overtly concerned with the abstract and the difficulty of communication between individuals, including writer and reader – themes which would become obsessive in the poetry of what might be called his late style.

The Nightfishing was published in 1955, his poetry undergoing a startling change of idiom before he published his next book, Malcolm Mooney’s Land, in 1970. Those collections and his last, Implements in Their Places (1977), were for many readers his greatest achievement. Both received Poetry Book Society recommendations.

Graham died at home in Madron, Cornwall, on 9th January 1986 and is now widely viewed as one of the key UK poets of the late twentieth century.

About Makars' Court

Makars’ Court, an evolving national literary monument, is located beside the Writers' Museum in Lady Stairs Close. There, people can read some of the famous words of great Scottish writers inscribed in the flagstones, with quotes ranging  from the 14th century John Barbour to Dame Muriel Spark, who died in 2006. New flagstones continue to be added.

The Scots word Makar means "one who fashions, constructs, produces, prepares, etc". (Dictionary of the Scots Language), and in a literary context it is the role of the poet or author as a skilled and versatile worker in the craft of writing. We have many such wordsmiths living in Scotland, and to celebrate the importance of writers in our lives, in this UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh has adopted its own version of the Poet Laureate: the Edinburgh Makar. The office of Edinburgh Makar is currently held by the poet Alan Spence.

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