Accès direct au contenu


Accueil  >  Abstracts and bibliographies


An experience with rhythm: W.S. Graham

David Nowell-Smith, University of Cambridge

Of the many ways in which twentieth century phenomenology has had an impact on literary criticism and the study of verse, its contribution to the thinking of rhythm is one of the most fecund and yet least explored. In the work of, among others, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, rhythm undergoes an ontologisation; that is to say, it becomes not merely a prosodic feature of spoken language but rather a means of thinking the auto-disclosure of beings within a world, and, more specifically, the movement through which language first comes to speak and sound.
Such a conception of rhythm immediately poses two problems for the study of verse itself:
1.    Does this entail a schematic separation between rhythm and prosody that would shadow the ontico-ontological difference between beings and being? Would this, in fact, excise rhythm from the study of verse?
2.    What happens to the status of lyric more generally? That is, if rhythm properly speaking is taken to belong not to human speech but to language, then is there still a place of subjective utterance and vocal palette?
As a means of addressing these questions, I propose a reading of the late work of the Scottish poet W.S. Graham (1918-1986). What happens in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty as an ontological movement takes place in Graham as a specifically lyric predicament. That is, his poetry probes the relation between human speech and what he calls the language that at once shapes this speech and withdraws from it. This not only involves a redeployment of the trope by which the poet aims to say what is properly unsayable, but also motivates his use of verse forms so as to capture the cadences of everyday speech, the accidental life of human words, whilst at the same time setting up a tension between such speech and any formulation or formalisation within verse. Through this tension, the minutiae of words are endowed with metrical and philosophical weight; mere accident becomes the site for the irruption of the language into speech. It is thus that Graham offers the possibility of an experience with the rhythms by which the language comes to sound. The paper would aim, then, to situate, and then trace, something like a double-rhythm within his work; both looking at the tension between supposedly unaffected speech and metre on the one hand, and at its tracing the movement of the language into the poems on the other.

W.S. Graham, New Collected Poems (Faber, 2005)
Ralph Pite and Hester Jones (eds.), W.S. Graham: Speaking towards you (Liverpool, 2004)
Matthew Francis, Where the People Are: Language and Community in W.S. Graham (Salt, 2004)
Tony Lopez, The Poetry of W.S. Graham (Edinburgh, 1989)
Martin Heidegger, The Way to Language trans. Peter Hertz (Harper & Row, 1972)
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Prose du monde (Gallimard, 1969).
Last update 16 Nov. 2009 - Archived 20 Oct. 2015
Site Rhythm in Twentieth-Century Bristish Poetry
15, parvis René Descartes BP 7000 69342 Lyon cedex 07 FRANCE