Language, Hugh MacDiarmid and
W. S. Graham
In March 1955, the year of the publication of Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce and W. S. Graham’s The Nightfishing, a literary dinner was held to present an award to John Betjeman. In a book on poetic language, published three years later, the critic John Press recalls a Daily Telegraph report on the dinner, which was made newsworthy by Lord Samuel robustly denouncing much recent poetry as being afflicted by ‘this fashion of deliberate and perverse obscurity’, citing lines by Dylan Thomas to illustrate his point.1 MacDiarmid and Graham’s poetry can generally be accused of ‘deliberate and perverse obscurity’, and indeed the two major poems published in 1955 directly address the vexed issue of poetic language, if in quite different ways. With particular reference to these two poems, this chapter explores each poet’s linguistic concerns in the context of contemporary and later attitudes to language and literature.
Christopher Murray Grieve, or ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ (1892–1978) and William Sydney Graham (1918–86) might be seen as poets whose literary careers and poetic concerns are diametrically opposed. MacDiarmid’s early lyrics brought him literary fame, and his combative personality, controversial political interventions and poetic ambition sustained his public profile and won him a circle of followers and a loyal audience, even when his style and opinions chopped and changed over the decades. During his life, he combined his poetry with careers as a journalist, editor, controversialist, political activist and academic, without ever yielding to the temptation of the kind of stable employment that might bring financial security and temper his opinions. His poetry in Scots and English is public, attention-seeking and encyclopaedic in reference. In twentieth-century Scottish letters, he is an inescapable monument, and he is still a household name, even amongst those who read little or no poetry.
By contrast, W. S. Graham is still a less celebrated figure, even in literary circles. Born and raised in industrial Greenock, he served his apprenticeship as an engineer before enrolling in Newbattle Abbey, an Adult Education College, in the late 1930s. He published his first collection of poems in the early 1940s; around this time, through David Archer, his publisher, he came into contact