British Modernism has not been served well by American critics and readers. Preoccupied by American poetry’s own version of family court—who are the true heirs of William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, or even Robert Lowell? when will the prodigal Stein finally come back from Europe and take her place at the head of the table?—we have been content merely to nod approvingly at the likes of Basil Bunting and David Jones. But as the recent publication of J.H. Prynne’s Poems, Tom Raworth’s Collected Poems, and the many collected and selected volumes streaming out of Salt Publishing remind us, the story of British Modernism in America is still a work in progress.
Add to that story W.S. Graham’s New Collected Poems, which not only returns Graham to the central narrative of 20th-century British poetry but should also mark his introduction to the United States as a major lyric poet. A daring technician teased, but not intoxicated, by visionary impulses, he belongs in the company of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane, but as the one who believed language to be an obstruction to communication, an “other” just behind, yet inseparable from, the stage machinery of the self. “I stand in my vocabulary looking out,” he writes in “Notes to the Difficult One,” and the first part of “Clusters Traveling Out” ends, “Whoever / Speaks to you will not be me. / I wonder what I will say.” This see-saw between a near-paranoia about language and an utter devotion to its unveiling places him among such chroniclers of the “word virus” as William S. Burroughs, Laura Riding Jackson, Jack Spicer, and any number of later writers who were inspired by the language philosophies of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, or who, steeped in Roland Barthes, vexed the borders between reader, writer, and text.