Nationality: British. Born: Liverpool, Lancashire, 1 December 1930. Education: Liverpool College of Art. Career: Painter; exhibitions in London and Northern England; gave up painting for poetry at the age of 30. Beginning 1969 lecturer in art history, Liverpool Polytechnic; now retired. Poetry editor, Ambit magazine, London. Awards: Ambit prize, 1968; Arts Council award, 1969, 1971. Address: c/o Ambit, 17 Priory Gardens, Highgate, London N6 5QY, England.
Soup City Zoo, with Jim Mangnall. London, Anima Press, 1968.
Good Luck to You Kafka/You'll Need It Boss. London, Rapp and Whiting, 1969.
Passport to Earth. London, Rapp and Whiting-Deutsch, 1971.
Poker in Paradise Lost, with Jim Mangnall. Liverpool, Glasshouse Press, 1977.
Europe after Rain. West Kirby, Wirral, Headland Publications, 1981.
The Very Fragrant Death of Paul Gauguin. Hungerford, Berkshire, Rivelin Grapheme Press, 1987.
Jardin Gobe Avions. Hungerford, Berkshire, Rivelin Grapheme Press, 1991.
The Eye of the Beholder. Merseyside, Sefton Arts, 1997.
Bar Room Ballads. London, Ambit, 1999.*
Critical Study: "A Quote and a Comment" by the author, in Ambit 92 (London), 1983.
Henry Graham comments:
(1974) My early influences in writing were the modern American poets—Pound, Olson, Duncan, etc. But now the Englishness of all the English arts interests me more; Auden, for instance, is one of the poets I admire most. The arts, and especially poetry, are not an attempt on my part to communicate but are a way of looking into myself and the universe. If, as sometimes seems to happen, others are interested in and find in me what lies outside themselves, good; if not, good.
(1985) Today my writing is concerned principally with an international philosophy of modernism, i.e., expressionism, surrealism, and abstraction, and not with any parochial literary stance.* * *
Henry Graham deals in images. His work as a painter and art historian often informs both the subjects of his verse—de Chirico, Magritte, Klee, and Samuel Palmer are mentioned with affection—and its techniques, which are visual and painterly. His better poems combine with this a sense of the special resources of poetic language.
Graham's early verse dates from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when jokiness and whimsical fantasy became a political duty and the grubby hustlings of businessman and politician were seen as emanations of death, enemies of the poet-dreamer. Though this scheme occasionally surfaces in his work, he keeps language, material, and attitudes under better control than do some of the Liverpool poets, with whom his name was at one time, perhaps misleadingly, coupled. A sense of social justice helps rescue his verse from shallowness.
Recurrent in Good Luck to You Kafka/You'll Need It Boss are poems about discontent, loneliness, and resentment and the way in which everyday sights and events are altered by such emotions. Verse wryly recording the bathos of Graham's own ordinary responses to living is more impressive for its humanity than for its tension or energy. His imaginative engagement is stronger when his subject is the already achieved work of art. Ten poems on paintings by Palmer derive their force from the same images as the paintings. But Palmer's distorted landscapes and figures, for example, his monstrous moons, which show the kinship of all created things and reveal God and the spiritual via the real, are reinterpreted here. Palmer's pastorals become nightmares, his symbols of fecundity threats. By contemplating symbols as pure images, Graham reveals them as exaggerated, grotesque, surreal.
Palmer's moons become Graham's own. In Passport to Earth he looks at "the pitted face of the moon / and think[s] of the bodies in the pits / at Belsen." This is the moon's public, "pitted" face, but it stands for personal horror too: "The huge million watt / bulb of the moon / crushes me against its face." Cold, bright, and unearthly, the moons illuminate, but in doing so they reveal the monstrosities that darkness would conceal. With these and other images Graham makes an interesting attempt to structure a book of verse by primarily visual means.
But language, too, is a mode of power, pointing away from the forlorn isolations of art and self, the sad prisoners of canvas and frame, toward the bigger world. The seven poems of Poker in Paradise Lost, written with Jim Mangnall and made from cut-up photo captions from Time magazine, offer surrealist glimpses of the United States. Lacking in focus and structure, arbitrarily scattering effects, these pieces are nevertheless successful in the coupling of occasional images: "a young Eisenhower after sophomore / year at San Quentin."
In later work Graham claims to have turned away from an interest in English writing toward European movements, in particular surrealism and expressionism. The Very Fragrant Death of Paul Gauguin consists largely of experiments in these modes: "Floating headless foetal teddybears ejaculate blackberries." Though still informed by a strong sense of the parallels between poetry and painting, too many of the poems in this book are pretentious, linguistically unsubtle, and lacking in authentic feeling: "I the progenitive of the biggest bang / celebrate my entropic relativistic existence."
Graham's poetry succeeds when he gives play to his sense of the power of juxtaposed images mysteriously to conjure emotion, in which the tiny formalized marks that are the artist's and the writer's stock-in-trade can gesture toward the greatest meanings:
The sun a crescent moon
a brown line; the cosmos. The tiny
square and circle, peace.