An Interview with David Nowell Smith

Published by  Communications

On 1st Jun 2023

David Nowell
Prof David Nowell

Q David, many congratulations indeed on the publication of your new book, and thanks for agreeing to speak to us! Could you begin by introducing our readers to the idea of Book premise?

Primarily it's a study of the poet W. S. Graham (1918-86): the first substantial study since the 1980s, drawing on newly unearthed archival materials. But through this account of Graham's singular poetic repertoire, it also aims to think seriously about some of the fundamental concepts of poetics, which I've worked on throughout my career. The underpinning concept here is that of the 'art object'. Graham sought to craft his poems into honed, finished 'objects'; yet he was also aware that the poem's 'finished object' is never wholly finished. Graham's work thus facilitates a broader reflection on language as a medium for art-making.


Q That’s really helpful – thank you! What convinced you that now was the right time for this book on Graham?

Initially my plan had been to write a short book to coincide with Graham's centenary, in 2018. Graham died more or less in obscurity; today he's revered by poets of all different styles, orientations, backgrounds, but still not well known outside poetry circles, so the centenary seemed a good opportunity for redressing that by writing something short and sweet for a wider public audience.

However, when I was doing my initial research, I realised that amount of untapped archival material, and felt that as a scholar I'd do a better service to his work, and the field, through a more detailed academic study. Necessarily that meant that the book missed the centenary, though I managed to contribute to some public-facing events and publications. Gradually people are becoming more receptive to what is an extraordinary poetic achievement, and hopefully by getting this scholarship to an academic readership the book will encourage more work on his poetry, and get the poems onto more syllabi and anthologies, and hence slowly more embedded in our picture of twentieth century poetry. 


Q Your book encourages us to think more carefully about Graham's work. Why is this important? And why hadn’t it been done before?

Graham is a fascinating poet: his work continues modernist explorations of rhythm and diction; it interweaves linguistic and geographic places; and constitutes one of the most concerted poetics dialogue with the plastic and visual arts of the last century. And there are a set of compelling tensions that run through his work, between philosophical seriousness and play, solitude and sociality, regionalism and cosmopolitanism, the heft and evanescence of poetry's medium.

It's a mystery to me how Graham fell through the cracks for so long, though British poetry is incredibly factional and he didn't fit into any factions. The poetry culture today is thankfully a bit more heterodox, and now Graham - having been at the peripheries for so long, is becoming a uniquely unifying figure.


Q Thank you! This is all sounds fantastically interesting, and clearly at the cutting edge of poetry criticism. Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in this area in the first place?

I was lucky to encounter a poem of Graham's as an undergrad. It managed to be simple and yet incredibly sophisticated, playful and yet pack an emotional punch. At the time I couldn't make sense of how it managed to have these different effects, but it stayed with me like few other poems have done. When I came back to the poems, years later and with a whole education behind me, I finally felt intellectually equipped to start reading them critically.


Q Presumably your thinking evolved as you were working on the book: did any of your findings surprise you?

Several things. I had no inkling of exactly how extensive Graham's visual oeuvre was - he lived among the artists of the 'St Ives School' and had a distinctive visual sense of his own. Similarly, getting to see his manuscripts showed me exactly how systematic his drafting processes were. Another thing that became increasingly apparent is how much his economic situation (living hand to mouth and relying on friends and patrons) shaped not just the individual poems but also what archival materials survive. I started off writing about the work of an individual poet, but ended writing about the network of people and relationships that made this poetry possible.


Q That’s very interesting – thank you! Looking to the future, then, what is the next project on your research agenda? Will you be building on this work going forward?

I'm writing a brief textbook on how to close-read poetry, Making Sense of Poems, that comes out of my inaugural lecture from last November ('Attuning Ourselves to Tunes').


Q One final question, if we might? Now that The Poem as Art Object has been published, what are your hopes for the book? What would you like readers to take away from it, and what impact would you like it to have on the world?

A few positive reviews would be nice!

That aside, the main purpose of the book is for people to read Graham in greater depth and attentiveness, and recognise his significance as a poet. But hopefully it'll inform bigger questions about how we read poems, and poetic oeuvres, and how we conceptualise terms like 'rhythm', 'metaphor', 'place', and so on.


David, thank you very much indeed for your time. W. S. Graham: The Poem as Art Object is out now and available to buy from Oxford University Press.

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