Celebrating W.S. Graham at 100
W.S. Graham (1918-86) died in obscurity, but today is coming to be considered one of the great poets of the twentieth century.
Armed with new discoveries from untapped archives, UEA academics Dr David Nowell Smith and Dr Jeremy Noel-Tod oversaw a programme of publications, exhibitions, and public artworks to mark Graham's centenary, from his hometown of Greenock via the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney and the National Poetry Library in London, that unlocked his work for wider audiences, and inspired contemporary poets and artists to produce new work and embark on new projects.
Pier Arts Centre counted over 4,500 visits to the Voice and Vision exhibition, a substantial majority of whom said they had never previously encountered Graham’s poetry.
W.S. Graham's centenary came at a time of a developing critical consensus that his work had been unfairly neglected. Dr Nowell Smith and Dr Noel-Tod have conducted research into Graham's poetry for over a decade, which made key contributions to critical reappraisals of Graham.
On the basis on this work, between 2016 and 2020 Dr Nowell Smith undertook extensive archival research, uncovering notebooks, drafts, letters, and mixed-media works that had never previously received scholarly attention.
The programme of publications, exhibitions and artworks, devised with the support of the W.S. Graham Estate, introduced his work to new audiences, engaged gallery spaces to innovate in exhibition display, and fostered new, sustainable networks of artists, curators, councils, and communities. It transformed these partners' approaches to curatorial practice, collaboration-building, and artmaking, leaving a legacy not just for Graham's own reception, but for the local areas where the collaborations took place. The artists produced new work inspired by Graham and our collaborations, thus extending Graham’s legacy for a new generation of artists, poets, and audiences.
Bringing Graham's work to new audiences
According to the Graham Estate, Dr Nowell Smith's archival research on Graham has significantly contributed to a wide celebration and critical re-evaluation of his work during the centenary. Dr Noel-Tod's introduction to The Caught Habits of Language was reproduced in the Times Literary Supplement as cover feature for the 9 March 2018 Issue (The Poetry Boy, Unpublished Poems by W.S. Graham). Dr Nowell Smith also guest-curated two innovative multimedia displays of Graham’s archive: an exhibition at Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney, entitled Voice and Vision, and an interactive installation at the National Poetry Library, Constructing Spaces.
Voice and Vision brought Graham’s archive into dialogue with works by artists who were part of the same community as him.
Constructing Spaces meticulously recreated Graham's writing spaces, using documentary evidence and interviews with friends. A replica Cornish cottage was built in the library, with facsimiles of Graham’s manuscript drafts pinned on walls, to imitate Graham's own practice, and a soundscape made from rare footage of Graham reading, chatting, and singing. Visitors were then invited to produce their own work, playing with and building on Graham's own compositional practices.
The artworks and exhibitions allowed Graham to reach audiences that do not often encounter poetry and audiences that had never encountered Graham before expressed the desire to read more of his work in the future.
Over 1,000 people visited the Constructing Spaces installation on timed-entry tickets and primary school children were particularly excited by the opportunities for typing on the typewriter, reciting poems and hearing them played back in the soundscape, and producing illuminated poems of their own .
Innovative practices of art display
The multimodal nature of Dr Nowell Smith's archival discoveries led partner organisations to experiment with new forms of art display. Voice and Vision included visual work by Graham and his artist contemporaries, audio, text, and film footage, and interactive digital displays, the first time Pier Arts Centre had displayed such a range of materials. It provided a framework for future experiment with 'multilayered' exhibitions that fit with the gallery's exhibition spaces.
The National Poetry Library considered Constructing Spaces the most ambitious exhibition they had undertaken in their space. It also allowed them to explore the possibilities of the venue as an exhibition space, and has also influenced the design of subsequent exhibitions.
In Greenock, our research formed the basis for a collaborative public artwork, entitled Word Roads. Overseen by Dr Nowell Smith, it kickstarted a new approach to public artworks: site-specific, community-oriented projects that celebrated the cultural heritage of the town. The result was three works, made of Cornish slate and timber piles from Greenock's now-defunct Princes Pier, with lines from Graham's poems about Greenock inscribed on them. They were sited in places significant for Graham's life and work. This project has had extensive impacts for the cultural life of the area.
Developing new networks of artists, institutions, and communities
Dr Nowell Smith's research situated Graham's work within networks of patronage and artistic exchange linked to individual localities. So it was fitting that the practice-based research collaborations led to the creation of new art, poetry, and networks of artists, institutions, and communities.
The artists in Greenock obtained commissions on the strength of Word Road, and developed independent creative projects building on the collaboration, exhibiting these works and obtaining grants to develop these projects.
The Greenock centenary project included an exhibition of work produced by locals who had joined a new arts network named 'The Nightfishers' in homage to Graham's famous poem, and the network continues long after the centenary itself. What started as a way of reintroducing Graham to Greenock ended up mobilising the local arts community, and its legacy can be seen in the networks of artists and publics that have flourished since the project ended.
The National Poetry Library also organised residencies with Poetry School graduates in the installation: poems written during the residencies were published on the Southbank Centre website.