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An Experience with Rhythm: W.S. Graham

W.S. Graham et l’expérience du rythme
David Nowell-Smith
p. 51-64


Mon article examine l’intersection de deux conceptions du rythme en concurrence, qui se manifestent dans des contributions influentes de la poétique du xxe siècle et dans l’œuvre du poète écossais W.S. Graham, avec l’intention de mettre à l’œuvre cette problématique par une lecture de Graham tout en offrant, inversement, une analyse des enjeux et des thèmes centraux à la poésie de Graham. D’une part, “rythme” désigne l’intelligibilité temporellement conditionnée de l’expérience; d’autre part, il concerne la “mesure” des “critères suprasegmentaux” dans une phrase prosodique. Cette dualité pose la question suivante: comment la poésie peut-elle saisir, dans son mouvement prosodique, une “rythmicité” de l’expérience qui excède ce mouvement. Graham approche cette problématique par-delà une figure clef de sa poésie, “the language”, ce qui peut rendre intelligible le monde et communicable la vie humaine, mais qui se retire (Graham dit “swings away”) des mots dont nous nous servons quotidiennement. Graham bute à saisir ce retrait du “langage” afin de faire l’expérience du “rythme” au cœur de celui-ci, ce qui se déploie dans sa poésie comme une densité contrapunctique au niveau prosodique et métrique, une densité que je caractérise comme une “expérience du rythme”.

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1This paper seeks to address two questions, and argues that the work of W.S. Graham is an exemplary site where these questions are set into motion.

  • 1 This insight is attained, at more or less the same time and quite independently of one another, by (...)

2Firstly, I’d like to pursue a train of thought that conceives of rhythm in terms of the intelligibility of human experience, specifically as the temporally-conditioned configuration or organisation of such experience.1 On this view, rhythm refers primarily not to spoken language, but to the modalities in which experience continually forms itself. This then implies a salient distinction between rhythm and “prosody”, that is the “suprasegmentals” of speech deployed in “poetic rhythm”, and entails the follow-up question: how can prosody and versification trace, and even capture, this broader rhythmicity of experience?

3The second question is ostensibly a thematic one central to much twentieth-century poetry that wishes to engage with the genre of lyric. It is a question analogous to that of the place and status of the lyric “I” can be after the so-called “death of the subject”, but reframing it in terms of the “linguistic turn” closely associated with this critique of subjectivity. That is, what happens to lyric voice when it is no longer the “I”, but in some (highly contested) sense “language” that “speaks”?

  • 2 See, for example, Gregory Nagy (1990), and Susan Stewart (1995).

4This second question is in many ways not new at all—after all, the poet’s dependence on a pre-existent language permeates the trope of “lyric possession”, a trope whose history comprehends both Pindaric incantations of the muse and Romantic portrayals of genius.2 In the wake of Saussurean linguistics and philosophical pragmatism, this trope undergoes a curious, secular transformation whose reach extends to philosophers as different as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Quine, as well as structuralist linguistics and “discourse theory”. According to this, the various permutations of human experience are framed in advance by language, be it as a cluster of “games” we inhabit and enact, a network of differential signs, or as the way in which intelligibility is first given to us. It is a predicament articulated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty when he says: “this kind of circle which means that language precedes itself before those who learn it, that it itself teaches itself, suggests its own decryption, is perhaps the enigma [prodige] that defines language” (Merleau-Ponty 49, my translation).

5If we are dependent on language to “suggest its own decryption”, then what if language withholds such decryption? This is a question—or, perhaps better, an intimation—that is increasingly crucial to the œuvre of the Scottish poet W.S. Graham. If it is only implicit in his early work, it guides and weighs upon his The White Threshold (1949) and The Nightfishing (1955), and, by the time of his final two collections, Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970) and Implements in their Places (1977), it has become the ostensible topic, and topos, of his work. In “What is the Language using us for?”, Graham articulates his poetic project thus:

What I am making is
A place for language in my life
Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. (Graham 200)

In order to make such a “place”, Graham has to trace a movement of words as they resist his own language usage (something implicit in the poem’s title). Thus he quips, in the long poem “Implements in their Places” from which his final collection takes its name:

It is how one two three each word
Chose itself in its position
Pretending at the same time
They were working for me. (Graham 245)

To which he later adds:
These words as they are (the beasts!)
Will never realize the upper hand
Is mine. (Graham 252)

6In these passages we find an intermingling, characteristic Graham’s poetry, of philosophical seriousness and coy self-deprecation, as we can see when his transformation of the Kantian Ding an sich (the thing as it is in itself) into “these words as they are” is followed by a parenthetical “the beasts!”. If this leads the line to cut back on itself in gentle auto-derision, we should nevertheless note that the figure of “the beast”, here used playfully, elsewhere serves as a far more sinister placeholder for a language whose grasp we can neither escape nor entirely fathom. In “The Beast in Space” (from Malcolm Mooney’s Land), he says:

The beast that lives on silence takes
Its bite out of either side. (Graham 157–8)

7The important thing about a beast here is that its non-humanity is characterised by its dumbness. It “lives on silence”: silence denoting both its habitat and what it feeds on; when it bites “either side”, this silence comes to inflect both word and thing, speaker and addressee. Graham’s nod towards Kant here is telling: for Kant, the “thing-in-itself” is an ontological postulate that is a priori beyond the grasp of human cognition (Kant 24). Here it is “words”, a human activity, that are shown to exist “as they are”, autonomous of human speech: in the core of language lies something non-human that resists all attempts to communicate, and this renders Graham’s entire poetic project precarious.

  • 3 Tony Lopez (1989) thus distinguishes Graham from “that tendency which seeks to explain literature a (...)

8Precarious for two reasons. Firstly, if “the language” continually turns in on itself, and only manifests itself in and as “silence”, then why should it be poetry, and particularly a poetry that attends to the phenomenality of words, that can grasp these words “as they are”? And secondly, if we are always within this language, how can we reach through it to “the other side of silence”, and find there something “real”?—as Graham says, it isn’t enough to have a “place for language”, it must be a “real place”. Indeed, that we can speak, and that language does bring us to something real, is a fact that his late poetry ceaselessly explores and celebrates.3 Thus Graham will describe the central concerns of his work as:

The difficulty of communication; the difficulty of speaking from a fluid identity; the lessons in physical phenomena; the mystery and inadequacy of the aesthetic experience; the elation of being alive in the language.
(Vinson and Kirkpatrick 575)

9“The difficulty of communication” and “the elation of being alive in the language” are, for Graham, deeply interwoven, and if this difficulty results in the precariousness of Graham’s project, it is also the source of its vitality. What I want to explore in the following pages is the shape of this interweaving, and the encounter between real human speech and beastly silence thereby set into motion. In particular, I will argue that this encounter takes place through an experience with rhythm.

10The status of “rhythm” in Graham’s poetry has been subject to much critical dispute. Whilst T.S. Eliot told Graham that the long poem “The Nightfishing” demonstrated “a good sense of form and a wonderful sense of rhythm” (reproduced in Morgan 266–7), and Edwin Morgan emphasised Graham’s “particular skill in rhythm” (Morgan 252), Donald Davie’s main “misgivings” with Graham’s poetry concern “the unvarying solemnity of the tone [. . .] and (most of all) the rhythms” (Davie 39). This might be attributed to a difference in taste; what is striking, however, is how little consensus there is as to what Graham’s rhythms actually are. Discussing the collection Malcolm Mooney’s Land, Calvin Bedient speaks of a “bony sound”, in which “the rhythm is almost totally lacking in relief” (Bedient 166–7), and Robert Duxbury discerns “a flatness that approached prose” (Duxbury 67). These two comments, both sympathetic to Graham’s work, nevertheless appear to agree with Davie that Graham’s poetry lacks variation; yet it is precisely such variation that Morgan admires. Therefore, I would like to ask what it might be that is taken to be “flat”, unvaryingly solemn, and “bony”, and whether there is something else taking place rhythmically at such moments. Might it be that this is part of Graham’s attempt to capture the silence through “the language” manifests itself?

11For this, let us look to the first stanza of “The Dark Dialogues” (from the 1970 collection), where the encounter between lyric voice and language’s silent self-withholding is rendered in particularly dramatic fashion:

I always meant to only
Language swings away
Further before me. (Graham 167)

12Here, Graham is trying to explain, from within language, how language withdraws from his attempts to inhabit it. What is crucial is that this swinging away of language is immediately rhythmic. We can see in these lines what might be described as a “flatness approaching prose”: the short, three stress lines, devoid of any punctuation, seem to resist any discernable metre or cadence. Yet this flatness hides a series of contrapuntal fluctuations through which the experience of language’s swinging away becomes a speaking experience. The phrase’s paratactic juxtaposition is emphasised by the implicit caesura between “to” and “only”, so that the word “only” becomes a hinge between this cadence and the enjambment. This subsequently endows the word “Language” in line 2 with a particular emphasis: it cuts against the rhythmic tension of line 1, its stressed first syllable upsetting the loose iambic trimeter that line had tentatively proposed, and, by virtue of the grammatical autonomy of the statement “Language swings away”, it impacts a change of pace, tense, and voicing far removed from the apparent simplicity of these short, unpunctuated lines. Under the veneer of flatness lies an intricate and highly nuanced prosodic density.

13What I would like to suggest here, is that this prosodic counterpoint is part of a concerted attempt by Graham to experience the movement through which “Language swings away”. In this, I would suggest, we find two conceptions of rhythm at work side by side: the rhythm of the words Graham uses, and “the order” he uses them in, and the rhythm that belongs to “the words themselves”. And it is here that Graham’s poetry engages with the first of the questions I posed at the beginning of this essay: that of how we negotiate between the rhythmicity of intelligible experience and the prosodic “measure” of an individual poem.

14This is a distinction that surfaces in the work of Martin Heidegger from the 1930s onwards, and is the subject of a seminal essay by Émile Benveniste. Both Heidegger and Benveniste are concerned with reading the term ruthmos as it is employed in Ancient Greek philosophy, and both argue that it initially denoted the temporal structure (for Benveniste, “form”, “configuration”, and “organisation”) of experience rather than any specific property of spoken language. As Benveniste puts it, rhythm can “characterise [. . .] human comportments, both individual and collective, insofar as they are aware of the duration and successions that order them, and also when we project a rhythm beyond the human sphere onto things and events” (Benveniste 327). This, Benveniste, suggests that “rhythm” belongs as much to “psychology” as linguistics, something which is developed by Henri Meschonnic when he argues that “rhythm is that which sustains and manifests the subject” (Meschonnic 678). Yet, unlike in the work of Bergson, for example, “rhythm” does not thus become non-linguistic; rather, it becomes a means of understanding how subjects can be formed linguistically whilst avoiding an ontology of language as signification (see Meschonnic 176–9).

  • 4 This thinking is never developed concertedly in any one essay, but is touched upon in his 1939 Aris (...)

15Heidegger’s own contribution to the thinking of “rhythm” is in many ways remarkably similar to these accounts; however, it differs in that he attempts to move beyond the level of subject-formation and on to that of the temporal structure of intelligibility as such. This is already implicit in his account of the temporal frame of human existence (Dasein, literally “being-there”) in Being and Time. Here, Heidegger defines Dasein as “thrown-projection”: that is, we are always-already thrown into a pre-existing factical world, and we understand entities in this world in terms of the possibilities they afford (Heidegger 1962, 183ff.). All disclosure of entities, he continues, renders them “present” only by virtue of its being able to grasp the entity’s “having-been” (i.e. its pre-existing all experience of it), and to project its future possibility. Time, then, is no longer conceived of as a series of objective, discrete and successive “nows”, but rather as the interrelation of three temporal perspectives; furthermore, it becomes nothing less than the condition for the intelligibility of beings (Heidegger 1962, 377). When Heidegger gives an explicit account of “rhythm” some years later, however, he implicitly critiques this account of time, precisely because it seems too close to the “subject-centric” or “psychologistic” approach to experience that he is trying to overcome. Now he situates “rhythm” in the way beings disclose themselves, and particulary in the oscillations between presence and absence that permeate and shape an entity’s self-disclosure.4 It is, he says, the way they are “joined” [gefügt] together in momentary presence. He then further argues that intelligibility can take place only when beings enter into language; rhythm, then, would describe the temporal modalities through which the intelligibility of the world attains verbal meaning. In this, it belongs primarily to the disclosive power of language, and inheres in a derivative form in both the denotation and the prosody of human speech.

  • 5 Examples of this include Tony Lopez (1989) and David Punter (1982). Recently, Robin Purves has argu (...)
  • 6 Heidegger’s most elaborate remarks on the poet’s vocation come in “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poe (...)

16For Heidegger, the “jointure” of intelligibility is always framed by a countermovement of absencing, and it is precisely this movement that Graham describes when he says “Language swings away”. Much has been said regarding the importance of Heidegger’s thinking for Graham’s poetry.5 However, whilst this critical debate has focused more on Graham’s purported attempts to refigure the lyric subject as a kind of Heideggerian “being-in-the-world”, and to construct a poetic identity that accords with some of Heidegger’s programmatic remarks about the vocation of the poet,6 I would like to ask whether this kinship at a thematic level might shed light on what is taking place in Graham’s rhythms.

17If “Language swings away”, this is because it exceeds and withdraws from our own usage of words; the problem set both by Heidegger’s poetics and Graham’s verse art, is one of how to capture this excess and withdrawal by using the very words from which language “swings away”. What we must do, both suggest, is grasp this “swinging away” as such; both philosopher and poet aim to grasp it at the level of rhythm. For Heidegger, the poem’s own entry into sound constitutes an “animating wave”, grasping the oscillations between presence and absence, and this wave “holds within it the veiled essence of what—to metaphysical-aesthetic representation—can at best appear as rhythm” (Heidegger 1971, 160). This is a notoriously difficult passage, and I would like to separate out three things that Heidegger is trying to think concomitantly. Firstly, that the intelligibility of worldly experience is to be understood as “animation”, a setting-into-movement. It is the shape of such movement that “metaphysical-aesthetic representation” takes to be “rhythm” (i.e. the suprasegmentals of speech, prosody). Secondly, this animation takes place within language itself, or more specifically, as the movement from language’s “linguistic essence” (Heidegger 1971, 119), according to which it both “joins” beings as an intelligible whole, whilst also sketching out their reciprocal difference, into human speech. When Heidegger claims that “language speaks” [die Sprache spricht], what he is describing is precisely this movement. It is the “linguistic essence” of language, Heidegger argues, that renders speaking as a human activity possible, but does so such that its essence remains beyond the grasp of this human activity. This opens up a second rhythmicity, that exists not in worldly, phenomenological experience, but within language itself as it moves from linguistic essence to human speech. In both, which is ultimately at issue is the oscillation [Schwingung] between presence and absence, which is thematised, both linguistically and experientially, as rhythm. Finally, Heidegger wants to argue, we can only grasp this rhythm by attending to its “metaphysical” concept, prosody. Rather than rhythm and prosody being incompatible, prosody becomes the only means through which the “originary” rhythmicity of presence and absence can disclose itself in human speech.

18Now I wish to develop this tripartite understanding of rhythm as a means of reading Graham’s own attempt to trace “the words as they are” precisely at the moments at which they exceed his grasp. This predicament is evoked in the poem “Approaches to How they Behave” (from Malcolm Mooney’s Land), now reframed as a meditation on the poet’s vocation. This is the first stanza:

What does it matter if the words
I choose, in the order I choose them in,
Go out into a silence I know
Nothing about, there to be let
In and entertained and charmed
Out of their master’s orders? And yet
I would like to see where they go
And how without me they behave. (Graham 178)

19Just as in the opening of “The Dark Dialogues”, Graham is attempting to grasp the movement through which language withholds itself, whilst insisting on the incompatibility between his choosing and ordering of the words, and the words’ behaviour outside him. Once again, this behaviour takes place in a “silence”—something which, by definition, Graham cannot measure prosodically.

20In “The Dark Dialogues”, I suggested, Graham employs a series of counter-rhythms, acute and yet sotto voce, as a means of performing the way that language “swings away” from the lyric voice. And in “Approaches” too, counterpoint becomes central to his attempt to follow the words’ disappearance into a silence he knows nothing about. This can be seen in Graham’s use of metre. The stanza uses an alternating pattern of three and four stress lines, and yet the cadences themselves suggest another metrical pattern, almost the inverse of what Graham writes, giving the echo of a balladic:

What does it matter if the words I choose,
In the order I choose them in,
Go out into a silence I know nothing about,
there to be let in.

21The enjambments, then, serve not simply to contrast prosody to metre, but to counterpoint two interweaving metrical frameworks. On the one hand, the half-rhyme of “them in” and “let in” brings the cadence of the implied ballad quatrain to overflow on to line 5. On the other hand, the end-stopped rhyme of “let” and “yet” (l. 6), and the enjambing echo, and answer, to “let/In” by “charmed/Out”, insists on the line endings. If this might serve to cut off the cadence, the sudden proliferation of “ands” (l. 5) has the opposite effect, stretching it out, something emphasised by the question mark that retrospectively demands a rising intonation for the entirety of the six-line phrase. Following this cadence, we can see Graham adding further counterpoints: the caesura two syllables before the end of line 6, and the consonance of “Out” with “yet” that frames this line. Graham is pitting metre against metre, cadence against cadence, to create a flurry of prosodic tremors just discernible under the poem’s surface. And moreover, this is physical—the complexity inflects not only a vocalisation of the poem, but our breath patterns: that which is crucial to speech but normally remains silent behind it. The extension of the cadence leading up to the question mark in line 6 serves precisely to render us breathless: the withdrawal of “the language” irrupts not simply into our capacity to speak, but also into our chests and throats.

22It is, I would argue, in such tremors that we should identify Graham’s experience of rhythm. It is an experience that takes place prosodically, and becomes an experience of a silence at the core of language. Indeed, when Graham describes this as “a silence I know/Nothing about”, we can note that this “nothing” can either be the absence of anything, or a positive value—that is, precisely nothing. And this paradox is indeed performed prosodically: the word “Nothing” attains added stress as a result of the enjambment, and yet the counter-metre would render this “Nothing” inconspicuous. In this, we see that these metrical counterpoints, that is, the coexistence of competing metres, cadences, and voices, and which we have identified both here and in “The Dark Dialogues”, becomes for Graham a central means of grasping the movement of this language that gives itself to and withholds itself from him.

  • 7 I would like to thank Derek Attridge, Andrew Eastman, Lacy Rumsey and Tomasz Wisniewski, from whose (...)

23Why should this be? Firstly, it is because these counter-rhythms (or better, counter-metres and counter-cadences) necessarily resist, and yet inflect, any one vocal performance. At once, their effect comes from an implicit utterance, and from the impossibility of utterance. This isn’t simply to say that there is a prosodic density that cannot be grasped in speech: rather, this density attains its effect precisely in its resistance to speech. His own “use” of the words, that is, has already internalised the way that these words will “swing away”. Inhabiting a prosody at the limits of silence, and by returning this silence to the bodily experience of reading and speaking, Graham comes—fleetingly—into an experience of rhythm through which language gives and withholds itself: the impossibility of communication gives way to the elation of being alive in the language.7

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Bedient, Calvin, Eight Contemporary Poets, Oxford: OUP, 1974.

Benveniste, Émile, Problèmes de linguistique générale, Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Davie, Donald, “Three Poets”, Dublin Magazine 30.4 (1955): 38–40.

Duxbury, Robert, “The Poetry of W.S. Graham”, Akros 13.38 (1978): 62–71.

Graham, W.S., New Collected Poems, London: Faber & Faber, 2004.

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Heidegger, Martin, On the Way to Language, trans. Peter Hertz, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Heidegger, Martin, Pathmarks, Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

Heidegger, Martin, Elucidations to Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller, Amherst N.Y., Humanities Books, 2000.

Kant, Emmanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan, 1929.

Lopez, Tony, The Poetry of W.S. Graham, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1989.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Signes, Paris: Gallimard, 1960.

Morgan, Edwin, Crossing the Border: Essays on Scottish Literature, Manchester: Carcanet, 1990.

Nagy, Gregory, Pindar’s Homer: the Lyric Possession of an Epic Past, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Punter, David, “W.S. Graham: Constructing a White Space”, Malahat Review 63 (1982): 220–244.

Purves, Robin & Ladkin Sam (ed.), Complicities: British Poetry since 1945, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2007.

Stewart, Susan, “Lyric Possession”, Critical Inquiry 22.1 (1995): 34–63.

Vinson, J. & Kirkpatrick D.L., Contemporary Poets, London: St Martin’s Press, 1975.

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1 This insight is attained, at more or less the same time and quite independently of one another, by the French linguist Émile Benveniste (“La notion de ‘rythme’ dans son expression linguistique” [Benveniste 327–335]), and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (“On the Essence and Concept of Phusis in Aristotle’s Physics B, I”, trans. Thomas Sheehan [Heidegger 1998, 183–230]). Both start out from an analysis of the meaning of the Ancient Greek term ruthmos.

2 See, for example, Gregory Nagy (1990), and Susan Stewart (1995).

3 Tony Lopez (1989) thus distinguishes Graham from “that tendency which seeks to explain literature and the world by means of the application of the language model and the methodology of linguistics (what we have come to call Formalism and Structuralism)”, since “Graham’s work produces a living, animate, and mocking language that resists codification” (Lopez 24). However, we find an equally pertinent opposition in that, whilst post-structuralism often seeks to find conditions of impossibility within the texture of signification, Graham’s poetry inverts it, contrasting such impossibility with a factical insistence on language’s ability to open up experience, to be the place “where the people are” (“The Dark Dialogues” [Graham 168]).

4 This thinking is never developed concertedly in any one essay, but is touched upon in his 1939 Aristotle lecture (1998), and in the essays collected as On the Way to Language (1971).

5 Examples of this include Tony Lopez (1989) and David Punter (1982). Recently, Robin Purves has argued against any such link (“W.S. Graham and the Heidegger Question” [Purves & Ladkin 4–29]).

6 Heidegger’s most elaborate remarks on the poet’s vocation come in “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry” (2000). For this discussion, see Tony Lopez. He concludes: “By creating the kind of language-games that he does by consistently representing language as animate and living, by setting up the hints that invoke the Greek world and its gods, Graham is deliberately creating a poetic domain in the terms of Heidegger’s metaphysics” (Lopez 109).

7 I would like to thank Derek Attridge, Andrew Eastman, Lacy Rumsey and Tomasz Wisniewski, from whose comments, queries, and clarifications I have benefited enormously in revising and developing the essay.

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David Nowell-Smith, « An Experience with Rhythm: W.S. Graham », Études britanniques contemporaines, 39 | 2010, 51-64.

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David Nowell-Smith, « An Experience with Rhythm: W.S. Graham », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 39 | 2010, mis en ligne le 11 février 2016, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2803

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David Nowell-Smith

University of Paris VII—Denis Diderot.
David Nowell-Smith is maître de langue in English at Université Paris VII—Denis Diderot. He has studied English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Philosophy at King’s College London, and received his PhD, on the Poetics of Martin Heidegger, from Cambridge in January 2010. He has published on twentieth century British and French literature, and on Poetics and Literary Theory, and is currently preparing a manuscript of his first book, Martin Heidegger at the Limits of Poetics. He is also founding editor of the online poetics journal Thinking Verse.

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