Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Try To Be Better: an engagement with the creative practice of W. S. Graham


This week sees the launch of Try To Be Better, a multi-disciplinary engagement with the idiosyncratic creative practice of the late poet W. S. Graham, co-edited by Sam Buchan-Watts and Lavinia Singer, and published by Prototype (formerly Test Centre). In this book, contemporary writers and artists respond to prompts Graham left in notebooks and letters to create original poetry, illustration, sculpture, painting, scholarship and more. Contributors include, among others, Thomas A. Clark, Isabel Galleymore, Daisy Lafarge, Maureen N. McLane, Lucy Mercer, Paloma Proudfoot, and Denise Riley.


Try To Be Better is being launched this Friday 28 June at Burley Fisher Books in Dalston, with readings from contributors. More details here. Below is the book’s introduction, written by Sam and Lavinia, as well as a sample page featuring some of Paloma and Daisy’s contributions.


Introduction by Sam Buchan-Watts & Lavinia Singer

‘There must be a way to begin to try’
(‘Implements in Their Places’)


The poet W. S. Graham was committed to experiment. Born in Greenock, Scotland, he relocated in his late twenties to remote Cornwall, where he stayed for most of his life. Graham was in some ways the Frank O’Hara of the Lands End Peninsula, developing deep and mutually inspiring friendships with the painters living nearby, including Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter. The archival materials show Graham to be an original amateur artist. His conception of the verbal was often entwined with the visual, and both informed his methods of working on poems, as is clear to see in his drafts, letters and, particularly, notebooks, many of which were intricate and beautifully realised.


The notebook affords the writer room to play, to try things out, to be un-definitive, to make mistakes. It may free the writer or artist from the category of ‘error’, or reveal the art-making process as ‘error’ itself: to err, to wander, as Graham erred fruitfully in many of his experiments with automatic writing. Unlike a poem or a letter, a notebook does not need to prefigure a reader response – to ‘send from one aloneness to another’ – but it might.


Reading through these various materials, we encountered a number of curious and appealing ‘prompts’ – short, direct phrases resembling arrested thoughts or the sparks of ideas, which seemed to call out for a response:


To talk most richly universally the artist talks
to himself. – Subject for a poem.


This book is the result of our sharing these notes-to-self with others, offering contemporary writers and artists the occasion to overhear, explore, interpret and respond. Each prompt is a provocation to originate work, while also being a cue to remember and celebrate Graham newly.


The prompts range from the mysterious, elliptical and strange – ‘I speak out of a hole in my leg’ (see Tom Betteridge, and Daisy Lafarge and Paloma Proudfoot), the intertextual – ‘taking a line for a walk’ (Astrid Alben and Zigmunds Lapsa), to the technical – ‘fresh grammatical shapes’ (Callie Gardner). They reanimate physical objects, whether ‘an old picture’ (Nancy Campbell), ‘some object in this room’ (Denise Riley) or ‘my writing table’ (Holly Corfield Carr). They can be richly self-conscious, even as they reveal the technical scaffold beneath Graham’s sophisticated lyric poems in condensed, occasionally palindromic, verbal constructions – ‘I am only practising how to speak to speak myself out of myself’ (Nick Thurston, and Natalie Pollard) and ‘why am I here / here I am’ (Rachael Boast). But they also look outwards, to a ‘searching reader’ (Edwina Attlee) and ‘to release the reader to a responsibility of his own’ (Aisha Farr and Will Harris).


This publication is made up of several booklets: one constituting paratextual material, two of original commissions of writing and one of visual art. The fifth combines words and images volunteered by our contributors, documenting parts of their creative process, anonymised and in non-sequential order. They can be consulted individually, in any order, or as one. The changeable and tactile design, together with unconventional indexing, aims to reflect a conception of the notebook as a device with a life of its own, prompting further experimentation and collaboration. And just as the prompts have a clear pedagogical value, given how much they reveal about what it means to make art, we hope that the particular notebook(s) you have in your hands will serve a purpose in workshops; may itself be a workshop.


Graham’s catchphrase to friends was TTBB, ‘Try To Be Better’. The phrase recurs in different forms, cropping up in occasional verse – ‘O let us enjoy the Cornish Sea / And let us try to better be’; major elegy – ‘I am trying to be better’ in ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’; ‘I try to be the best / In you you give me always’ in ‘To Alexander Graham’; in letters to friends – ‘Communication is what our lives are about. We must try. To be better or not doesn’t matter. Measurement is out of our reach’; in acronym form on many envelopes, like the one used for this cover. It manages to convey the resolution of one in ‘aloneness’, a tender intimacy regarding the frailty of contact (trying to be better to each other), and also stands as a marker for Graham’s prompts, for the searching experiments in language and art which follow.




Try To Be Better_Paloma Proudfoot_Daisy Lafarge
(click to enlarge)