W. S. Graham
The Thermal Stair
Interactive exploration of W. S. Graham’s poem The Thermal Stair
Word-roads is an interactive, multimedia poetry reading resource, set up by the UEA Poetics Project in collaboration with Buckley Williams developers, and Caper digital agency. Click on different words to bring up images, glosses, videos, and other contextual and paratextual materials, so that new reading experiences and meanings can emerge.
The poem is divided up into four themed ‘routes’, where recurrent motifs are grouped together, so you can chart your own route through the poem.
The four ‘routes’ are:
- the sense of the poet’s ‘calling’, as well as his attempts to ‘call’ his friend;
- the theme of ‘space/place’, both linked to individual places referenced in the poem, and to the moments when the poem reflects on ‘space’ as part of a painter’s artistic medium;
- ways in which ‘time’ is explored, bringing together past and present, memory and reality, life and death;
- images of ‘sea’ and ‘sky’, which are intimate to the local landscape, and yet reach far beyond it.
W. S. Graham (1918-1986) was a poet, born in Greenock on the west coast of Scotland, and who lived the majority of his adult life in the Penwith peninsular of west Cornwall. He was close to the painters of the ‘St Ives School’, especially Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, and Bryan Wynter, and many of his most celebrated poems, including ‘The Thermal Stair’, are elegies to these painters when they died. Graham lived most of his life in poverty and obscurity, and only since his death has he come slowly to be recognised as one of the major British lyric poets of the second half of the twentieth century.
Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) was born in St Ives and a leading member of the second generation of painters associated with the ‘St Ives School’. An early protégé of Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Adrian Stokes, he worked within the post-cubist tradition of abstract art, but created works that engaged with the lived landscapes of West Cornwall. In the 1950s he was considered Britain’s closest equivalent to the Abstract Expressionists, forging friendships with Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko. In the late 1950s he took up gliding, in order to get a different physical experience of these landscapes. He died in 1964, three days after a crash landing in his glider.
The Thermal Stair was written by WS Graham as an elegy to Peter Lanyon, after his death in August 1964. In the poem, Graham addresses Lanyon whilst revisiting the places—pubs, galleries, disused mines, villages, clifftops—in West Cornwall that had become landmarks of their friendship, in order to reflect on their shared experiences together, but also their shared aspirations as artists. Graham wants to memorialise his friend as an artist, but also to remember their friendship: the poem is both public speech and intimate address. But Graham also uses the poem to voice his own insecurities about his poetry, using Lanyon’s painting as an example for him to follow. This becomes the way he can, in one gesture, do justice to Lanyon both as artist and as friend.
The Penwith Peninsular is the westernmost tip of Cornwall, a thin strip of land surrounded on both sides by the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries it was home to fishermen, and for centuries it was a centre of tin mining. In the late 19th century, the fishing village of St Ives was adopted as an artists’ colony, and from the 1930s many modernist artists, including Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson, moved there, with St Ives becoming a centre for British art in the mid-20th century. Lanyon was born in St Ives, and Graham moved there in 1944.