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Unread 06-30-2006, 10:41 AM
Margaret Moore Margaret Moore is offline
Join Date: Jan 2002
Posts: 2,314

Vernon Watkins was born on June 27, 1906, and his centenary was celebrated on Tuesday as the final event in the Year in Literature Festival at Magdalene College, Cambridge (England). He died in October 1967 after playing a two hour doubles tennis match at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he was visiting Professor of Poetry. A New Selected edition of his poetry has very recently been published by Carcanet.

Professor M.Wynn Thomas, an authority on Anglo-Welsh literature, pointed to weaknesses in much of Watkins' symbolist poetry which may account for the sharp posthumous decline in his reputation. (He is now remembered mainly for his friendship with Dylan Thomas but at the time of his death was under consideration for the British Laureateship). Thomas insisted however that the poet's dozen or so fine poems (plus some fine passages) should be celebrated, and that he deserves better than oblivion.

I have read too little of Watkins' work to offer an opinion on his overall achievement , but here is one of the poems I admire:

The Collier

When I was born on Amman hill
A dark bird crossed the sun.
Sharp on the floor the shadow fell;
I was the youngest son.

And when I went to the County School
I worked in a shaft of light.
In the wood of the desk I cut my name:
Dai for Dynamite.

The tall black hills my brothers stood;
Their lessons all were done.
From the door of the school when I ran out
They frowned to watch me run.

The slow grey bells they rung a chime
Surly with grief or age.
Clever or clumsy, lad or lout,
All would look for a wage.

I learnt the valley flowers' names
And the rough bark knew my knees.
I brought home trout from the river
And spotted eggs from the trees.

A coloured coat I was give to wear
Where the lights of the rough land shone.
Still jealous of my favour
The tall black hills looked on.

They dipped my coat in the blood of a kid
And they cast me down a pit,
And although I crossed with strangers
There was no way up from it.

Soon as I went from the County School
I worked in a shaft. Said Jim.
'You will get your chain of gold, my lad,
But not for a likely time.'

And one said, 'Jack was not raised up
When the wind blew out the light
Though he interpreted their dreams
And guessed their fears by night.'

And Tom, he shivered his leper's lamp
For the stain that round him grew;
And I heard mouths pray in the after-damp
When the picks would not break through.

They changed words there in darkness
And still through my head they run,
And white on my limbs is the linen sheet
And gold on my neck the sun.

[This message has been edited by Margaret Moore (edited June 30, 2006).]
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Unread 07-03-2006, 12:16 PM
Julie Steiner's Avatar
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Location: San Diego, CA, USA
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Admirable, indeed! Particularly effective are stanzas 6-7, with the mining pit linked to the pit in the Genesis story of Joseph and his jealous brothers. Thanks for sharing this.

Julie Stoner
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Unread 07-12-2006, 04:06 AM
Margaret Moore Margaret Moore is offline
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Posts: 2,314

Yes, Julie, Watkins wrote some powerful ballads, including The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd. Dylan Thomas complained (probably with good reason) that some of his friend's longer lyrics petered out out like thin white sausages. This shorter one is well sustained, I think, although the opening lines are especially striking.


I am the long lean razor shell:
Do not interpret me too soon.
Streak of the wind with tawny stains,
The sky's quill-feather marked my grooves,
The sea is hidden in my veins.
I am a part of all that moves,
And more than this, of what remains.
Here on the sand in burning noon
I lie, forgotten by the swell.
I hear the breakers and the oars
Falling along these level shores
And beating down the golden grains.
Let Solomon consider well
And take me cool into his hand,
Then ask, before he count the sand:
What is that labour to the moon?

This, too, is arguably worth preserving:


Great nights returning, midnight's constellations
Gather from groundfrost that unnatural brilliance.
Night now transfigures, walking in the starred ways,
Tears for the living.

Earth now takes back the secret of her changes.
All the wood's dropped leaves listen to your footfall.
Night has no tears, no sound among the branches;
Stopped is the swift stream.

Spirits were joined when hazel leaves were falling.
Then the stream hurrying told of separation
This is the fires' world, and the voice of Autumn
Stilled by the death-wand.

Under your heels the icy breath of Winter
Hardens all roots. The Leonids are flying.
Now the crisp stars, the circle of beginning;
Death, birth, united.

Nothing declines here. Energy is fire-born.
Twigs catch like stars or serve for your divining;
Lean down and hear the subterranean water
Crossed by the quick dead.

Now the soul knows the fire that first composed it
Sinks not with time but is renewed hereafter.
Death cannot steal the light which love has kindled
Nor the years change it.


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Unread 07-12-2006, 11:52 AM
Rose Kelleher's Avatar
Rose Kelleher Rose Kelleher is offline
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Location: Maryland, USA
Posts: 3,748

Thanks for posting this, Margaret. I'd never heard of this poet.

This thread, and the Donald Hall thread, have got me thinking about poets whose life's work gets reduced to "a dozen or so fine poems" or "a short book of very fine poems." Do other poets really accomplish so much more than that? Flipping through people's Collecteds, I'm skeptical. Anyway, "The Collier" is beautiful.
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Unread 07-12-2006, 04:48 PM
Elizabeth Wilcox Elizabeth Wilcox is offline
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Join Date: Jul 2006
Location: Alexandria, VA
Posts: 34

Interesting stuff -

I tried to find some more of his poems online, but came up mostly empty-handed. It's a shame that being "over-published" (as one site said) during his lifetime led to him being shoved aside completely after his death. And Rose, I think there are a lot of poets - and authors, for that matter - whose best work would fill out only a slim portfolio ... which makes those with true, consistent enduring power all the more remarkable.

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Unread 07-12-2006, 04:53 PM
Mark Allinson Mark Allinson is offline
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Location: Tomakin, NSW, Australia
Posts: 5,319


the Australian poet, Les Murray, recently said he would be glad if he could leave this world having written a dozen good, lasting poems. And that is out of scores of books of poems he has already published.

I suppose it depends on what you are shooting for - lots of entertaining but essentially emphemeral books of verse, or just a few long-enduring Norton's Anthology possibles.

Rather than dragging the nets for schoals of tiddlers, I would prefer to fish for the BIG ONE. My goal is to write at least ONE poem which might outlive me. I have had a few tiny nibbles, but haven't come close to landing one of them yet.

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Unread 07-14-2006, 05:01 AM
Margaret Moore Margaret Moore is offline
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Posts: 2,314


Sophie Hannah echoed Les Murray's sentiment in a talk given a few years ago. I get depressed when I read weak pieces included in the collections of talented writers simply to swell out a volume to publishable size. However, I stray into General Discussion territory!
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