Wednesday 4 October 2017

122 Vernon Watkins 50th anniversary

122 Vernon Watkins 50th anniversary
This year October 8th falls on a Sunday, as in 1967, when in Seattle, North America, 61-year-old Pennard poet Vernon Watkins collapsed and died while playing tennis.  Following retirement from long service with Lloyds Bank, mainly at Swansea’s St Helen’s Road branch, he took up a Gulbenkian Fellowship in poetry at University College, Swansea, which awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Literature, before he travelled with members of his family to Seattle.  This was intended to be a year as Visiting Professor of Literature at the University of Washington, where he had lectured on W.B. Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins for one semester in 1964.
Often referred to as “Swansea’s Other Poet”, Vernon Watkins was a good friend of Dylan Thomas, whose obituary he wrote in “The Times”.  He sought to defend his friend’s reputation, for the often exaggerated anecdotes of Dylan’s drinking and outlandish behaviour distracted attention from appreciating the quality of his poetry and other writings.
Vernon was a very fine poet in his own right, whose work was as different from Dylan’s as that of John Donne (like Vernon, a metaphysical poet) from that of John Betjeman.  There was no rivalry between Dylan and Vernon, for both appreciated the other’s poetry, and during the 1930s they would regularly meet to discuss poetry, and suggest any words or phrases that might improve what either had written.
During Vernon’s lifetime Faber and Faber published six volumes of his poetry, with a seventh being printed at the time of his death.  Subsequently three more volumes of his poetry have appeared, as well as his “Collected Poems” in 1986.  For the centenary of his birth “New Selected Poems” was published in 2006, and this was recently reprinted for the 50th anniversary of his death.  In the foreword, Dr Rowan Williams describes Vernon’s long poem “The Ballad of the Mari Llwyd” as “one of the outstanding poems of the century”.  Sadly the radio recording of Dylan reading it (which takes 30 minutes) has not survived.
Vernon could speak German and French, and translated poems from both languages, having spent one year at Cambridge studying modern languages.  He made several visits to Germany, being outraged at the time of the Nazi book burning in 1933 when books by German nineteenth century poet Heinrich Heine were burnt: he had to be hurried away by friends from danger.  Vernon translated two cycles of Heine’s poems composed in 1825/26 into English, entitled “The North Sea” and this was published in 1951.  At the time of his death Vernon was being considered, among others, as a possible Poet Laureate, following the death of John Masefield.
His poetry was composed in spite of the time pressure of full-time work six days a week in a bank, entailing bus journeys to and from Pennard to Hospital Square (the junction of St Helen’s Road and Bryn-y-Mor Road), and not neglecting his wife Gwen and his five children.  He met Gwen during the war, when they both worked at Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes, the government secret code-breaking centre.  They lived on Pennard cliffs where a friend recollected “my image of him will always be out of doors, on walks above or below the cliffs, or on the rocks at low tide, out for lobsters, crabs and prawns…”
The 50th anniversary of his death is being marked in several ways.  This month Jeff Towns’ exhibition is in the foyer of the Singleton campus University library, with last Monday a reading of and discussion about his poetry at the Taliesin Theatre.  This morning a Vernon Watkins walk will start from outside Pennard’s Three Cliffs coffee shop at 11am, while on 19th October the Ostreme Centre in Mumbles hosts a talk from the editor of “New Collected Poems” at 8pm - admission £3.  
These events and a forthcoming biography should ensure that Vernon Watkins, whom Dylan described as “The most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English”, is not forgotten.                                                                                  
  Late I return, O violent, colossal, reverberant, eavesdropping sea.
  My country is here.  I am foal and violet.  Hawthorn breaks from my hands.
  I watch the inquisitive cormorant pry from the praying rock of Pwlldu,
  Then skim to the gulls’ white colony, to Oxwich’s cockle-strewn sands.
  (from “Taliesin in Gower”, courtesy of Gwen Watkins)

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