Vernon Watkins: a second visit

September 25, 2020 1 Comment

This year’s Haf Bach Mihangel, the forecasters say, will come to an abrupt end tomorrow, on the autumn equinox.  But today’s a perfect day: hot, with sunshine from dawn to dusk, and only the slightest of breezes.  I’m walking the coast to Oxwich.  After climbing out of Pwll Du Head the path is easy going, wandering absent-mindedly along the grassy tops of the limestone cliffs.  As it joins the lane above Hunts Bay I remember a walk here four years ago, when I succeeded in finding, after some difficulty and with guidance from the late Nigel Jenkins, the memorial stone to the poet Vernon Watkins that overlooks the Bay and the sea.  I wonder whether I can remember where the stone is. 

My first try is premature, and results only in gorse scratches to legs and hands on the steep slope.  Then I recall the spot is further along, opposite the first houses after Hunts Farm (all new since Watkins’s day).  A narrow path, barely noticeable, snakes into the dying undergrowth.  There’s nothing to be seen, until I realise that the stone is on a ledge immediately below where I’m standing.  It faces the sea, near where Vernon Watkins must have stood hundreds of times.  You can only see its face if you turn your back to the sea.  No one walking the coast path could possibly know about the stone.  Even if you did know, you’d need instructions to pinpoint it. 

The stone’s near-invisibility might be a mirror – perhaps a deliberate one – of the nature of Vernon Watkins the man.  By all accounts he was a self-contained and undeclarative person, unlike his close friend Dylan Thomas, and might have been averse to a public drawing attention to himself.  It’s true, there’s a plaque commemorating him in Pennard Church, a small, slightly crooked plaque on the outside wall of the care home at Southgate where his house once stood, and a third on the wall of the old Lloyds Bank in St Helen’s Road, Swansea, where he worked.  But he’d have been more embarrassed than flattered, you sense, if he’d been accorded the equivalent of the Dylanolatry that litters Swansea, Laugharne and other Thomas locations.  Hunts Bay, with its modest, bowl-like valley sweeping down to the rocks and the sea, would have been enough for him.

The stone gives his dates (1906-67), below his name and the phrase, ‘Poet of Gower’.  This epithet grounds him in his beloved adopted homeland, though it also makes him sound a ‘local’ or ‘regional’ poet, like William Barnes or George Crabbe, whereas the claims he makes in his poems are not primarily about locality but about wider themes of life and (especially) death.

The inscription carries a line, carved by Ronald Cour, from one of Watkins’s best-known poems, the long-line ‘Taliesin in Gower’: ‘I have been taught the script of the stones, and I know the tongue of the wave’.  When I get home, I look the poem up and read it.  And find myself disappointed.  Well-chosen though it is for its geographical fit, it seems to me to contain in its twelve stanzas many of the weaknesses of Watkins’s verse.  It starts with an invocation, in the kind of orotund, ‘poetic’ language that was common enough in English poetry up to the 1950s, but which sounds dated and off-putting today (you can imagine Dylan Thomas reciting it portentously in his Anglicised brogue):

Late I return, O violent, colossal, reverberant, eavesdropping sea.
My country is here.  I am foal and violet.  Hawthorn breaks from my hands.

Admittedly, the voice is the imagined voice of the mythical Welsh poet Taliesin.  But his ode sounds more like Swinburne than a version of Old Welsh, and the high, vatic tone continues, with little or no variation, through the rest of the poem.  Nouns and adjectives describing the animate and inanimate life of the south Gower coast pile up in ever thicker drifts, as the ancient poet celebrates the vitality of the land and its creatures, persistent through ages of time.  The fourth stanza is typical:

Yet now my task is to weigh the rocks on the level wings of a bird,
To relate these undulations of time to a kestrel’s motionless poise,
I speak, and the soft-running hour-glass answers; the core of the rock is a third:
Landscape survives, and these holy creatures proclaim their regenerate joys.

Somehow the language here never takes flight, never surprises, never delights.  It’s weighed down by phrases that are ponderous (‘undulations of time’) or clichéd (‘motionless poise’).  Why are the creatures ‘holy’?  Watkins described himself, as others have since, as a ‘metaphysical’ poet.  But you don’t find in ‘Taliesin in Gower’ that vital, daring connection between idea and image, that colloquial tone, or that delight in twisting an argument like a subtle knife so common in, say, the poems of John Donne or George Herbert.  I suppose there’s an ‘argument’ of sorts, when we arrive at the final stanza:

I celebrate you, marvellous form.  But first I must cut the wood,
Exactly measure the strings, to make manifest what shall be.
All Earth being weighed by an ear of corn, all heaven by a drop of blood,
How shall I loosen this music to the listening, eavesdropping sea?

There’s an implied irony here, since the poet has just spent eleven stanzas ‘loosening the music’ in celebration of the world around him.  But maybe I’m searching for things that are not there.

Interestingly, there’s another poem by Watkins that, by its title alone, ‘Hunt’s Bay’, might have suggested itself as a source of quotation on the memorial stone.  It’s a darker, more personal poem that tones down the rhapsodic excess of ‘Taliesin in Gower’.  The best parts forget about the metaphysics and show Watkins’s lyric gift and eye for the natural world:

I have been among broken things,
Picked up the fragile lace
Of a sea-shell through which the wings
Of a gull in a clear blue space
Could be seen, then lost:
By a wave of the sea it was tossed.

In his foreword to the New selected poems (2006), Rowan Williams, a strong advocate of Vernon Williams, rejects ‘the charge that he somehow empties out the specificity of landscape or personality in order to evoke timeless patterns’.  But for me the charge is an accurate one.  Watkins has a habit of undermining his keen earthly observation by turning a moral eye to the heavens, in a ceremonial process Williams calls ‘liturgical’.  At its conclusion ‘Hunt’s Bay’ can’t resist shutting its eyes to the wonders of the Bay and indulging in solemn generalisation:

Touch you may and touch you can,
White and strange, the drifting wood,
But never touch the severed man
Torn from history for good,
Nailing to splints and spars
Night and the turning stars.

My personal ‘poet of Gower’ is Nigel Jenkins.  His poems are everything Watkins’ are not: loose in form, colloquial, scabrous and political, but always personal and always human.  His ‘Wild cherry’ doesn’t aspire to philosophy or theology.  It hides its art, but goes straight to the heart:

Tiptoe on wall-top, head in
clouds of white blossom, I
reached for the fullest, the
flounciest sprays, I travelled
many miles to give you them.

You placed them, smiling,
in a jar on your table,
and there was beauty between us,
between us too there were words,
white clouds of words …

One of the sprays I’d kept myself,
and I’ll know on what morning
you brush up the petals, you
toss out the twigs with the ashes
and empties, yesterday’s news.

Nigel Jenkins and Vernon Watkins share a resting place, outside St Mary’s Church, Pennard.  I wonder what they have to say to each other?

Comments (1)

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  1. Jim Young says:

    Hi Andrew – you might like my poetry blog above (searchable) found you on Twitter. I am a Swansea poet.
    Best wishes,
    Jim

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