While sitting down and writing blog entries this week, I realized just how magical my undergraduate years at the University of Washington were. In four short years I was exposed to a variety of poets whose ideas have influenced me the rest of my life.
By my senior year, however, I was more than ready to move on with the rest of my life (if I had realized that Vietnam was next, I might have been less anxious to move on). Tired of working my way through college as a janitor, I just wanted to finish school and get a ãreal job,ä too young to realize that attaining "self-awareness" is life's real job.
Of all the poetry teachers I had, Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, a guest professor for one quarter, may have been my favorite because his classes seemed like friendly discussions rather than lectures from above.
Amazingly, you could actually visit him during office hours and have a discussion with him without feeling that you were interrupting his day. For instance, after he questioned my interpretation of a line in Yeats' "Crazy Jane Meets the Bishop," a personal favorite I had memorized years before, I went to talk to him in his office, and he not only raised my grade, he spent an hour talking about Yeatsâ poetry. That may have been my most memorable hour as an undergraduate.
Perhaps "Demands of the Poet" captures a little of the sensitivity and passion that Vernon Watkins conveyed in his classes.
Demands of the Poet
I set my heart against all lesser toil.
Speak to me now more closely than the birds.
That labour done, on which I spent my oil,
Avails me nothing till you test the words.
How much the beating pulse may hold the years
Yet write the athletic wisdom on the page
You alone say. You bring the authentic tears
Which recognize the moment without age.
No lesser vision gives me consolation.
Wealth is a barren waste, that spring forgot.
Art is the principle of all creation,
And there the desert is, where art is not.
Vernon Watkins in Affinities
It takes remarkable humility for a poet to feel that the reader, and not he himself, determines the success of the poem and that until the reader tests the truth of his words, the poem has no real use.
And, yet, the same poet sets a lofty goal for himself because he believes that only the artistâs creation can keep the world from being barren and sterile.
I like to think, at least, that my communion with artists and their works has made my own life less barren and sterile.