The Real Job

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.

6 thoughts on “The Real Job”

  1. I knew Watkins, too, Loren. He seemed like a bit of a twit. He made almost no impression on me.
    I felt he was living too much on the exhaust of Dylan Thomas, his friend/mentor. In his class for a whole quarter, I never took away a single lesson or moment that stuck with me as Roethke’s classes often did. I suppose if I had taken the time to converse with him, I might have had a different impression…but he didn’t send any signal that invited me in that way.

    My hunch: it’s like most things, a matter of personal preference. I tried harder with John Logan, who was a prodigious drinker. While he was cordial, his demons interested him more than his students did.

  2. Never having had Roethke for class, I certainly can’t make that comparison.

    In many ways Wagoner, who taught the first quarter my senior year, was my most inspirational teacher, but I never felt that I could talk with him the way I could with Watkins.

    Wagoner’s classes were often happenings, seldom discussions.

  3. Hi,
    Does anyone know where Vernon Watkins spent his retirement years? I just bought a 1953 edition (probably a first with “daughters on last line) of “The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas” in a thrift store in Coos Bay, OR, of all places, with a long, multi-page inscription including a handwritten version of Elegy, plus an analysis of Elegy, a poem not even included in this first edition of Thomas’ poetry. The inscription concludes with Vernon Watkins signature. This could easily be some kind of scam by a former owner/book collector trying to make a book worth more, but, if not, the commentary in the book might be significant to Dylan Thomas scholarship. If anyone can tell me where Vernon Watkins spent his retirement years, I would appreciate it. And I would also like to contact a respected Thomas scholar to determine whether this commentary would be significant to scholarship, or not. I’m an old English major from the 1970s with a fondness for Dylan Thomas. Vernon Watkins I did not know about. Thanks in advance.

  4. Vernon Watkins spent his retirement where he had spent most of his life, in Swansea, South Wales. He was a great friend of Dylan Thomas (nine years his junior)and they had great respect for each others poetry. Dylan Thomas said of Vernon Watkins, ” He is the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English”.
    They commented on and helped each other with ideas and construction of their poetry. Watkins wrote of Dylan, “His writing was , I understood from the first, the exact complement of mine.”
    It is quite likely that the inscription on your copy of The Collected Poems is genuine. However, I suggest you contact Jeff Towns in Swansea(you should be able to Google him) who is the leading authority on the printed works of Dylan Thomas.

  5. I am a distant relation of Vernon Watkins on his mother’s side. My cousin has put together a privately published book on Vernon and I have incorporated some of this into a Wikipedia article.

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