Thursday, September 13, 2012

Vernon Watkins' Spoken Word LP

Vernon Watkins is Welsh literature's forgotten man. There was a time when he was bracketed alongside Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas as one of the greats of twentieth century Welsh poetry. His champions included TS Eliot who published his work at Faber & Faber; and Philip Larkin who visited him on the Gower. Yet his reputation has gone into terminal decline.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly his metaphysical musings can be quite difficult to grasp. Secondly, during his lifetime, he hardly ever promoted his work. And finally he just wasn't very cool - after all, he spent most of his life working for Lloyds Bank. He didn't conform to the stereotype of the drunken, self-destructive, Celtic genius like Dylan Thomas; nor was he provocative and eccentric like RS Thomas.

Watkins was born in Maesteg in 1906. After attending Swansea Grammar School he went off to Repton, an English public school, where he was a contemporary of Christopher Isherwood. Then it was up to Cambridge University to read Modern Languages, but he dropped out after one year. Aged 19, he got a job as a junior clerk at the Butetown branch of Lloyds Bank in Cardiff. His digs were in Roath - 73 Connaught Rd. By day he totted up numbers but at night he avidly wrote poetry.

At some point, though, he suffered a nervous breakdown. This involved him going back to Repton and assaulting his former headmaster, Geoffrey Fisher, who would later become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Watkins was certified and sent to a nursing home in Derby. After a period of recovery it was back to the routine of working at Lloyds Bank, this time in Swansea at the St Helen's branch. Apart from a stint in the RAF during WW2 he would remain there until his retirement in 1966. Even his death in 1967 was kind of low key - he had a heart-attack while playing tennis in Seattle. He was in the US as visiting Professor of Poetry at the University of Washington.

One interesting cultural relic of his career is a spoken word LP he recorded for Decca Records in 1965. It was part of the Yale Series of Recorded Poets. Among the other poets who laid down their verses were Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, C Day Lewis, Robert Lowell, Louis MacNeice, Marianne Moore, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks. The poems that Watkins read were: Swedenborg's Skull; Taliesin and the Spring Vision; The Spring; The Peace in the Welsh Hills; The Tributary Seasons; Music of Colours, White Blossom; Elegy of the Heroine of Childhood; Excerpt From the Broken Sea; Ode to Swansea; Semele; and Ballad of Culver's Hole.

* The above picture shows the 1975 reissued LP on Carillon Records.