‘This reluctant ink’: The poetry of Roderick Watson
The late poet Ian Hamilton excused his slender output, some fifty poems in twenty-five years, as the result of a bubbling mix of booze, bills, literary bust-ups and bailiffs. While Hamilton’s catalogue of trials and tribulations preventing him from putting pen to paper might seem a little too much like the stuff of self-mythology, it does raise questions about what represents a solid achievement for the life’s work of a poet. Two main reasons emerge to explain why a poet’s oeuvre is not as substantial as that of his contemporaries; sheer meticulousness and a busy professional life. Both of these apply equally to Roderick Watson (b.1943) who worked in the English Studies Department at the University of Stirling for over thirty-eight years, and retired as professor in 2009. Since then keen readers might have noticed his work is once again beginning to emerge, notably in journals such as the Dark Horse. Watson has given up much of his intellectual energy and time to academia and his success in this field has for too long eclipsed the achievement of his poetry.
Watson’s corpus stands at two full collections: True History on the Walls (1976) and Into the Blue Wavelengths (2004). In addition he has published four other pamphlets and items of ephemera, from his juvenilia in Twenty-Eight Poems (1964), his first pamphlet Poems (1970), an American anthology Trio: New Poets from Edinburgh (1971) to his limited edition tribute to Hugh MacDiarmid What your look meant then (1987). Watson’s poem ‘Back in the Room Now’ from his latest collection contrasts the hands of the clock with that of the poet who sits in the ‘traffic of air’ and waits for ‘this reluctant ink’ to visit the page. In this light Watson’s poems are the ‘miraculous lyrical arrivals’ that Ian Hamilton once spoke of in terms of his own poetry. This is not to say they are fleeting, delicate and insubstantial, as Watson’s work is marked by an analytical backbone and a granitic sub-stratum.
However, we must not slide into the all too easy generalisation that Walter Keir once made about Watson’s poetry in his first publication. Although in sympathy with Watson’s apprentice poetry, Keir claimed that while other poets appeal ‘more directly to the emotions’, ‘Mr Watson’ appeals ‘to the mind’. To divorce emotion from the mind in the poetry of Roderick Watson is to enter into a false dichotomy, for while there are hard intellectual edges and glints in Watson’s work, it is also characterised by an understated tenderness. Watson wrote of his own work, in a recollection of MacDiarmid that ‘for me the experiential world could never be split into a place of things or facts versus feeling’ (Chapman, issue 69-70, 1964). In Watson’s Twenty Eight Poems we come across small poems that more than pull their weight and contain both images of violence and affection. This is ‘Image’:
I have seen you standing
naked in a room
which whispers your presence
like a shell the sea.
Like a bright knife poised
I have seen you standing
at my very heart.
This early work also contains the seeds of poems that would be revisited and polished in later collections, such as ‘Family Group’ and the heavily Iain Crichton Smith influenced ‘Death of an Old Woman’. In little over half a decade, Watson’s work appeared again, but now his signature style had emerged, a poetry of allusions and dramatic pauses on the page that tries to capture something of the ‘passionate’ but ‘icy’ exaltation of the ‘abstract world’. The pamphlet Poems opens with ‘Signature’, a poem that like much of Watson’s mature work melds philosophy, intertextuality, personal experience and family history. It begins in rhetorical and W.S. Graham-esque tones with commands to the reader to:
Take down this/ that coming home one afternoon
I was caused distress by the body of a cat
dead on the pavement; and stepped over the clotted fur
stiff as cardboard and stepping wondered at the exact
instant if this and this too could be turned
to a poem.
Other poems in this short collection, such as ‘Break Down’ and ‘Feast’ explore Watson’s growing interest in the polyphonic poem and the recurring motif of the Bakhtinian carnival of excess, spiritual death and rebirth that underscore some of his work. However, the most successful poem in this publication happens to be a good example of Watson’s poetry of fact and feeling, artefact and artifice in ‘The Director of the Museum’. The speaker, who is on holiday after the ‘university year’ ends, decides to really try to get to grips with the essence and history of his town, as a living museum:
So I numbered kerb-stones by the road,
and placed them in linen bags
carefully labelled and stitched from flour sacks
for use when I was a student
of geology (it was years ago)
I hardly thought I would need them again,
still, I kept them, and that is how
I started my collection.
What begins as simply a quirky poem quickly becomes something more profound and otherworldly. While Watson’s work does appeal and speak to the emotions, it often does so in a defamiliarising way, or in a way that destabilises the reader’s comfortable lyrical and linguistic assumptions. In Hugh MacDiarmid’s long poem The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961) he puts forward a credo and set of conditions for what would constitute his ideal poetry:
A poetry the quality of which
is a stand made against intellectual apathy,
its material founded, like Gray’s, on difficult language…
Watson’s poetry does not hesitate to challenge the reader, and here we see the world or the city reduced to a series of curiosities that the poet must curate in a traumatised, post-war and bomb shaken setting:
Curiosities came to light:
a mechanic’s spanner and hand
welded in the engine it was melding;
and you will all have heard
of the ball in the air that never came down
(I cut its shadow from a wall).
But the tea-cup that looks like a flower
seems duller on my shelves
And I hardly know it any more
for the jewel among the ashes
found on those concentric shores
where I moved in a mineralogist’s dream;
until the time the cries died down
around me, and dazed and awake I stood
in the suburbs and knew that I survived
(and the collection was complete).
Watson, then, is both collector and curator, and his method of displaying these events and experiences to us is one in which our interest is captured but is prevented from reeling away in horror by its distancing effect. Watson admits that his poetry will never be able to restore the dull teacup on his shelves to its original, and intended place in the home. This is a poetry of fragments, intertexts and aftermath, collected, recorded and remarked upon.
Watson’s next collection was a pamphlet’s worth of poems in a 1971 anthology shared with two other poets: Trio. This selection gives us a more rounded Watson, still spiky and cerebral, but marked by an underlying thread of tenderness. Most of these poems would be reprinted six years later in Watson’s first full collection True History on the Walls (1976). The collection opens in austere and forensic terms with ‘Three Stones’, a poem that offers us three discrete interpretations on a found stone ‘carved to six faces’. Here, Watson taps into the inner eloquence of these historical artefacts, and his poetry dramatises their story:
Heavy big as a rabbit’s head and fitting to the hand.
Perhaps a sinker for nets (there is difference
of opinion on its function) certain it is very old
and older than roof-beams buried in the peat.
But a stone for killing is the most likely
so well it fits the hand. Design to penetrate a life.
Carrying on the MacDiarmidian theme of geological opposition, we see Watson trying to reconcile himself to the stones, and in ‘Granite City Eclogue’ we find the poet’s hometown built of and upon the most ‘perdurable’ of stone, granite. Watson links granite to that of the ‘glittering obduracy of mind’ such as that of ‘Annie Davidson – a relative 16 years dead’:
and not far removed who left service
as a lady’s maid by plaiting her employer’s braids
into the back of the bedroom chair and slapped her face
carefully had six children (and five survived).
Her life’s pride was always to have managed.
The poem is a meditation on what lasts and what is ephemeral, that Aberdeen is built by men of standing ‘who built grace into Grecian banks / and baronial hotels’ but is really kept alive by the fishermen who live in cycles of hard work and self-destruction. Watson sees there is little virtue ‘in prideful exercise of grip’ but ‘nevertheless I value true things / by their difficulty’. It is this ‘desperate intransigence’ that gives Watson both an admiration for ‘the stern fathers’ and their inheritance in the form of the poet, the son, who is made in both respect and ‘that ecstasy of opposition’. Watson’s problematic paean to the Granite City is not simply a clear-cut anti-pastoral, but one with facets of mica that glint like throbs of familial impulse and the desire to get away and do his own thing. Watson is ambivalent of his pride in Aberdeen, and is still finding himself as a poet and a man:
Defined by indirection I am here
in the blossom of Cambridge and away from home mostly.
The title poem ‘True History on the Walls’ carries another of Watson’s haunting dictums that ‘you cannot get away from what has gone before’. This poem is Watson’s heady melting pot of history, and as a student of literature, he begins his history in action with ‘Agamemnon’s men…fighting for Troy’ but this is quickly contrasted with the history of war we can still see, as ‘the concrete bunkers on the beach…foul with piss and excrement’. Watson cannot escape from personal and national history, so cuts and splices various aspects of them together. In the family album we find a woman who died ‘and at the back of the book / this man killed her (effectively responsible)’. History for Watson is imbued with repetitions that force people into a binary opposition of ‘pressure and resistance’.
Everything is dripping with history, from the couple who after arguing, make up to walk across a bridge where the poet feels the force of history ‘like wind on the road bridge’. This bridge claimed ‘seven men’ in ‘its construction’. Watson argues that this ‘pressure and resistance’ is a vitally balancing power and a way of ‘mending the distances between us’. Watson’s is not merely a stoic acceptance of fate, but an embracing of the world as a place abounding with echoes but one where, with an awareness of the resistance, you can live on your own terms but you can’t get too far away from ‘true history’.
True History on the Walls is full of echoes and polysemic voices, from that of Villon to Martin Bormann but it is often the times when Watson allows us into his own domestic history that moments of winning sensitivity occur. In ‘Love Poem’ we see Watson’s vulnerable side as he reveals to us that this is his ‘fifth attempt to say the difficult things / between us’. So often, meta-poetry, or poems that comment on their own composition, can be stilted exercises, but here we see it as an act of Watson’s ‘winning awkwardness (the style it is that brings success)’. The poem, by showing its own workings, gives us a fascinating glimpse upon the poetry of courtship, by revealing a kind of formula that celebrates words that go beyond the usual romantic bromides, to find an acceptance of the weirdness of love’s rhetoric and the otherness of a potential partner:
But the words I have I give them to you
and not afraid to stammer thought little courting
in such fish bones shells and prickly leaves
- a wry garland more suited to the few
and stubborn moments when I know
nothing of you and you so strange. Which too
must be said or the rest false witness.
While the collection tries to bring both the vastness and minutae of history vividly to life for us and to confront us with history’s more abrasive aspects, it is the poems of what Philip Hobsbaum has termed ‘introspection and retrospection’ that really strike a chord with the reader. One of the outstanding poems of the collection is ‘Foveran Sands’, which heralds a new, more reflective and approachable existential bent in his work, to be explored in his 2004 collection Into the Blue Wavelengths. ‘Foveran Sands’ marks the return of the poet to a ‘sea-coast village’ where his relatives hailed from. In the opening stanza we see Watson’s task of making sense of the past in an uncaring and littered present:
We went to see the old church yard little left
among rabbit droppings and cleft beer cans
saw geese too cropping the grass in a field
and watched the winter-setting sky like a brass
wedge splitting the world at its sea rim;
but that was later and on the way home.
Each word here is carefully deployed and carries measured pauses. For instance, this is a genealogical outing to see the place where his family once lived, but he makes clear that home is elsewhere. The only thing to really offer comfort here is the warm car that promises movement and escape. The poet’s gaze and attention is drawn away from the scene by a ‘model bi-plane’ speeding over Foveran Sands. The poet compares his own action of seeking his relative’s resting place to that of the plane merely soaring above everything. He cannot ask after these people, and their names are only half familiar, their pictures fade in attics where dead relatives hold ‘picnics’. In the end we are presented with the image of the plane, which took someone months of care and work to build as akin to the tribal throb Watson feels upon visiting Foveran Sands:
Were the man to stand say with his arms apart
he would touch its wings from tip to tip
in a perfect span – to hold the winter months
of all last year his hours of patient building.
And what moment of lost time complete
rigged and fuelled flew for him today.
It would be nearly three decades until Watson would publish his most successful collection Into the Blue Wavelengths (Luath, 2004). While these poems are recognisably the work of the author of True History on the Walls, they mark a slight mellowing in the poet’s tone and outlook. The poems seem smoother, not as jagged, verbose and ambitious. Family history is still scrutinised and often criticised, but Watson seems to have largely made peace with the world and embraced his inheritance. The poetry is more accessible and lucid and carries flashes of lyrical brilliance. In ‘Family Group’ Watson casts his eye over a 19th century photograph of his ancestors, and captures the image and foibles of each one memorably, to end on a meditation upon the photographer, trying to snatch something out of the darkness:
Uncertainly with a large hat
my father’s father leans at the back
a pale boy in a man’s suit
he looks to the lens with my face.
I think of the photographer
all wrapped in darkness; remember
to breathe again.
And leave them to it.
This collection is framed within Watson’s own epigraph that ‘perhaps all poems are love poems – and elegies as well’. And while many of these poems find Watson in an elegiac mode, not least his poems in tribute to dead but influential and kenspeckled poets such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Garioch and Sydney Goodsir Smith, this adds an extra layer of poignancy to Watson’s love poetry. The two most affecting examples of this are the poems ‘Sycamore Leaf for Celia’ and ‘Poem’. The former works well as a vignette of a couple walking in the woods, looking at leaves that are used to connote something almost as ineffably deep as it is ephemeral:
In your bare hand the leaf
was uniquely worn.
I found another half green
and laid it there
lightly. Your cool palm.
That evening. Gathering games.
The poem has a haiku and zen-like quality to it, and underneath the ludic ‘gathering games’ of the poem, is time ebbing away. In ‘Poem’ the poet is ‘astonished’ to feel the ‘bairn kicking through’ upon feeling his wife’s stomach and that:
I should have raised such a cairn
with you in the wilderness of creation.
The cold facts behind these poems keep them from seeming like maudlin recollections and always keep the reader on edge and alert, much like Watson’s restless poetic eye. The overarching theme of this collection is that of radio signals and snippets of speech and song caught in the atmosphere and coming back to haunt the poet. Watson posits himself as the receiver and conduit of the voices of dead friends and bards, old postcards and remembered rites of passage. In one of three elegies to Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘FM’, Watson writes of the eldritch experience of hearing MacDiarmid’s voice on radio, and being haunted by its aural palimpsest of the complete being he once knew:
I think it is coming closer you voice
your death hearing that laugh again
last night in cheerful conversation
crossing over the airwaves:
a distant station transmitting
- The moment’s meaning was lost
to the blind spool recorded then
as silence only. But time’s translation
sends it on: the truth of it now.
Crossing over the airwaves.
This is a striking treatment of how intertextuality in the work of any given poet is like a haunted radio, and hauntings underscore much of this collection. This is not to say that the collection is wholly elegiac, its very linguistic verve and brio prevents it from seeming this way. The most resonant poems are the ones where the hauntings become more familial, and Watson’s tone becomes more directly existential and revelatory. For instance, this is true of the poems ‘Winding the Clock (In Memoriam David Murison)’ and ‘Beyond the Edge’, Watson’s elegy for his father. In ‘Winding the Clock’ the memory of Murison’s death melds with the happiness of a dream Watson had been having. The details of Murison’s death are eerily fitting for a poet:
It was a good dream.
The tunnel of grass.
The tunnel of trees.
And the circle together
with laughter under the sky.
And David at the bottom of the stair
who fell while winding the clock
was somehow there too – though of course
he wasn’t really any more.
This poem finds Watson at his most introspective and existential – for there is a parallel between the act of dreaming and writing, to bring to life what is irrecoverably lost but also to realise that it carries with it all of the disabusing power of a dream upon waking. The language of the poem becomes gravid with double-meanings, Watson writes about the thought of ‘an open door’ and ‘somehow seeing it through’. In a few words he provides us with both an optimistic and a niggling ontological image where he, as poet, must see his life through a door that can never close:
Oh, I am two fools I know
for dreaming and for writing so,
in whining poetry.
All this at four minutes past five
on a Wednesday morning in February
early enough still alive.
But the feeling persists of
somewhere an open door
and somewhere the possibility
of seeing it through.
This closing stanza brings to mind Christopher Whyte’s phrase about Edwin Morgan’s poetry, that it gains ‘power from things not declared’ and here Watson is confronting mortality in enigmatic, fearful and exhilarating terms. Many of Watson’s recurring interests in his poetry are brought together in his masterly ‘Beyond the Edge’. ‘Edge’ here is again a polysemic word, on the edge of life but also the bevelled edge of his father’s work-tools. As we have already seen, Watson admires craftsmanship, and finds it here, in a bygone age of preparation where seemingly obsolete tools are still useful as the stimulus for a taut and chiselled poem:
Unused for years they speak of when
preparation seemed all there was to do
and as important as the job itself
in the fight against encroaching dullness
with hands that shook on those clouded blades.
This was to be his last anthology of sharpness.
Watson accepts that nothing ‘cuts forever’ but throughout this unravelling thought-process we naturally think of the wound that his father’s death has left upon Watson’s psyche, and how a poem is both an act of healing and an act of re-opening the wound. In the way his father tried to chisel shapes out of wood, Watson carefully crafts his poem:
So we work to carve shape from sense
trembling in the confusion of the wild woods
out there – where my father went to live
altogether away from sharp edges.
With a toolbox ready for every single thing
but that which came to pass.
If the reader does not bring anything away from Into the Blue Wavelengths, they must remember the final two lines to this poem that try to project a voice into that wild wooded place where no radio-waves can be received and all tools are inutile. If we quickly revisit True History on the Walls we find one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, Martin Bormann, referred to as ‘an odd job man / who did not always use / the very best materials’. Watson’s poems are crafted with the finest linguistic and poetic tools available, whittled and honed down over the years and collections to achieve a mellower, mature, but still sharp-edged voice in Into the Blue Wavelengths.
In an essay on his poetic mentor, Hugh MacDiarmid, Watson writes, paraphrasing Seamus Heaney that ‘there were poems where you worked for weeks to smooth your words down to a perfect lyric shape; and then there were poems like a wheelbarrow where you piled everything in’. Watson argues ‘that’s me with the wheelbarrow’ and in terms of the mosaic of references and voices in his work, he may well be right.
However, Watson’s work will never be the polymathic leaden wheelbarrow of MacDiarmid as it has never lost sight of the merit of craftsmanship instead of wild vision and ambition. It could be said that his work is closer to that of Heaney’s contemporary, Michael Longley, who wrote that ‘if prose is like beer, poetry is like whisky: and there’s something quite off-putting about a pint of whisky’. For Watson’s work can be complex, at times forbidding in his earlier poetry, but the ‘reluctant ink’ with which he has written these poems for over fifty years has left him with a lean but vastly humane, learned and emotive body of work still in progress.
Into the Blue Wavelengths (Luath Press, 2004): ‘Back in the Room Now’; ‘Family Group’. ‘Sycamore Leaf for Celia’; ‘Poem’; ‘FM’; ‘Winding the clock’; ‘Beyond the Edge’.
Twenty-Eight Poems (with James Rankin, Aberdeen University Poetry Society, 1964) : ‘Image’; ‘Family Group’; ‘Death of an Old Woman’.
Poems: Parklands Poets No. 7 (Akros Publications, 1970): ‘Signature’; ‘The Director of the Museum’.
True History on the Walls (M. MacDonald, 1976): ‘Three Stones’; ‘Love Poem’; ‘Foveran sands’; ‘Granite City Eclogue’; ‘Is this man, Martin Bormann?’; ‘True History on the Walls’.