Gower poet Vernon Watkins remembered
A free event, ‘The Strings of Song’ will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Gower poet, Vernon Watkins at Taliesin Arts Centre on Monday 2nd October. Swansea University’s Professor in Creativity, Owen Sheers, has invited five award-winning Welsh poets to write a response to Watkins’s work. The event will be accompanied by an exhibition (details below). Vernon Watkins was an accomplished poet who gained better recognition later in life. He became part of the Kardomah Gang, the bohemian group that met at the Swansea Kardomah Cafe in the 1930s to discuss art, music, poetry, and writing. Dylan Thomas is credited with persuading Vernon Watkins to publish.
The most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English’ – Dylan Thomas
Anniversary event to celebrate poet
The anniversary event will be a celebration of the poetry of the late Gower poet providing both a reflection upon his work and a response to it. The chosen poets Rhian Edwards, Paul Henry, Menna Elfyn, Robert Minhinnick, and Johnathan Edwards will read and discuss the poetry of ‘Swansea’s other poet’ sharing their own work, chaired by Professor of English and holder of the Emyr Humphreys Chair of Welsh Writing in English at Swansea University, M. Wynn Thomas.
The event is presented in association with Literature Wales, Research Institute for Arts and Humanities and Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales (CREW).
The free event will take place on the evening of Monday 2nd October at 7:30 pm at the Taliesin Arts Centre, Singleton Campus, Swansea University, SA2 8PP
Admission is free – TICKET REQUIRED
Book Online: Taliesin Arts Centre Tel: 01792 60 20 60
Free exhibition about poet
A free exhibition in support of ‘The Strings of Song’ event; Vernon Watkins 1906-1967: Poet of Gower will include original letters, early manuscript poems, rare editions of his books, photographs of Vernon and his family, ephemera and early editions of his books. The exhibition is arranged in a partnership between Research Institute for Arts and Humanities with Jeff Towns, Honorary Fellow of Swansea University, and Dylan’s Mobile Bookstore.
The exhibition runs from Saturday 30th September to Tuesday 3rd October at Singleton Campus Main Library.
Gower poet worked as a bank clerk
Vernon Watkins was born in 1906 in Maesteg, S. Wales. When his father who worked for Lloyd’s Bank began working as a bank manager in Swansea, the family settled on the Gower near Swansea.
Having spent a year at Swansea Grammar School, and with later schooling at Repton (a public school in Derbyshire) he came to enjoy tennis and cricket and began to develop linguistic and poetic abilities. Vernon began to read French and German at Cambridge but left after a year. He then followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a bank clerk in Cardiff in 1925. The more mundane life of banking proved to be unexciting and after a visit to his former school he suffered a mental breakdown and needed care at a nursing home in Derby.
Poet part of wartime code-breaking team
Returning home after some recovery to Gower he began working at the St Helen’s branch of Lloyd’s in Swansea. Vernon’s banking career was to last over 40 years in Swansea until 1966. He developed a love for Gower knowing many of the animals and plants by name. He became devoted to writing which he did in the evenings after work and his first book of poetry published by Faber in 1941, ‘Ballad of Mari Lwyd’. During World War 2 he served in the Royal Air Force and was stationed at Bletchley Park home of the famous codebreakers. He was part of the cryptography team that broke the Nazi Enigma code. It was there working for RAF Intelligence that he met his wife Gwendoline Mary Davies. He married her in 1944 and his best man who was supposed to be Dylan Thomas didn’t turn up to the church! Watkins was an influence on Dylan Thomas. He apparently introduced Thomas to the work of poets Rilke and Lorca among others.
In 1945 a second poetry collection ‘The Lamp and the Veil’ was published followed by ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ in 1948. In 1951 Vernon Watkins was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. ‘The Death Bell’ was published in 1954 and was awarded the Poetry Book Society’s first choice accolade. His fifth collection ‘Cypress and Acacia’ was published in 1959 followed by his final collection ‘Affinities’ in 1962.
Visiting Professor in Poetry in Washington
Vernon Watkins traveled on scholarships from the Society of Authors in 1952 and 1956 and was the first Visiting Professor of Poetry at The University of Washington in 1964. He received the Levinson Prize by Poetry Chicago in 1953. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Literature from University College, Swansea in 1966. Sadly, having been offered a further year as Visiting Professor of Poetry at Washington he suffered a heart attack whilst playing tennis having just arrived in Seattle to take up his post and died. He is buried in the churchyard of Pennard on Gower. The house Vernon Watkins lived in on Gower was in Southgate and is now a retirement home.
Poet with mythical themes
Watkins was also a translator and painter. His intricate poems were often on spiritual or mythical themes and he was a close friend of poet Dylan Thomas. Indeed it is believed Vernon Watkins was often used as a sounding board by Dylan Thomas who would only share his early poem drafts with Watkins. Gwen Watkins, Vernon’s widow, who also worked in Intelligence at Bletchley, worked to tirelessly to increase the reputation of her husband’s poetry and preserve his work. On his death, numerous other collections were released including Uncollected Poems in 1969 and ‘The Ballad of The Outer Dark’ in 1979. There is a blue plaque for Watkins outside the building on the corner of St Helen’s Road and Beach Street in Swansea, where he spent 38 years working for Lloyds Bank.
On his death, numerous other collections were released including Uncollected Poems in 1969 and ‘The Ballad of The Outer Dark’ in 1979. There is a blue plaque for Watkins outside the building on the corner of St Helen’s Road and Beach Street in Swansea, where he spent 38 years working for Lloyds Bank.
Late I return, O violent, colossal, reverberant, eavesdropping sea.
My country is here. I am foal and violet. Hawthorn breaks from my hands.” – from ‘Taliesin in Gower’
You may also be interested in a walk in honour of the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death on Gower starting from Three Cliffs Coffee shop at 10.15am on Saturday 7th October. More details here: Vernon Watkins Walk – Gower Unearthed
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