A Tribute To Robert Watson: Poet, Novelist, Professor, Editor, Traveler to Inner and Outer Worlds

by KELLY CHERRY

The Creative Writing Program at UNCG, distinguished, productive, and consequential, would not even exist if Robert Watson had not formally organized it in the fall of 1965. The MFA had been conferred previously to a handful of remarkable students, such as novelist Angela Davis-Gardner and publisher Robert Friedman, but that fall a full and varied contingent of students, all of us wannabe writers in search of encouragement, instruction, and guidance, descended upon the then small and sleepy campus like a flock of starlings or, perhaps, a horde of locusts. We swarmed around our new teachers, who in those early years included Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Guy Owen—and, of course, Robert Watson, without whom none of this would have been happening. The poet Gibbons Ruark was a young instructor. We heard readings by Eudora Welty, Carolyn Kizer, and Stanley Kunitz. Jackson Library gave us ready access to the great writers of the past.

Instruction and guidance we received in good measure, but this eminent faculty gave us much more, including their own work and opinions and personalities. In fact, I was there because of Watson’s first book of poems, Paper Horse, which Bob Friedman had brought back to Charlottesville for me. Most of the contemporary poetry I had been reading—some of it beat or Black Mountain poetry—avoided rhyme, but here was poetry that reveled in it, and for me that rhyming was something like a siren’s song. Never sing-song, often occurring in metrically unexpected places, Watson’s rhymes showed me that rhyming serves more than one function: it is a mnemonic device, yes, and yes, it pleases the ear, but it also pleases the eye, strengthens closure, and draws a poem into itself so that the poem becomes a whole, a state united. Rhyme does these things whether the poem is formal or free. Everything that lives longs for something: a lover for the beloved, misery for comfort, grass for sunlight and water. Rhyme expresses the longing gratified.

At the same time, Watson interestingly releases rhyme from its traditional conjunction with meter. When he does this, harmony still exists—a rhyme, after all rhymes—but it is not quite traditional harmony. A certain mysteriousness has been introduced into the poem. What was familiar is now a little strange; what is strange or surreal, perhaps, reminds us of ourselves. The resulting rhythm now becomes paramount. Watson’s poems have a way of slowing down or speeding up time, of capturing the experience within time. To read a poem by him is to share the experience as if it is happening now. Here is a short one titled “The Ties that Bind”:

In my embrace At night a tree Took on a face: Limbs pressed back Lips sprang From the bark Then the pine Turned its boughs Again to pine. I am part tree now, As seated on stone Part bone, part stone.

It’s hard not to shiver just a little at the end of the poem. Watson transmogrifies the familiar man into his surroundings. We know we are part of nature; we don’t often get to experience that knowledge in such a physical way. Now we know it in our bones.

His genius for getting at the experience of emotion underlies his wonderful dramatic monologues, spoken by astronomers, housewives, divorcées, astronauts, prostitutes, a widower in Las Vegas, a ghost, a judge, a thief. (I have often thought how exciting it would be to teach a course that looked at Robert Watson and Robert Browning together. And in these monologues we can also recognize an affinity with Randall Jarrell’s work. When Jarrell died, Watson was the beneficiary of his ties. I think Jarrell felt an affinity for Watson’s work.) It also lends his ekphrastic poems of visual art a psychological acuity that is riveting. In “A Second Look at Veronese’s ‘Mars and Venus United by Love’” we are brought face to face with the tyranny of the impotent: “Mars’ grey horse saddled waits aside.” His poem “Odalisque” conveys the living reality of the painted model.

Though perhaps the poet has had a little help from his wife. “I’m the husband of Betty Watson,” he used to say, paying tribute to his wife’s exceptional, sophisticated paintings as he introduced himself.

In many of the poems, the speaker, often referred to as “Watson,” is lost, or exploring, or in a faraway palace, or underwater, and the distance between him and the rest of the world is both existential loneliness and a much-needed buffer. There is sometimes a grim humor in these misadventures: Underwater, in “Watson on the Beach,’ he writes: “God grows in my ear’s shell; / His toenail pokes my skull.” In “Going Nowhere Alone at Night,” “All houses stand in pools of black. / A police car’s blue roof-eye trails / Me down this Fall night of drifting / Leaves.”

Perhaps it’s his ability to stand apart while inside the poem that has allowed him to write some of the most beautiful love lyrics since Yeats: “I hold the envelope you addressed in my hand. / I hold the skin that covers you” (from “Please Write. Don’t Phone”). From “The Magician,” later retitled “God as Magician”: “You flew, a bouquet from his wand // To me as I flew. I love you, I say / Before he tucks us with his wand away.”

Some of Watson’s poems seem to have been inspired by an unspoken dialogue with William Carlos Williams, another poet from New Jersey, but Watson does not follow in his footsteps; Watson takes his own walks around town, whether the town is Passaic, Provincetown, Greensboro, Los Angeles, or Key West. And he walks to his own music. I’ve heard that at least once he began a poetry workshop by walking into class, hanging his cane by its handle from the table so that it swung back and forth slightly, and saying, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” A poem by Watson carries an unmistakably Watsonian music, and he was quick to let us students know whether we were creating music or merely echoing it.

As faculty adviser to the just-begun Greensboro Review, he helped, as only the very best teachers do, students to arrive at their own criteria for worthy poetry. Five books of beautiful poems, two richly intricate novels, and an anthology have won for Watson the American Scholar Poetry Prize, an NEA, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, among other honors. The anthology is The Greensboro Reader, which he coedited with that young instructor Gib Ruark. Gib has this to say about that experience:

I was honored and flattered when Bob Watson asked me to help out with The Greensboro Reader, which project was entirely his idea. I suspect he did so for two reasons: he actually wanted help, and he had expressed a liking for the few poems of mine he had seen and wanted to give my minuscule bibliography a boost. We had a most amiable working relationship: he graciously asked me to do certain things, and I happily did them, though he did consult with me seriously about the selections. I can’t recall a single disagreement. He was generous enough to name me as coeditor, though I was really more of a sub-editor. He very slyly helped me along in other ways. When he wanted a story from his good friend Peter Taylor, he got me to approach Peter in his singularly comfortable office in the library, a gentleman’s writing room really, knowing it would allow me to know Peter a little better. His generosity also showed itself, of course, in his wish to include work by very young writers, some of them schooled in the recently launched Greensboro MFA program. I remain grateful for our collaboration and for the book it produced.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, a prize-winning poet, UNCG grad, and former Poet Laureate of North Carolina, says, “He brought a caring focus to all of his students... He was just the teacher I needed when I came to UNCG as an awkward but ambitious young woman from the deep South. He helped me understand that poetry can spring from many sources and have many voices, tones, and textures. That’s probably the most important lesson a young poet can learn and I remain grateful . . .”

I don’t think there’s a student he ever taught who doesn’t remain grateful for his wise and gentle counsel, his interesting assignments (“Turn an Isaac Bashevis Singer story into a play,” he told me), and his unbragged-about but intense, admirable dedication to art and literature.

The walker, the traveler, retired in 1987 and since then he and his wife have gone, well, everywhere in the world. They must be two very observant visitors! I can imagine Watson in Tibet, in the faraway palace, the way he imagined himself to be in his poem “Paper Horse”:

...Nearby, A priest snips paper horses for lost travelers, Last travelers, loosens them in the wind, Turning prayer wheels, Turning oak leaves outside my bedroom window, Turning clothes on the line my wife has forgotten.

KELLY CHERRY is the author of nineteen books of poetry, novels, short stories, criticism, and memoir—including this year’s Girl in a Library: On Women Writers and the Writing Life and The Retreats of Thought: Poems—eight chapbooks, and two translations of classical plays. Her short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South. For her body of work in poetry she has received the Hanes Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has held named chairs and distinguished visiting writer positions at a number of universities. She and her husband, Burke Davis III, live on a small farm in Virginia with their two dogs.