Thursday 21 April 2011

Stephen Watts: visionary poetry

One day I went over the mountain
and the perfect curve of air broke in two
against rock all around me.  And I went down
into the strained calculus of that coast
past the white-shat cliffs of nesting cormorants,
the schist crests of that stilled and dancing land
and I lay on a slab beside the tilting sea..

These are the opening lines of ‘From the Islands’, from Stephen Watts’ book The Blue Bag.  For me they describe exactly how it feels to walk over a mountain onto the lonely side above sea.  I’m writing about this book because I like it very much, and because most people don’t seem to have come across Watts’ poems.  I hadn’t until recently, when Mimi Khalvati recommended him. 

Not Uist but the Coigach Peninsula
The Blue Bag isn’t like any other book of British contemporary poetry I’ve read.  The poems have an ecstatic tone.  They feel most of all like praise poems, whether Watts is writing about wild landscape, encounters with his often poor and lonely Whitechapel neighbours, or a local tree. 

The centre of The Blue Bag is a long poem, ‘Praise Poem for North Uist’.  He conveys the wonder of being in such a place in some great descriptive passages.  The repeated use of ‘I’ in phrases such as ‘I have stood’ gives the poem a visionary feel.  At the same time he  never ignores the human condition.  Or history; the Clearances are latent in this poem.  In this extract, I like the boat image appearing with Viking place-names.

I have stood on the hill of Eaval and have
                gone and been lifted,
and felt the laughter and yielding sobriety of
the ground.  To what more can I lay stress
                        and claim?

And Uist has appeared to me like a boat, stern of
        Griminish from the prow of Eaval,
and if it could drive us from pampered government
and if it could bring them to job-fulfilled shores –
        but when would that be likely.

The poems seem to trust in their own direction, unbothered by current poetry rules –  there are plenty of adjectives and abstract concepts, but minimal irony.  The style appears effortless, its fluency enhanced by Watts’ skilful line breaks.  He uses a lot of anaphora, especially with ‘and’ and, as above, ‘I’; this and the mix of simple and elevated language contribute to the ecstasy.  He writes in free verse, mostly in long blocks, or the varied line-length verses of the Uist poem.

Many poems move into elegy, as in this poem on Walter Benjamin’s death, ‘Marginal Note in Time of War’:

Walter Benjamin took his own
life out of pure exhaustion, walking
into the mountains against love’s gravity
up the scarp slope of his melting reason
to where he was abandoned by language.

I like the East London poems for their humour and sadness (again, many are, or may be, elegies).  This is from ‘Mark Wickham in Whitechapel’:

He is asking the waitress to take the skin off
        from his fish, then he is asking
her to take the batter off.  Then he is asking
                        for a cloth

And for a glass of water from her.  Then if she
                will let him have a kiss.
These are not the usual duties in a Wimpey Bar.
And I am wondering does she yet realise what
                        the matter is.

‘Song for Mickie the Brickie’ celebrates an encounter in Watney Market:

We walked through the decayed market, a yellow-
                        black sun gazed
down over Sainsbury’s as I went to look for change.
Ten pound was hardly enough to get him through
                the dregs of that bitter day.

We stood on the corner where for centuries people
                have stood.  Many
worlds passed us by. 

Watney Market, from
I also like them for their unforced sense of East London history, including the waves of immigrants from Huguenot to Jew to Sylheti – he’s really lived there, for years.  

Watts has a lovely poem in the latest issue of Long Poem Magazine.  ‘My Mother, her Tongue’ is an elegy for his mother, whose family came from the Swiss-Italian Alps: here are two verses. 

As a child I was happy in the garden of your
                       house: through
an air of daisies taller than my head to where
a tiny sun shone through the milky belly
                                     of a horse…  

I see you fling the blue vocable ‘never’ with
             its dull meaning against
the void of the sky where it explodes colour
in the space where nothing happens, O you
                   in the summer of jasmine…

The few poems that don’t work so well mostly seem to be located abroad (though some abroad poems are very successful): they are either too generic, or too verbally bedizened, as in a poem addressed to Marina Tsvetayeva, for whom words

and shunted like dark magma and shot out
volcanic gobs and flared at the earth’s edge.

Coigach Peninsula again
I wondered where the book’s title came from.  It made me think of the German romantic Blue Flower, that stands for love and yearning for the unattainable.  But that could be an utter misunderstanding: there’s those small blue bags of salt that used to be in potato crisps, or blue bag laundry bleach, or a recycling bag handed out by the local council, or the blue bag on the book’s cover that looks like my old primary school shoebag.  Or an ordinary plastic bag in Whitechapel, or whatever the writer wants.

Then I read ‘Yossef Hayyim Brenner’, a Whitechapel history poem that starts

I tried to write a novel about you – but could
            not find my voice.
You were walking in it on the Mile End Waste
and the blue bag of language was slung across
                        your breast.

Later in the poem

..I adjust the blue bag across my breast, feel
the wet fish and its ginger shift inside my old
                  anarchic cave

So maybe the Blue Flower is meant to be somewhere behind the bag of wet fish and Brenner’s influence, or maybe not.  Anyway it’s there for me, in the blue word-bag of imagination and vaulting upwards beyond one’s reach; and the book is now mine, as reader. 
Except that the book isn’t mine, unfortunately.  I got it out of the Poetry Library, which has two little-read copies, and I can’t find it for sale online.  I think it’s Watts’ only full-length collection, and the fruit of many years.  He has also translated poetry including from Persian and Slovenian; and in Long Poem Magazine he talks about the early influence on him of Tamil poetry.  Maybe all this has contributed to the originality of his voice. 

I do wonder whether it is starting to become less difficult and unfashionable, especially among new writers, to write stuff that doesn’t conform to current poetry rules; in which case his work might become better known.

Stephen Watts appears on the poets’ website poetry pf, where you can read several of his poems.  The Blue Bag was published by Aark Arts in 2004.       


  1. Hi Fiona,

    Enjoyed your reading at Torriano yesterday. We (Hearing Eye) have published Stephen's long poem Mountain Language (translated into Italian by Cristina Viti) and will hopefully by publishing the follow-up to the that later this year.

    I have often thought that Stephen - though very highly regarded by those who know of him - is a poet who doesn't get anywhere near the level of recognition that I'd expect his work to command.

    He is also a powerful performer of his work and, while reading your review, I was hearing Stephen reading some of the quoted passages in his distinctive voice.

  2. Thank you David. I look forward to hearing him read one day.

    Here is the link to Mountain Language on the Hearing Eye website: