Review: Direct Lines to Hell: The Early Poetry of R.W. Watkins Vol. 1

ISBN 9781502916709 Nocturnal Iris Publishing: $8:99

Direct Lines to Hell, published with Watkins’ frank flare and in-your-face courage, presents the poet’s juvenilia—all written in his late teens and twenties—warts and all, and is the sort of thing no-one ever sees. We prefer to think of artistic genius as something that we’re born with, rather than something which we have to work at to perfect, which is why, perhaps, so many artists—whether visual or literary—suppress their juvenilia and show only their best to the world. It’s only after the poet’s death that we get to pore over the ‘papers’ (usually gifted to university libraries by indifferent family members who are better housekeepers than the poet). It’s unusual, then, that a poet would deliberately make his juvenilia available to the world, complete with images of the scattered scribbles, the fag-packet and post-it note scrivenings that are the reality of the working poet. That is exactly what R.W. Watkins has done in publishing his early free verse.

What makes this collection (the first of two, the second forthcoming) even more remarkable is that Watkins is primarily known as a classical poet specialising in Asian-form poetry (as editor of Contemporary Sijo, Contemporary Ghazals and Eastern Structures, he runs some of the rare and precious poetry markets for formal verse) and, indeed, is famous for his impassioned defences of classicism, such as this declaration in his essay Dial 5-7-5 for Classicism:

‘I’ve often wondered how many bards have stuck up their nose or middle finger at closed forms not because of any aesthetic disdain … but merely out of their own lack of talent and other shortcomings. I have a very strong feeling that the average free-verse poet today would not be capable of composing a proper sonnet or ghazal in a month of amphetamine-fueled Sundays.’

The free-verse he wrote prior to becoming one of the foremost classical Asian-form poets in the West, therefore, comes as something of a shock.

Leafing through, you get the same sort of prickling excitement you do when you read C.S. Lewis’ Boxen stories—the fantasy world he created with his brother as children that were the forerunner to the Narniad—or the stories and poems written by the Brontë sisters before they departed for Brussels, or the very early writing of Plath. It’s fascinating to see the flashes of inspiration and foreshadowing throughout the text of how the poet is refining—in some cases line by line—his voice.

There are some wonderful poems here and exceptionally beautiful lines. I have four ivory telephones on my wall/Direct lines to hell… he writes in the titular poem. The middle section, D-Cay, a cycle of poems written for a damaged girlfriend, is especially moving and by far the best of the collection. The influence of the Beat poets of the preceding post-war generation throughout these verses is obvious. The young Watkins emulates Dylan and Morrison, his own voice rumbling in rough edges, almost in the interstitial spaces between the words, becoming clearer as the collection progresses.

Of course, not every poem in this book is good. Quite a few are so clearly the craft essays, the seeds that would later sprout into the flourishes of a mature poet. But that isn’t the point. Watkins, in the brilliant Afterward that completes this collection, places his early work within the context of the Generation X counterculture of the 1980s and 1990s. In this, he reveals what ‘the point’ really is—the truth. The truth not just of the dismal, disenfranchised world of the Nomad generation, but also of what it takes to become a poet. The poet emerges not just in terms of learning a craft, but living the authentic life even if others find your authenticity objectionable or intolerable. It takes not merely talent, but technique. You do not arrive at the latter without work, without your trials, without your errors. Perhaps if more critics knew this, they would realise the truth of Stephen Fry’s comment in The Ode Less Travelled:

Talent without technique is like an engine without a steering wheel, gears or brakes . . . Do athletes boast of their hand-eye coordination, grace, and natural sense of balance? No, they talk of how hard they trained, the sacrifices made, the effort they put in.

For those familiar with the work of an established artist, it’s often deeply uncomfortable to realise how hard their training was, at what great emotional cost came the growth into the poets we know. The present-day Watkins is rare in that he, like Wilde, declares his genius. He does not pretend humility, and is, frankly, a terrible politician in an Arts scene where a poet’s recognition depends on mutual back-scratching and currying favour. To a large extent, his passionate rants on the twin necessity of technique and talent has led to his ostracisation in Canada’s Asian poetry community. His contribution to the development of the English-language Ghazal being sidelined, ignored, or (in places) deliberately expunged from discussion of the form’s history (such as the glaring omission by free-verse ghazal-poet Rob Winger in his 2009 essay on the development of the Canadian Ghazal). The subtext is clear: Watkins, they think, is a snob who doesn’t see the value in free-verse; who is constrained or obsessed with rigid formality over the passionate explorations of the ‘free spirits’ of the poetry world.

Direct Lines, however, proves Watkins’ detractors entirely wrong. The book evidences that the ‘free spirit’ so essential for the crafting of poetry is a quality of the poet, not the form of verse in which he chooses to write. Watkins has no snobbery or disdain for free verse. He’s written it, suffered with it, poured his heart and soul and dreams into it. Free verse is the record of his formative years. Watkins has figuratively spilled his guts in free-form. When he grew to be a classical poet of some stature, he published his early papers—papers that so clearly show that arc of painful emotional growth. This collection, then, isn’t intended to be read in isolation, but as an addendum to the work of the mature, classical poet Watkins became.

Direct Lines remains true to its purpose: it is the portrait of the artist as a young man.

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