Stephen Watson was born in Cape Town in 1954. He studied at the University of Cape Town, where he was a professor in the English Department. He published nine collections of poetry, most recently The Light Echo (Penguin, 2007), and three books of non-fiction. His most recent book, The Music in the Ice (Penguin Books, 2010), is a collection of essays on “writers, writing, and other things”. He has also edited a number of books, including A City Imagined (Penguin Books, 2006). In 2000 he became the director of UCT’s widely acclaimed Centre for Creative Writing. Students he has mentored and supervised include the award-winning novelist Ceridwen Dovey and Tania van Schalkwyk, recent winner of the Ingrid Jonker Prize for English Poetry. He passed away on 10 April 2011 and will be sorely missed by many in the South African literary community.
The German critic Friedrich von Schlegel described an historian as a “prophet facing backwards”. A poet, one could argue, is someone facing both backwards and forwards, inwards and out. For over thirty years, Stephen Watson has been lyrically mapping South Africa, both as a shifting ecosystem and as a psychic landmass, an outward expression of the self. In Watson’s world, place is indistinguishable from displacement, loss from longing, lust from loneliness. To be alive is to be unsettled, and to be unsettled is to stray. Watson’s poetry is most frequently written in the third person, and his protagonists are almost always alone. Solitude invites reflection, and reflection takes its form in division and self doubt. Only the landscape is permanent, and sometimes not even that. In ‘Exiles II’, a man remembers
. . . an afternoon
of his childhood, along the Atlantic seaboard,
watching for hours a mild spring sea
rebuild a beach
torn away by winter storms – these were things,
ill-sorted, random, of significance
only to him; and that significance
more and more lost on him.
What he remembers now, most of all,
is how he’d wanted to get out.
Here is that sense, at once, of being at home and of having no home. Watson introduces the notion of nostalgia, only to collapse it, the way the sea collapses the beach. The landscape amplifies and explains the dispossession, while the dispossession colours and contaminates the landscape. The popular conception of childhood – idle, idyllic – introduced with deliberate lyricism, is exploded by the flat, hard, ruthless, and entirely unexpected final statement. In a much earlier poem, ‘In the Beginning’, the same device – a single memory refracted through the eyes of a child – is used epiphanically, to convey a moment of sublime self realisation:
There were evenings when the child would watch
night diffuse itself in a sky made still taller by the tallness
of the trees.
The child (possibly Watson himself) grows up to be a poet, “whispering to himself, against them all: ‘pine, dark, mountain, star . . .’” In ‘Thinness’, another early poem, a child’s mundane complaint is ingeniously recast as a moment of metaphysical anguish. The child comes to understand that the “wind would shrapnel all his castles, / all things animal, vegetable, or dust”.
Much of Watson’s early poetry deals obliquely and ironically, but powerfully, with apartheid South Africa. These poems reflect the predicament of a person who, in effect, has dual citizenship: one passport allows him into a country he loves; the other into a country he loathes. The problem is that these two countries are in fact one country.
In ‘Coda’, Watson describes his native Cape Town as a city that “gave you from the very first its elements, / gave you early on, over and over, a fair idea of hell”. The word "fair" (which here is used both as a play on the phrase “fairest Cape” and as a crafty modifier) coupled with “hell”, offers in miniature an image of apartheid South Africa: a place of great beauty and horror, in almost equal measure. In another poem, Watson writes revealingly of the politics – which robbed the country’s art of so much inner life – that “beggared all description, / and all but beggared him”. In ‘Factory Girl’, an early, unusually humanistic poem of subtle social criticism, Watson conveys a life of repression and routine through the careful repetition of the phrase “The belts start up at eight.” The sound of the line – precise, processed – imitates the creaking efficiency of factory machinery. The economy is striking – days pass, months pass, but the poem is taut and crisp.
Watson’s poetry thrives on the contradictions of contemporary life. In a new poem, 'How Things Turn Out', he writes of life in transition, of people who live everywhere and thus nowhere:
. . . It was how one lived nowadays:
instead of marriage, a series of relationships;
instead of a home, a succession of addresses;
instead of a career, the freelancing
that had served each rather well;
instead of a country, that stamp – resident alien –
they so valued in their passports.
In a world in which everyone seems to have at least one cellphone, it is strange how few people are intimately connected. The desire to be alone and the craving for intimacy, absence and presence, stability and flexibility, light and dark, beauty and ruin, are everywhere in Watson’s verse. He interrogates exteriors and gives dimension to daily routine. He excels at illuminating everyday moments, and is extraordinarily skilled at delineating space and shadow, texture and tone. Lovers are observed, bare-limbed in bare rooms, sun-drenched and lazy after afternoon sex. The merciless awkwardness in a conversation between two people who were once lovers and will never see one another again is recorded with brutal accuracy. In ‘Notes from Another Side’, a woman’s hands “alone betrayed the several children that she’d raised”." In ‘Stone-Light at Bellagio’, the waters of a lake are “stretch-marked by an evening wind”. In ‘The Art of Solitude’, the reader’s attention is drawn to “some pebbles in a jeep-track rinsed / and minted in their bed by yesterday’s sharp rain”.
Watson’s poetry is one of metrical sophistication and formal precision. In his most recent collection, there is greater evidence of wit and warmth, something perhaps best described as tenderness. In ‘Portrait’, a rare love poem, the speaker celebrates “the last moment . . . before we fell in love”. And in ‘The Imminence’, John Donne’s “one little roome, an every where” is refashioned in the wonderful line “the contours of their bodies / become the contours of a world”. There is, too, a striving for the sublime, for moments that transcend the mundane and affirm human experience. In line after line, poem after poem, Watson impresses with his honesty, vitality, and intensity. He faces both backwards and forwards, but always somehow in the right direction. He is one of our finest poets.
Poems 1977-1982, Bateleur Press, Johannesburg, 1982
In This City, David Philip, Cape Town, 1986
Cape Town Days, and other Poems, Cecil Skotnes & Clarke’s Bookshop, Cape Town, 1989
Return of the Moon: Versions from the /Xam, Carrefour, Cape Town, 1991
Song of the Broken String: After the /Xam Bushmen: Poems from a Lost Oral, Riverdale-on-Hudson, Sheep Meadow Press, 1991
Remembering the Night, Turret Bookshop, London, 1992
Presence of the Earth: New Poems, David Philip, Cape Town, 1995
The Other City: Selected Poems 1977 - 1999, David Philip, Cape Town, 2000
The Light Echo and Other Poems, Penguin, Johannesburg, 2007
Patrick Cullinan: Selected Poems, (ed.), The Artist's Pres, White River, 1992
Guy Butler: Essays and Lectures, 1949-1991, (ed.), Cape Town, David Phillip, 1994
Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee, (ed. with Graham Huggan), Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1996
A Writer's Diary, Queillerie, Cape Town, 1997
Dante in South Africa, (ed. with Patrick Cullinan) Centre for Creative Writing, Cape Town, 2005
A City Imagined: Cape Town and the Meanings of a Place (ed.), Johannesburg, Penguin, 2006
The Music in the Ice: On Writers, Writing and Other Things, Johannesburg, Penguin, 2010
2010 Thomas Pringle Prize for his short story, 'Buiten Street'
Partly a monologue, partly also a dialogue with Stephen Watson about his The Other City: Selected Poems 1977–1999 by Nathanial Tarn in Jacket Magazine
Cape Town Days from South African Artists’ Books
An excerpt from The Music in the Ice on BOOK SA
Launch of The Music in the Ice on BOOK SA
Like One Who Believes: a review of The Music in the Ice by Shaun de Waal at the Mail & Guardian
Die skrywer as mens weer hier: a review of A Writer’s Diary in Afrikaans from Die Burger
Stephen Watson wins the Thomas Pringle Prize on BOOK SA
Janet van Eeden reviews The Light Echo on Litnet
Stephen Watson, RIP on BOOK SA