Robert Wastson article image
What Robert Watson taught us
by Mike Harris,UNCG Magazine assistant editor
Archival photographs courtesy of University Archives
& Manuscripts, Jackson Library

The former students came from far and wide. William Pitt Root. Lynne Barrett. Sarah Lindsay. Bill Keens. Some had salt and pepper hair. Some were completely silver. Their beloved professor, Dr. Robert Watson, would be reading from his just-published volume, “The Complete Poems.”

Poet Stuart Dischell, who holds the UNCG faculty position once held by Watson, had the honor of introducing him in the packed Pecky Cypress Room.

Dischell alluded to the many notable writers on hand to hear Watson read from his collection — “all of his poems under one cover.”

“When I look around this room tonight, there is much to celebrate with our past students, our present students, our faculty … it goes on and on,” said Dischell. Former students spilled out into Taylor Garden — and inside the Alumni House they occupied the stairways within earshot.

“It was packed,” Dischell recalled, as he imitated the manner in which you had to sit to keep your knees from bumping into the next person's.

The roar of applause at the end of Dischell's introduction was as eloquent as the words themselves. Watson was moved. “After seeing this crowd this evening, I was thinking about giving up poetry and running for president,” Watson said to additional cheers from his former students that September 2011 night.

[Hear excerpts from the special evening — with slideshow of Watson photographs.]

It would be his last reading on campus. Robert Watson, 86, died in February.

He joined the faculty of Woman's College (UNCG) in 1953.

He became an organizer and director of the formal MFA Writing program at UNCG. He was one of the founders of the Greensboro Review. He wrote eight collections of poetry and two novels, receiving a Pulitzer Prize nomination for one collection. His work appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, Harper's and The Nation. Honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, he literally shared the stage with the leading figures of his day.

Memories of Robert

Students and colleagues remember him in their unique ways. Older alumnae may recall when word would spread through the Quad residence halls that Randall Jarrell and Robert Watson were playing tennis on the courts next door. Others remember his reputation as an excellent dancer. Or greeting him as he strolled along Tate Street to the room he rented as his writing spot.

There was the world map with pins showing the places he'd visited. His recollections of famous visitors — from Robert Frost to Flannery O'Conner. The enjoyable dinners. The wonderful paintings by his wife, Betty Watson, throughout their home. His encouraging words and advice.

He retired from UNCG in 1987. But his influence on his former students — and by extension on those they teach — continues on.

Poet Terry Kennedy, associate director of the writing program, made keepsakes for everyone who attended Watson's last reading on campus. They bore Watson's favorite among his own poems, “Please Write: Don't Phone.”

Kathryn Stripling Byer '86 MFA, former North Carolina Poet Laureate, would showcase this poem as well as her poem about a memorable MFA class workshop led by Watson, on her blog “Here, Where I Am.”

“He was just the teacher I needed when I came to UNCG as an awkward but ambitious young woman from the deep South,” she explained. “He helped me understand that poetry can spring from many sources and have many voices, tones and textures.”

Another former student, Eric Wiel '79 MFA, '89 MA, '93 PhD wrote a tribute to — and an update of — “Please Write, Don't Phone.” His poem “Please Phone, Don't Txt” may be read here. Founder of the program's Spring St. Mary's Reading Series and a faculty member at Elizabeth City State, he shared a draft of this tribute with Watson a few months before his death.

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