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Stephen Watson, RIP

Stephen Watson

South African poet, essayist, academic and creative writing teacher Stephen Watson has died in Cape Town. Watson had taken ill from cancer several months ago. He was 56.

A giant of local letters, Watson was anchored at the University of Cape Town for most of his career. In his poetry, he was best known as a lyrical chronicler of the Cape’s natural beauty, documenting the response of the soul when surrounded by it. His intertwinedness with the landscape spilled into his prose, too: he memorably wrote about his “love affair” with the city’s mountains last year, in what might be cast as a follow-up essay to his landmark 1990 piece, “In These Mountains”. Although poetry was Watson’s chief metier, he distinguished himself as an essayist, writing on subjects near and far, as diverse as South African “black” poetry and Leonard Cohen.

The Music in the IceThe Light Echo and Other PoemsA City ImaginedThe Other CityGuy ButlerSong of the Broken String

His final collection of poems, The Light Echo, was described as his “finest”; and his latest book of essays, The Music in the Ice, launched late last year, received lavish praise from his UCT colleague Imraan Coovadia.

In January, Watson received the English Academy’s Thomas Pringle Award for a short story, “Buiten Street”, published in New Contrast. His poetry featured in the most recent edition of Poetry International – South Africa, where further biographical information is available.

Watson was one who loved to share the gift, as it were. A scrupulous and dedicated teacher, he helped found UCT’s creative writing programme, where his efforts honed and launched a thousand manuscripts, greatly enriching the medium in which South African letters thrives.

Not shy of controversy when literary stakes were high, Watson attacked fellow SA poet Antjie Krog in 2006, accusing her of pilfering ideas from his work and plagiarising Ted Hughes. The matter, to this correspondent’s knowledge at least, was never satisfactorily resolved.

The bottom line, however, is that Watson was a writer who left a substantial legacy of great value and who will be greatly missed. He carved for himself a dear place in our hearts and minds.

Watson leaves his wife, Tanya, and two children.

BOOK SA has received many recollections and tributes; if you would like to add a note on Stephen Watson, please email it to editor _at_ book _dot_ co _dot_ za. We’ll include it here:

Stephen was my colleague in the creative writing programme, my friend, and the reason I came to UCT in the first place. The first and second words I would use to describe him would be “generous” and “cultured” in the old-fashioned sense. He was generous with time, generous when you agreed with him and when you didn’t, generous with his attention, and his intelligence, and he was cultured in that he loved books and language and always saw the opposing side of the argument as clearly as his own and almost unfailingly courteous. For me his two greatest contributions on paper are the translations from Bleek-Lloyd, and the essays on Camus and Leonard Cohen in his recent book of essays. And his greatest contribution off the page, for those of who weren’t members of his family, was that he treated us like cousins. There are more people today remembering Stephen as their most important teacher, and mentor, and friend than any one of us could have counted. Stephen didn’t believe much in politics but he did believe in friendship, and loyalty, and imagination. When I spoke to him a few days ago, when he was gravely ill, he characteristically said that he felt absolutely lucky, to have found Tanya, and to have discovered his children, and to have written the poems and essays he gave us.

Imraan Coovadia

I first met Stephen Watson many years ago in, of all places, the Pig and Whistle in Rondebosch. A group of writers would gather there some Fridays for lunch. Stephen had a copy of Czeslaw Milosz’s Bells in Winter which he’d just bought. I’d not read Milosz so he insisted I take the book home. There was one poem in that collection that for me would become a description of Stephen: ‘Stalking a deer, I wandered deep into the mountains and from there I saw.’ I spent a brief few minutes with Stephen last Monday. He quoted two lines from Bertolt Brecht: ‘I do not like the place I have come from./ I do not like the place I am going to.’ There was a fierce light in his eyes. In the end we have Stephen’s poetry: ‘We know/ what my grandfather knew:/ that all people/ become spirit people/ when dead, / that their powers live on/ long after their death.’ The last stanza of The Powers of the Dead from Return of the Moon – Versions from the /Xam.

Mike Nicol

As a poet, Stephen was what Colleen Higgs has called a ‘psychic resource’. In This City was the first poetry collection I ever bought, with my own money, for pleasure. It was the only book I took with me, a talisman against homesickness, when I first travelled, knocking around the Northern hemisphere for two years in my twenties.

I read the poems in it until they soaked into my skin and bones. I read them aloud to others, when folk wanted to know where I came from — a place of “politics that beggared all description”. And sea and stone and pines. A city “more full of sky than streets”.

Today, when the southeaster buffets the city, I think “wind-fretted”. The Cedarberg is “land with no fat in it.” I cannot experience April light any other way than through Stephen’s words.

But in the end, the person is always more vital than the poet. And Stephen was a colleague I unequivocally respected and trusted, right from the start of my days low down the food chain of the English Department of UCT. He was always transparent, always courteous, and consistently kind to me. In a word, decent. It meant a lot to an idealistic and struggling young graduate student.

We stayed in an orbit of mutual respect and liking through the years. The quality of his attention and empathy during the crisis of my childlessness will stay with me even longer than his words as a writer. I ache with sadness for his wife and children, as well as the rest of his family, friends and students.

Helen Moffett

Stephen was one of the most generous people I have ever known, as a writer and a friend. I and so many others were blessed by his skill and dedication as a mentor, and he leaves a legacy of young writers who will never forget him. It is bitterly sad that he did not have more time. His death, devastating for his family and the many friends who loved him, is a deep loss for all of us who hoped to read so much more of Stephen’s extraordinary writing.

Henrietta Rose-Innes

Stephen Watson’s poetry explored faith and disillusionment with a rare, keen eye. He embraced the void in his own existence and in the human heart, and returned to report its details with clarity, conviction and a uniquely engaged presence. Whether rendering an account of the wind blowing off the sea at dawn, or representing the depths of psychic anguish and ecstasy, his capacity for ambivalence and duality rendered the ineffable real and accessible. His mysticism was of this earth yet transcendent. His voice will be a guide. He will be sorely missed.

Liesl Jobson

Stephen Watson was a rare writer. His San poems: his walking poems; his love poems and his essays will be read for as long as South Africans look for the best things their poets have done. He was, too, a reader and a critic of great delicacy and subtle power. I never knew Stephen to say anything about writers and writing that didn’t make me want to review and re-think my own thoughts – and my prejudices. More than anything, Stephen helped other writers to find their own ways of saying.

I was lucky enough to have known Stephen for a long time; now he has gone and I miss him very much, and so will South African letters. He is irreplaceable.

Christopher Hope

Stephen Watson made me want to never write again.

Stephen Watson helped make me the writer I am.

I was 25 and trying to work and study full-time, doing morning classes at university, freelance journalism in the afternoon, and as a result not quite managing to do either as well as I should have.

I was doing second year English (I had some Unisa credits) and every time I went to see Stephen, I’d leave with my ego in shreds. I’d be crushed. I wouldn’t be able to look at the story he’d critted, never wanted to put fingers to keyboard again.

And then the next day, grudgingly, I’d get over it and see that he was right, dammit. On everything. And the rare glints of praise would mean all the more, because I had to earn them, dammit.

He pushed me. I resisted. He didn’t let up.

And one day he told me I was wasting my time.

He knew about my personal circumstances. He knew I was struggling with the workload, but more than that; he knew that the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do was write books.

He invited me to apply to the MA in Creative Writing programme – without completing my BA first. There was a precedent. He’d had some mature students in the past, in their 60s, who had done the Masters without having the academic qualifications. At that time, acceptance was based on the strength of your writing portfolio.

I got in. I wrote Moxyland as my dissertation.

I’d had the idea about a year before, but suddenly having a structure and a framework and the support of other writers and teachers, including my supervisor, André Brink made all the difference.

Stephen forced me to take myself seriously as a writer – in the most emphatic and empathetic way.

I think he did the same for a lot of young novelists and poets.

I try to push myself as hard as he did.

Lauren Beukes

It feels strange and uncomfortable to talk about Stephen Watson in the past tense. As his most recent publisher – A City Imagined; The Light Echo; and, in 2010, his extraordinarily accomplished collection The Music in the Ice – and a friend of many years, we connected on a number of levels. Just a few months back, we were planning the sequence of the essays in The Music in the Ice, discussing the aptness of the title, sharing thoughts about and pleasure in the cover design. He was feeling a writing strength and confidence that made him hopeful and eager, and it was a confidence that was infectious. It made me proud to be in a position to give him a platform for his work. I believed it was Stephen’s time to move strongly forward creatively and, I think, so did he. For so many years Stephen’s humility and generosity meant that he stood aside so that other writers might begin to shine, to step forward and feel their own confidence growing and flourishing. As these writers face the blank page that is the challenge of every author, every time they being afresh, I hope they will pause and reflect as they go, and that they will be grateful for the advice, wisdom and sensitive counsel he offered. They will know the debt they owe him. Is that enough comfort for a life too short and a career too abruptly halted? I don’t know. But I would like to believe it is.

Alison Lowry

I always found Stephen’s interest in my writing puzzling but what I found stranger was his friendship. Perhaps at the lowest point in my life Stephen was one person who showed me such unfathomable kindness and insightful advice that I could never thank him enough. I will miss our lunches together, our discussions about Camus and above all his insights. I can only say that I was honoured to have known him and nothing gave me greater happiness than reading and reviewing his last work The Music in the Ice. I will miss him terribly and my thoughts are with Tanya, Hannah and Julian.

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

M Blackman

Stephen was my supervisor for the Creative Writing MA at UCT. As so many of his students know, he was the best kind of teacher: respectful, brilliant, honest and gently critical when necessary. He had the rare ability to point a student writer to exactly the right book at exactly the right time. The way he spoke (and wrote) about writers and their writing was never exclusive or alienating; to the contrary, he always left just the right amount of interpretive space when introducing me to a book or author I hadn’t read or heard of, so that I could feel in my turn the joy of that discovery. The Music in the Ice will remain on my desk for the rest of my writing career as a reminder of how much I owe to Stephen, and as a reminder of the pleasures and privilege (of which he was always aware) of writing and reading.

Ceridwen Dovey

I am deeply saddened to hear of Stephen Watson’s death. He was a fine person whom I admired and respected. “Too soon. Farewell.” Love and condolences to Tanya and family.

Patricia Schonstein

Stephen was without exception gentle and kind in his dealings with me as a student under his care in the creative writing department at UCT, and later as I have worked as a supervisor for the department. I always wanted to get to know Stephen better as a friend, I thought there would be time. He was so young, In his prime. I was relieved when he came back from a trip to Australia years ago. I thought he might be leaving with his family. But Cape Town was the place he loved best. He loved the sea, we would sometimes cross paths with towels in hand, and acknowledge to each other the exhilaration of a fresh ocean swim. I am so glad he saw Leonard Cohen, I am glad he wrote about Leonard Cohen. I imagine Stephen departing with the dawn, as Alexandra does in Leonard’s song. Hoisted on God’s shoulder, the God of love preparing to depart. I am grateful to have been in Stephen’s orbit. So many disciples gravitated towards him, to his writing certainly, his poetry and essays, his insights and beautiful words, but also to his grace.

Stephen, I will miss knowing you are here, in flesh.

But you are here still, in thought and in memory.

Joanne Hichens

It is notable that a word that recurs in many remembrances of Stephen Watson is “generous.” Like many others, I have been on the receiving end of deep generosity from him, both professional and personal, or rather, both professional and personal. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my PhD without that kindness from him, something I will never forget. What was remarkable was that mine was an ordinary kindness on his part, something it’s clear he did often and without announcement, as the tributes on Book SA show in their collectivity.

Gabeba Baderoon

Stephen, what would you think of this? The winds are pouring across Silvermine Mountain, and I am writing to you/of you through cyberspace. I don’t know the appropriate form; but I can’t not say – in this technoethereal and absolutely present community – that I am here too, in mourning and drowned in a sense of how you are loved, honoured, and with the city, and us, always.

Jane Foress Bennett

I thought of Stephen a few weeks ago on a train from Boston to New Haven. Stephen had written about a similar East Coast train journey in one of his poems. I meant to look the poem up when back in Cape Town. I forgot. When I met Stephen at the University of Cape Town back in 2008 he was both more generous and gentle than what I expected from his poetry. He was a teacher in his manner as much as in any technical sense. Later, during a ridiculous struggle with university bureaucracy, Stephen supported me, even when it eventually cost him his place on some committee. He simply argued for what he thought was right. I consider him an ally and a friend. I wish I could have returned his generosity.

Marcus Low

Stephen was one of the most important people in my life. He encouraged me more than anyone else, mentored me, instructed me, guided me, advised me at every step in these last ten years. He was the furthest thing from a fair-weather friend – he was an all-knowing, ever-generous, incredibly patient and learned and insightful friend. I often wondered what I had done to deserve him in my life. I still don’t know. He is quite honestly the most generous person I have ever known – and one of the smartest, and most decent. I could talk about him for a long time, but I’d much rather talk to him, and the truth is that I still can’t believe he has gone. My sympathies to all who have known and loved him, and to the countless students whose lives he touched.

Roy Robins

The Rhyme of the Ginger Drifter
In Memory of Stephen Watson

“Beware the red-head drifter”
warned a note in the beach hotel
“he’s harmless but we have reason
to think him mentally unwell”

Certainly he was ginger, the man
who stopped us on the beach,
and certainly his sunburned lips
issued unusual speech

“I lost my dear old friend,” he said
“in the mountains to the south
We came together in the painted bus
in which one of us travelled out

We carried with us the cactus
And brewed some peyote tea
We laced our boots and heaved
our packs and happily went free

We walked and walked for centuries
Staring only at our feet
We climbed the ridge of an animal’s
Rib and never skipped a beat

A song of the berg came on me
and I sang it clear and slow
I carried it out on a dark-dyed pool
Observed by a single crow

The way ahead by then was clear
and so was the path behind
and I searched for my friend in the kloof
where the last of the cedars pined

It was a tall lesson in loneliness
climbing the highest peak
my cheek upon the rock face
for upwards of a week

Yet at the top I found a Tupperware
All warped by the sun and cold
And in it an ‘I made it Book’
dated two years old

And in that at the last
the hand of my friend
lay open, clear and warm
Look up, it said, to the East
Look up at the ancient dawn

There upon the horn he stood
A peak away from me
Waving his hand and whooping
Pointing madly at the sea

At once we both went running down
In a mountain dance of boulders
Falling here and tearing flesh
oh brother my only brother

Each year now on the fourth I come
To the mouth of the crystal stream
and shouldering the pack that was his
I continue the cactus dream.”

At that the ginger drifter,
Continued along his line
And a foaming softness of ocean
Hushed on the marks behind

A friend

How do you thank someone like Stephen Watson enough? I’m one of his ‘countless students’ making their way through the Creative Writing Programme at UCT, still doing so, and without Stephen there any longer it looks quite dark. Stephen told me once, before I started the programme, that it would be “a banister,” something to grasp onto in the soul-wrenching journey of writing one’s first book. Stephen was that banister — so supportive, brilliantly critical but always helpful, inspiring. Those of us lucky enough to attend his poetry seminars will never forget them, his love for and way with words, his sensibility that both challenged and delighted us. He was such a generous man, not a miserly academic preoccupied with his own work. “Longing is at the heart of every great book,” he told us, or something like that. Thank you, Stephen, for this, and for the rest of the wisdom and kindness you left with us.

Melissa Siebert

What was particularly juicy about Stephen’s discourses on poetry, were his acerbic asides. He was never totally gushy about anyone: he’d have something to say about Bertolt Brecht’s underhand methods, even as he extolled the work. We all loved it. He kept us engaged and interested, mixing gossip and startlingly beautiful lines in huge leaps. He introduced us to Cavaffy, and Borges, and Milosz: taught us not to be scornful of poetry translated and told us of Ezra Pound’s overly free way of dealing with Chinese poems). He was a lovely, lovely person. I shall SO miss his poetry lectures, which I attended illegally long after my dissertation had been handed in.

Hazel Woodward

I feel immensely privileged to have been one of the last writers supervised by Stephen on the UCT creative writing course. Each student, colleague and friend with whom he interacted felt the full beam of his attentiveness,empathy and wisdom. He gave so much. Realizing just how many lives he has touched, I wonder now if that very generosity of spirit took a toll on him, so unstinting was he with the time he gave to us all. Which of us who were there will ever forget his poetry seminars, precious hours of such linguistic richness and literary revelation that we often sat silently at the end, in awe of what we had just heard. I will remember Stephen for many reasons, but most of all for his humanity and for his beautiful mind.

– Denise Cruse

Begin, my friend
for you cannot,
you may be sure,
take your song
which drives all things out of mind
with you to the other world.

Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
not wholly to the ear?
We half close
our eyes. We do not
hear it through our eyes.
It is not
a flute note either, it is the relation
of a flute note
to a drum. I am wide
awake. The mind
is listening.

from a William Carlos William poem, submitted anonymously

Stephen Watson was my supervisor while I was making what was for me a difficult transition from academic to creative writing. In our sessions together he would read my half-formed poems back to me in a measured voice that betrayed little or no emotion. I found this slightly alienating at first, but I gradually realised that this was an aspect of his generosity: he was creating the space he knew I needed to hear my own voice. For this I feel an immense gratitude that still continues to deepen a decade later.

His commitment to excellence lives on in his words and in the memories of those like me who were taught and encouraged by him. We are lucky that he left so much of his voice behind – it will continue to find us.

Jacques Coetzee

Stephen taught me and greatly influenced me in the late ’90s – one of the gentlest, kindest and most giving of all the great lecturers in the UCT English department back then. I have not known him in the intervening years (though I’ve followed his work) but was greatly saddened by news of his passing. I’d always assumed he would grow to be a wise old man of Cape Town. Condolences to his family.

Tim Richman

I remember first meeting Stephen in my second year at the University of Cape Town. His physical beauty was an outward manifestation of something very unique inside; sensitivity, humour, nervous energy, self-deprecating wit – and daunting intelligence.

I have never lost my awe of him; his fierce, probing intellect and his raw creativity. I treasure each and every book of his that he has ever given me, and his creativity has been a yardstick for me. He told me once that a companion described how, when he was in an intensely creative mode, he would hum – something he was unaware of. That space between consciousness and the subconscious, where absolute creativity takes place, is exceptional and almost mystical.

It was probably that other worldly quality of his that gave him the capacity to be so empathetic. I will never forget how dear he was to me during a rather drawn out emotional upheaval in my life. The patient phone calls and the long talks meant more to me than I think he knew. Most of all, I remember Cecilia Forest, where he took me to walk one time. There was no sense of the city, not even the thrum, just the sound of our footfall on the gravel pathways. It was hushed and dappled, the pines were redolent, and it was clear that he knew the paths like the back of his hand. I would have been lost if he had left me there. That was the metaphor. He guided me to a stream and showed me how to stoop to drink. On the warm day the icy water was startling, and it was so clear and fresh it seemed like liquid air. He knew, instinctively, how healing it would be.

His imprint, through his writing, his teaching and all the lives he has touched, is enormous. It is difficult to understand why it is so often the exceptional people who are afflicted. But we and he are luckier than some, because of the tangible legacy he leaves.

Judith Krummeck, Baltimore, USA

Stephen’s passing away is a great loss indeed, of a most accomplished poet and a caring human being. May his spirit be at peace.

Shabbir Banoobhai

Stephen was my teacher, and a true friend. I had some correspondence with him in the past months, but, though I thought about him each and every day, and prayed for him, I waited for the right words to come to me, to truly tell him how I felt. I sent the following letter (excerpted) to Stephen on Sunday, at 9:40am NYC time. I only found out later that he had already passed, and my words had arrived too late. I only wish he could have read this.

…It all seems so incredibly cruel and unfair, and so sudden, of course, and perhaps part of my pain is imagining to the smallest degree I can what it must feel like to be you having the world suddenly stolen from you—or at least the possibility of that world being stolen from you. It makes me so sad because what I have admired most in you is a willingness to truly see the world, to keep your eyes open, to be alive and cognizant of what others don’t see. I have been reading The Music in the Ice again over the past month or so, and what struck me is your wonderful appreciation, your tendency to—I am repeating myself—notice: pain, love, the sky, the color of water, the way waves break. Through reading your writing in which you notice I too have aspired to notice carefully, and so this writing, and that friendship, has changed me. It has made me feel that seeing the world clearly is both possible and valuable.

I have felt you supported me over the years, and I want to say how much that has meant to me. That great generosity has given me an emotional strength and confidence I would not have had without your support. Your interest in my life, the wonderful dinner parties you hosted at the house in Kalk Bay, our coffees at Olympia, our meetings on Campus, the lectures you gave when I was an undergraduate—I still remember many of them so vividly, so strange so many years later!—all this has touched me deeply, because you it is so surprising, considering our difference in age, and the fact that you are such an established writer, and I am not. What I am saying is that there was no reason at all for you to make an effort to be kind to me, and that has made the kindness all the more special.

How does one say goodbye? The truly terrible, and the beautiful, thing, is that I know I won’t. Though we have not seen a great deal of each other over the years, the times we have are very clear in my memory, and in my mind they represent hope, and possibility. I think of the sea near your house, the light, the beautiful rooms, the wide ranging conversations, the quiet outside afterward, and the wind. I always left after talking with you feeling that I might still transform myself.

Luke Fiske

I last saw Stephen on a beautiful afternoon at a Coffee Shop in Rondebosch a few months ago where he handed me my manuscript meticulously reviewed and edited. Those who have been supervised by him would be familiar with his code: one check is good, two checks is very good, three checks: you struck a chord. I ran home and searched the text like a magpie looking for gold. This is how much I valued his opinion and his input: this was not only because of the MA, it was because this was the kind of man he was; he was someone one wanted to impress. In poetry class we sat hypnotized by his words; always accurate, always perfect. As everyone said: he was an extremely generous person, a wise man and a profound and insightful being. He will be remembered, he will be quoted, but above all, he will be missed. I am devastated by his sudden departure, and I wish all the strength and courage to Tanya and the children.

Melissa Madore

My love and admiration for Stephen has grown steadily over the decades we have known each other. He has been a loyal, patient and inspirational friend to me for a long time, through so many life changes for both of us.
In the 70’s, a he patiently challenged me as I ventured into the turbulent and murky waters of South African politics, a human voice clarion in the babble of rhetoric that surrounded the shark-infested waters of liberation politics. He showed me how to avoid the trappings of radical chic, the emotionally vacuous style of sloganeering so popular at the time. He also taught me then to walk on the mountain in Wupperthals, to smell the pines, to revel in the still turquoise perfection of Langebaan, to draw and paint every day, just as he wrote, no matter what. Rigour he gave, and rigour he sought.
In the 80’s when I was back in the newly independent Zimbabwe, no longer the raw-boned Rhodesian girl he met and befriended, but a young woman chased in the fires of debate and art in the South African struggle, thanks in large part to him. How good he was at not only offering comfort and wisdom then, often in vexing times for him. I thank him for his honesty and loyalty, for encouraging me to write to him, for so patiently writing back. He visited me in Harare, and he looked with nervous wonder at my pregnant belly, celebrating my joy when it threw his own isolation into high relief. It was something he searched for always, but was also fearful of at the time, a joining in love.

That he found true love, companionship and his own family in the end is what I give greatest thanks for. What a joy it was to see his ascetic spare life melded into a bigger world of children’s laughter and a clutter of toys, and thankfully with a quiet window over the sea in St James to share with his beloved Tanya. Thanks for afternoons spent together, in both Sydney and in Cape Town, of late with Tanya and Hannah, and last year Julian. I know that it was not always easy to find the time, but he always did.

I have a final memory of Stephen now, talking about The Music in the Ice at home in St James last year. He marveled at its beautiful cover, the packaging, a connection between his work and those of visual artists, about an exhibit at the National Gallery I had seen, one of his san “translation” poems shown with a graphic from by Pippa Skotnes from their book. He loved see his work interpreted in this cross-media dialogue, joining threads of history in his beloved Cape Town and from there out to the world. All the while, sitting graceful and straight in a dining chair, the petite and beautiful Hannah hung from his outstretched arm, swinging down, climbing up, swinging down. He never missed a beat, his arm always firm and strong for Hannah to climb, while encouraging me to me to speak about life and art, to ask questions.
I was reading his Camus essay with measured care, marveling at his craft, his pared exquisite style, when the arrival of the news of his illness reached me. I want to say thank you properly to him now, for the books, for a life brilliantly and generously lived. I know the books were hard to write, all of them. But each one read and reread, is a polished gem that will live on long after all of us have gone, enlightening others that did not know him, as we blessedly did, inspiring his children and others, capturing in a fleeting line the majesty of the Cape. I still have all the letters he wrote. His last instruction to me was that any papers should go the University of Texas and is now part of my Will. Until then I will treasure them.

Dear Stephen, each day I will beam my love and bright hope into the dark universe, and think of you.

Tracy Dunn

My love and blessings to the memory of a gentle man. And gratitude that I knew him.
Gratitude for that keen eye. That fierce attention. Gratitude for his generous spirit.

All my love and compassion to Tanya, his wife, and his two children, Hannah and Julian.

Barbara Fairhead

Last Sunday, I lay in the Brandewyn River in searing heat in the Cederberg, where we had gone to walk the Sevilla Rock Art Trail with friends, and talked about Stephen. I did not know then that he had already passed by. So the place becomes my farewell to him, unknowingly at the time, but now forever linked to him. I think he might have liked that.

Beverley Roos Muller

I studied under Stephen Watson at UCT. He was a very special teacher and had a profound impact on everybody I knew who was taught by him. It felt that something of significance happened in his classes, the nature of which people who worked with him will probably just understand. His classes were the reason I started writing poetry. He took his students seriously, and that is a something which I personally have always been grateful for.

Kate Kilalea

I hope that he knows how much he affected lives, not just through his brilliance but because anyone that knew him loved him as a human being – as thoroughly and loyaly as if he were a kindred friend or family member. I remember once, walking out of his office, having heard everything one might want to hear from a writer such as as himself and feeling a startling aching at not having huged or embraced him – that is what he made one want to do, his ever-formal style non-withstanding.

He inspired me in ways beyond what I could have imagined was possible, he opened worlds I never dreamed would exist. It was like he lived on another plain and just being in his presence immediately lifted you there – (he always assumed you knew everything he did). This is why I am still terribly sad, because undisputedly great as his writing and legacy remains, it is really his humanity, being in his presence I will miss.

– Almini van der Merwe

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    April 11th, 2011 @10:29 #

    Thanks, Imraan, Mike, HRI and Liesl. Beautiful words.

    Re-reading Stephen's poems for comfort, I rediscover that they are as much about love and loss -- the Big Things -- as anything else. Here are two from his The Light Echo and Other Poems:

    From Confiteor:


    Forgive me the years
    never year enough; forgive
    us the heart never heart enough.

    Don't take from me --
    not now, not then -- the memory:
    of was was done

    as it was done,
    and could not be undone;
    all those who love, those

    who betray -- those who
    do both at the same time.
    Don't let me go, forgetting

    this that even now can
    come, a day that comes,
    and now the years undone: --

    And then this extract from an elegy he wrote for a mutual friend of ours, Liesl Abrahams, who died of a brain aneurysm in 2003:

    The Incommensurable

    (n.) -- ' a quantity that has no common measure with another'


    ... We are left, as the survivors are,
    with means never quite the equal, match,
    for the horrors we still feel.

    We are left with sorrow that outweighs,
    as sorrow sometimes does, the very reason
    why that sorrow came to be -- with all
    this that is incommensurable,

    a life, a death, which can find
    no common measure with these flowers, wreaths,
    the hymns we mouth, the words of priests.
    We stand within the incommensurable,

    again within that final measure
    of it: this grief over a world
    we love -- must try to love again --
    and from which time, and chance,

    and evil, refuse to disappear.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    April 12th, 2011 @09:58 #

    Several tributes were sent to BOOK SA this morning - have added them to the post.

  • quasar
    April 12th, 2011 @15:51 #

    "Buiten Street" was an essay, surely, not a short story. Stephen didn't write a short story in his life.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    April 12th, 2011 @17:31 #

    Hi Quasar - The English Academy bestowed the honour specifically for a short story; please see the press release here:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    April 12th, 2011 @18:47 #
  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    April 13th, 2011 @08:38 #

    Stephen Watson's funeral will be held at the Bishops Chapel, Campground Rd, Rondebosch, this Friday (15th April) at 3.30pm.

  • Christine
    April 14th, 2011 @08:35 #

    A Farewell
    Port city, selfsame city, in all promiscuity of summer,
    with that scruffiness in your wind, salty on the leaves of shrubs,
    with that sadness in your light once more, returning in the wind –
    each year I add another word to the elements I’ve named before:
    I call the light, last year windblown, now a laminate of salt;
    each year I conjure colours – of amber, burnt sienna, earthy umber –
    just to return to you your coastline, the khaki of a summer’s day;
    and the mountains by now afflicted as the moon has been by epithets,
    the drab liturgy of suburbs that still eludes me like the dawns
    when inland, against the light, far hills approach the harbour
    and all along the skylines pines stand unaided, wordless, clear –
    I’ve tried to name them all, and all the while in the good hope
    that I could finally say goodbye at last, and not just learn again
    through this love of love’s frustration, the futility of words,
    the unattainable peninsula that is this small corner of the world.

    Stephen Watson
    The Other City

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    April 14th, 2011 @09:03 #

    Here's Amitabh Mitra posting on Stephen Watson elsewhere on our network:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sophy</a>
    April 14th, 2011 @11:49 #

    UCT published a brief piece yesterday, including a statement from vice-chancellor Max Price:


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