reviewed by David Clarke
Andrew Wynn Owen’s debut pamphlet presents a selection of work from a young poet who is still an undergraduate student. The eighteen poems contained here are precocious in their formal accomplishment and full of exciting verbal energy. They cover a range of subject matter, from the raspberries of the title – which are offered to Charon, not taken as refreshment on some cross-channel journey – to Charles Bovary’s cap and even Nureyev’s feet. There are love letters between Elizabeth Barret Browning and Robert Browning, animal poems and nature poems. It is an eclectic mix, covering more ground than you might expect in such a slim volume. My over-riding sensation when reading the poems was one of often delighted surprise. Wynn Owen is bold and witty, revelling in unusual connections. So, for example, the lush opening poem describes raspberries as
[…] lesser fruits of Eden. So sweet they force you into song And fill your head with dreams of hedon- istic gymnasts born in Sweden. These luscious buds should be illegal, Reserved for emperor and eagle.
The rhyme here is risky, bordering on the cheesy even, and creates the distinct impression that the poet is showing off just a little bit, but always endearingly so.
My over-riding sensation when reading the poems was one of often delighted surprise. Wynn Owen is bold and witty, revelling in unusual connections.
In poems like ‘Smile’ the sheer chewyness of the language, packed with assonance and alliteration, is the chief pleasure of the writing:
It arrests me today, happiness is spun in skin – landscape sculpted from light’s lightest discursiveness and a scene that I, breath-batedly, wait to scan. I’m a fool for your tongue, neck your laughter’s noose, and I’d sing, if I could, tributes in Ancient Norse. Love, I think you’re the grain in my labour’s mill. I could wither and wilt, waiting for you to smile.
This stanza is driven by the pleasing conceit of considering all the things that a mouth can do apart from smiling (breathing, speaking, laughing, singing, eating, etc.). This idea is all the more satisfying for the poet’s delight in words themselves, as if enraptured by the very taste of them.
Wynn Owen’s work is also strewn with classical references, which the poems generally wear lightly. Rather than merely borrowing the mystique of these sources, he is willing to turn them on their heads and make something new of them, as for instance in the villanelle ‘Icarus’. Here we see not the flight of the eponymous figure, but funeral rituals that return him to his infant state, so that hubris and failure turn him into a metaphor for the transition to the fraught world of adulthood, leaving behind the childhood protections of ‘Calpol, bandage, blanket.’
Richard O’Brien’s helpful introduction highlights key influences on Wynn Owen: Betjeman, Auden, Muldoon and Maxwell. These voices are certainly strong presences in the pamphlet, to the point where I found myself playing the parlour game of attributing each poem to a stylistic forbear: ‘Insomnia Song’ feels like a Maxwell, ‘Pinwheel’ more of a Muldoon. One might argue that Wynn Owen’s work has not developed to the point where he is making something new of all of these influences, but the sheer verve of the execution is compelling in itself.
If there is a criticism I would want to raise, however, it is that the kind of formal control, musicality and linguistic invention he has inherited from those who went before has not yet acquired the kind of emotional and moral heft that would make his work lasting. The skill of his poetry is so fine and the power of his imagination so great that I felt carried away by it, but then left each poem without a sense of having gained anything from it, leaving aside the sheer pleasure of the words, the rhythms and the rhymes. For instance, in ‘Insomnia’ there is talk of guilt in the context of a romantic relationship, but this felt more like the premise for a poem than the theme the poet really wanted to explore. It is a humorous poem and pleases on that level, but even humorous poetry can (at its best) allow us some sense of connection with and learning about the thing it describes.
Equally, although I would not demand of all poetry that it should be somehow socially engaged, Wynn’s work is definitely more concerned with itself than it is with the world beyond the poem. This seems a shame. I can’t help feeling that a poet of Wynn’s impressive talent and sharp control over his medium is destined to be an important new voice. Yet, on the evidence of this pamphlet, he still needs to settle on a set of concerns he can productively explore through his writing. He would certainly be capable of doing so, but at the moment he is just tuning up. I’ll be fascinated to hear what kind of music he will produce once he has found his focus.David Clarke is a teacher, researcher and poet living in Gloucestershire. His first pamphlet, Gaud, was joint winner of the 2012 Flarestack Poets Pamphlet Prize and subsequently won the Michael Marks Award 2013. He blogs here.