Friday, 1 January 2010

Poetry: Recommendations from 2009 (4 of 6) Phil Bowen 'Nowhere's Far'

'Nowhere's Far: New and Selected Poems 1990-2008' by Phil Bowen

A clown writes by candlelight, hands stained with greasepaint, made-up cheeks rubbed and streaked. The audience has gone home, the rest of the circus left town, leaving his battered old caravan marooned in a field that's empty as the blank page he's staring at, waiting for the words to come.

If Phil Bowen's stage act is in debt to Roger McGough and John Cooper Clarke, his page craft owes more to Larkin and Auden. We should never assume that the make-up is the man, the performance the writer, although changing audience experiences and expectations has put any serious poet in a dilemma As Don Paterson has said, it is dangerous to read before a paying audience too often. First, you read for them. Next, you act for them. Finally, you write for them. It's difficult to distinguish between boredom and contemplation, but laughter is an explicit reaction, and the temptation is that's what you seek. And if jokes work on the page at all, they only work once. Humour has it's place in poetry, but it has to be of a darker, deeper hue to sustain its impact over multiple readings.

Because Phil Bowen puts on a funny act, many first experience him as a funny man; they then find it difficult to shift their perception of him to incorporate his qualities as a writer, which don't exclude humour but go far beyond it. Nor is his persona that of the archetypal sad clown I opened this piece with, although some of his work has that aspect, not least the pieces from 'Professor's Boots' and 'Variety's Hammer' concerned with comedians on and off stage, which have pathos in spades, as well as some belly laughs. 'Chubby's Turn' has both, but 'When Elvis Met Hitler' is braver with ultimately greater impact, and I have read it - or heard it read - many times.

By 'Starfly' and the new poems that end this book, he'd gone well beyond that world, and also broken the back of the biographical pieces - in this case, a childhood in fifties and sixties Liverpool - that some writers never throw off the straitjacket of. Which isn't to say they should be skipped over, far from it. Some are public poems - vignettes of Liverpool life, character and narrative based, but capturing more than a time and a place, giving it a continuing purpose - while others are more private, the love poems or poems of mourning that you won't hear in a reading, but should do - the impression of the poet you'd be left with would be more complex, for sure.

The poems that leap off those closing pages are different in style and content, or rather a fulfillment of what the earlier work hinted at: they follow a mental process wherever the synapses take it, often into dark territory, always somewhere not entirely expected. He manages to combine an awareness of, and ability at, form with a deceptively conversational style that demonstrates an ear tuned into dialogue. The title poem refers back to The Scarecrow sequence that won his work national attention a decade before. 'An Awful Thought' gives presence to those lurking doubts and suspicions we all deal with. 'This is the Door' demonstrates why even the most tightly structured of his poems have sometimes been praised by critics more concerned with experiments in syntax, and a polyphony of language.

That's not to say that he's not continued to produce the party and performance pieces he's best known for, perhaps because it is those he often chooses to emphasise in his appearances, mixing them with stand-up routines and worked introductions that are as much a part of the stage act as the poems themselves. There are times when his love of comedy should be held in, his knowledge and instinct for poetry allowed its full expression, the vocal delivery informed more by dramatic - Bowen is also a playwright - and less by comic theatre.

Which isn't to suggest that Bowen doesn't understand restraint, it is tangible in the poems about his mother, for example. He also uses the constraint of form, rather than is used by it, and is a master of rhyme and metre when they serve the poem, only allowing the poem to serve them in the parodies and pastiches he sometimes resorts to. The best pieces - some of them unassuming next to their bed fellows, 'There Again' for example, or 'No Doubt' - have an assurance more akin to Louis MacNeice than the Mersey poets of the sixties he is sometimes likened to, perhaps because he wrote their biography. But then McGough, Patten and Henri too are sometimes shackled by their popular image and, indeed, by their popularity. As Bowen would say - and has said - at least they had a gallery to play to. Having worked hundreds of schools in dozens of counties over many years, maybe some of those now grown-up kids will see this book on the shelf and pick it up, remembering the funny man who inspired in them a love of poetry.

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