As Brian Patten says on the front-cover blurb to
this splendid collection - 'Phil Bowen's poems have always been unique'. It's
the mix of influences and styles that makes them so, however, and Bowen's
poems are a strange melange of post-60's pop poetry and an almost-Georgian
sense of formal device. Given that his hometown is Liverpool and that The
Beatles, at times, displayed a similar sense of stylistic eclecticism,
perhaps this isn't so surprising. There's also an intriguing tribute to
Philip Larkin in an early poem - 'About Larkin' - which is a robust defence
of Larkin's quiet conservatism, a quality which is certainly evident in
Bowen's own work, though his 'music-hall' relish for colloquial language and
a tendency to work playfully with 'cliché' is gleefully at odds with Larkin's
more dour and pessimistic outlook. Don't get me wrong, there is certainly a
concern with the dark side in Bowen's poetry and a sort of 'sensitive
withdrawal' at times, which speaks mournfully of the human condition, but his
irrepressible comic touch and 'stand-up performer' persona puts him into an
altogether different category. This is fortunate as I can no longer bear
Larkin's poetry and wouldn't want the comparison to be a determining factor
in this review.
This book contains work from four previous collections, from the early 1990's
to 2004, together with a substantial selection of more recent poems. Some of
the best material, in my view, comes from the collection entitled Variety's
Hammer, which includes the impressive performance poem
'What a Little Scarecrow Can Do', a piece which works well live as well as
transferring effectively to the page:
felt he had a poet in him.
The poet felt
he had an apostrophe in him.
that wanted a page.
A page that
wanted a bride.
A bride that
needed a husband.
A husband who
wanted a housewife.
who wanted a lover.
A lover who
wanted to feel safe.
The safe that
wanted the money.
that made a speech.
that needed an actor.
An actor who
needed the part.
The part that
needed the whole.
My only possible criticism of this poem is that it's not bizarre enough but
the fact that Bowen can write in this vein and then switch to something like
'Gallery', is the sign of a versatile talent. 'Gallery', in fact, is
one of the best pieces in this collection, one of those rare poems 'about'
painting which really works, due to a compressed yet arresting descriptive
style - 'massive boulders slamming into an astonished coastline' - and an
apparently throwaway ending which keeps the possibilities open and yet
manages to feel exactly right:
so the fat
man beside the pool who invited us, says,
sky's the sky by somebody big.
It's a poem filled with interest and a variety of references and which has
right conversational tone for its subject, an extremely skilful piece of
writing and very pleasurable to read as well.
Bowen is exceptionally good at evoking a mood and he does this quite
minimally and without fuss. It's easy to underrate this ability because the
poems often read through so smoothly yet it's an aspect of his work that I've
come to really admire while re-reading these poems:
verandah - your own -
Street - there to kiss -
toe-nails, painted sky,
basements heaving with garlic
in flowers tonight.
(from 'Sticks and Pipes')
There are a number of poems here which refer to music-hall and comedy stars
and which all mix an earthy irreverence with a sense of melancholy and
occasional foreboding, yet the one I enjoyed most was Bowen's tribute to
Take a card.
Now eat it!
Ha ha ha!
I had a very
strange dream last night
Is that your
Have a look
Ha ha ha!
I dreamt I
and when I
woke up I was
Ha ha ha!
(from 'Take a Dream - For Tommy')
Now I'm usually averse to writing which attempts to manipulate feelings in
this manner, however skilful, but Bowen carries this off with flair and it's
a genuinely poignant poem. I guess it helps that I'm a Tommy Cooper fan (impossible
to resist) but it's the way that Bowen steals Cooper's style and then sells
straight back to you - barefaced cheek or what! - that makes it work so well,
a mix of sharp observation and love, I guess. Powerful stuff, even as it
pretends, again, to have a throwaway quality.
Many of Bowen's poems are ballads, or near-ballads - Charles Causley comes to
mind - and his use of repetition and rhythmic regularity still finds an
audience in these post-modern times. It's probably the fact that his writing
is sophisticated and aware that enables him to move between an unpretentious 'pop
culture' and something darker and more serious but this conflicting feature
of his work seems to be more prevalent in the final group of poems in Nowhere's
Far. The title poem is a good point in question with its echoing refrain,
melancholy questing and its sense of a narrative, though this is fractured
and filtered through a sort of nightmare dreamscape. Bowen has written a
formally traditional poem but it's one which is disrupted, 'psychologically
troubled' and concerned with the inability (or rather the limits) of language
to deal with its subject. There's the hint of a narrative but this is
inexplicit and the jaunty style of the piece is at odds with its 'dark
heart'. There's a degree of abstraction here which you don't experience in an
average pop poem and some of its imagery is chilling:
Where I got
the thought of a footpath
From the scarecrow there by the style,
about that footpath -
That scarecrow's missing smile:
nowhere's far and nothing's new
And nowhere's near as ever,
boat!' - you told me to -
No not me I never!
I've already mentioned Causley in terms of the poem's style but its puzzling,
riddling quality is closer to some of Williams Empson's writing than anything
Larkin ever wrote. Its components are disconnected and disturbing, hinting,
perhaps, at childhood trauma and loss but you can't ever be sure.
Drew Milne talked about the relationship between pop lyrics and poetry in a Stand article
a few years back and while I don't think he had the likes of Bowen in mind
when he was discussing possible futures for poetry, I think there's a case to
be made for Bowen's writing and one that stands up to scrutiny (no puns
intended!). What makes his work so interesting, apart from its value as
entertainment, is precisely this sort of 'awkward crossover' between popular
culture (or pop poetry) and a more serious poetic intent. The fact that Bowen
doesn't put that High Art tag on his poetry makes his work all the more
intriguing because it certainly isn't 'pop poetry' in the sense that I
understand the term. Despite his harking back to The Georgians and to the
1960's there's something very contemporary about his work that I can't quite
put my finger on.
Steve Spence 2009