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Owen Lowery reading at the Southbank Centre on 7 September / 15 September 2014

up close portrait of Owen Lowery, poet, with his face turned side-on

Photo of Owen Lowery © Jayne Lowery

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By John O'Donoghue

I was a little underwhelmed last week by the Poetry Book Society’s announcement of the ‘Next Generation of 20 Poets expected to dominate the poetry landscape of the coming decade.' For one thing I’m sceptical about marketing campaigns that seek to highlight poets and poetry.

The Great British Public seems as indifferent to their bards as they are to their politicians, as if the two tribes are becoming beleaguered, endangered species. And whilst I don’t equate the sheer enthusiasm of young poets like Kate Tempest with the battle-scarred exhaustion of Nick Clegg, I think any campaign that has a palpable design on us needs closer scrutiny.

Especially in the light of the reading I went to at Southbank on Sunday 7th September as part of the Unlimited Festival. This was Owen Lowery’s first event as part of a tour he’s undertaking to promote his work. Lowery sustained a spinal injury at a judo tournament nearly 20 years ago and was left paralysed from the shoulders down, needing a ventilator to breathe. He’s the one writer Unlimited have funded, and as such has already distinguished himself, as his reviews to date confirm.

His first collection of poetry, Otherwise Unchanged, was published by Carcanet in 2012, and I read the book over the summer. I was intrigued to see how Lowery’s meticulous craftsmanship as a poet would transfer to the vagaries of a poetry reading. 

As a veteran of events where the audience outnumbered the performers; where poets are always asking promoters, ‘How am I doing for time?’ – you should know, pal!; where readers mumble, shuffle papers looking for poems they can’t find, and say they’ll finish with just one more – lasting a full twenty minutes, I know only too well how bad things can get.

But Lowery wasn’t like that. He took to the stage of the Function Room on Level 5 at the Royal Festival Hall with his wife Jayne and explained that the majority of the poems in the first half of his reading would be about the life that he and his wife share, with several of the poems written for her. So it seemed only right that Jayne read alongside him in the first half.

This suite of poems perhaps reached a zenith of tenderness and intimacy with ‘Morning Call’, a poem that reflected on Jayne’s relationship with her father: ‘the simple rewards/stack up when it’s your love coming/up the stairs, you for a daughter.’

Lowery builds this poem stanza by intricate stanza, that double focus on Jayne and her father so deftly handled that the we’re aware of the bonds between all three – wife, father, husband. As Lowery said introducing the poem, ‘I wanted to place myself in relationship to Jayne’s devotion to her father, and write from the position of a fascinated and partial observer, aware that Jayne also looks after me in a similar way.’  

The Lowerys went on to read poems inspired by their life together, taking in holidays in Wales, Mull, and in the Western Highlands. Lowery told us these poems were largely informed by the fluidity of these areas, the transitions between air, sea, and land, and this came through strongly in the sensuous, sinuous unwinding of Lowery’s lines: 

When it closes on the bark
the world has found a new colour.
We miss the moment it re-folds
in the curled breath of pre-dark. 
(A buzzard from Rose Cottage)

When Jayne read this poem in her earthy Lancashire accent I imagined Ted Hughes off to one side smiling and nodding his great head. But Hughes was not the only magician present at the Lowerys’ reading. As a lifelong Liverpool supporter Lowery shared a poem he’d written called ‘An apparition of Kenny Dalglish’. I think it was here that the evocative visuals and sounds really complemented the poem and Owen’s reading of it. A stencilled graffito of Dalglish didn’t ‘close down’ the poem, but rather opened it out, as we saw a stylised animation of the image: 

I’m hoping it was done from memory, 
from wearing on the artist’s back  that number seven,
scoring, re-scoring the same goals 
to the same commentator’s vocal hard-on.

The sounds and images were devised by Sam Skiner and Simon Jones, and added another dimension to the event. Never obtrusive, always evocative, these collages, montages, and animations acted to further mesmerise me, as the poems’ spell lulled me into a Sunday afternoon reverie. Through the window of the room five floors up I could see the London Eye, a carousel revolving in the blue air, the city stretching away.

Lowery’s poems, the visuals inside and outside the room, and his distinctive husky voice entranced me. He finished his reading with poems about soldier poets such as Keith Douglas and a glimpse of his next book. This is a series of poems inspired by Dame Paula Rego’s paintings, and one of these was displayed on the screens in the room, ‘Two women being stoned’.

It’s a stunning image, and Lowery’s poem brilliantly interpreted the painting. As he finished up with two final poems – ‘Elgar’s Cello Concerto’ and another poem about a Rego painting, ‘Dybbuk’ – I reflected on Lowery’s commitment to his craft and his command not only of language but of his ability to hold an audience. I thought too of Jayne and how she also brought a completeness to Lowery’s reading, a fine reader in her own right, and the inspiration of some of his most touching poems.

In the wake of the ‘Next Generation’ hype, Lowery is one poet I believe is truly touched with greatness. He is that rare thing in the ‘poetry landscape’: a poet whose talent seems to accumulate with each image, each poem, and I’m sure – judging by the peek he gave us of what’s to come – each book. I can’t wait for his next generation.

Keywords: poetry,spoken word,unlimited