There are few contemporary poets who can go from lyricising the sooty imprints of a bird’s wings on a ceiling to pondering philosophical questions about mind and matter which such ease as Andrew Wynn Owen, and fewer still who can share thoughts about their work with such lucidity and self-awareness. A fellow by examination of All Souls College and the Newdigate Prize recipient in 2014, Wynn Owen published his debut collection last year with Carcanet Press. The Multiverse showcases a wide range of material, composed for the most part in the last three years; yet it rings with such flair and precision as would be expected from a more experienced writer. In conversation, Wynn Owen revealed that his passion for poetry emerged over a decade ago, after he fell in love with the work of W H Auden:
His poetry satisfied demands which prose simply hadn’t. Having experienced grief, I was looking for a certain amount of meaning, which poetry gave superabundantly through the play of concepts at its heart.
Wynn Owen harnessed his poetic talent during his time at Oxford, where he was mentored by John Fuller at Magdalen’s Florio Society. His debut collection is a careful exercise in observance and inquiry, blending rhythms, themes and influences in diverse and dizzying ways. He owes as much to the polymetrical poems of seventeenth-century Platonists such as George Herbert as to the crafty style of contemporary poets such as Abigail Parry. Wynn Owen cites Parry’s Jinx as a source of inspiration; the interplay of patterned surfaces, trick doors and sliding panels, which recall her past as a toymaker, find parallels in The Multiverse through personified objects and architectural illusions. Although Wynn Owen sees many continuities between his work and that of his contemporaries, his use of what he calls ‘regular polymetricality’ sets him apart – and above. He couples his contemplative lyricism with intricate stanzas and skilful versification, using personal experience as a starting point for his mindful meanderings.
The poet’s anecdotes are both the source of cognitive dizziness, and the key to making sense of that dizziness. In ‘April Shower’, Wynn Owen starts by describing the ‘plosive drops’ of rain falling onto him, before applying the same water imagery to himself: ‘One day I guess my mind will slip / Softly out of my head’. Now sitting in bed thinking of time’s passing, the poet-speaker contemplates a pigeon outside the window, whose wings are ‘more-dimensional seen through the rain’. He closes the poem with another anecdote, going full-circle:
I think of when, a kid, my mother told
Me how to hold
The rain in hand
And drink it as, she said, she once had done.
The rain becomes a leitmotiv, tying together the various visions and memories with which it is associated, and allowing a circular structure to emerge around it: the poet’s mind wanders in circles, looping from thought to thought, similar to the rain as it ‘flings / Against the air’ and ‘doubles round again’; similar, also, to the collection as a whole, looping from theme to theme through echoes and anecdotes. Even the more allegorical poems like ‘Entropy’, where the poet speaker flees from personified ideas such as Loss or Grief, create a space for familiar experience through allusion to an earlier poem:
The only way to wriggle was
To run – the surest trick to baffle it [Loss]
The circumspect enjambment allows the last two words to visibly recall ‘The Door’, the collection’s third poem which also plays on the border between allegory and lived experience. A figure in a swivel chair gestures the poet-speaker towards an arch ‘Marked ‘Happiness’’; the slightly cynical quotation marks become justified when the poet grows disillusioned and ‘betrayed’ by ‘A maze of winding walls’ inside the arch that make him ‘dizzy’ and ‘sad’. Whereas ‘Entropy’ creates a space for familiar experience within an allegorical narrative, ‘The Door’ creates a space for allegory within anecdote. The real archway, raising the poet’s hopes with the promise of ‘Happiness’, becomes a metaphor for disappointment. A new door offers the possibility to escape into another room, ‘Closely comprised / Of portals, each a vacancy / For liberty.’ Architectural structures house abstract ideas, whilst doors allow the poet to fleet through these monumentalised mindsets:
… I realised
I’d never loved a room. It is the door
That I adore.
Although Wynn Owen is certainly interested in abstract ideas, he is keener on exploring the ways through which we encounter and engage with these ideas in our everyday lives, and the best poems in The Multiverse are those which explore a large, abstract concept through minute specificities. By piecing together disparate relics such as a ‘shipwreck found off Antikythera’, ‘a figurine / From stone-age Switzerland’ and ‘a catalogue they penned / At Herculaneum’, Wynn Owen explores the theme of ‘Traces’ and laments those which have been eradicated: the catalogue ‘lists some works you’d recognise / And others lost to human eyes’. By contrast, he praises the encyclopaedic capacities of the world wide web, storing limitless knowledge. Amidst the nostalgia sparked by ancient artefacts, the poet is fundamentally positive about humanity’s efforts to treasure and remember the past, lauding modern-day access to information:
Give thanks for every tool of innovation:
For libraries and labs,
For rolling stacks and reading rooms,
For Haydn fugues and Habsburg tombs,
For pyramids contrived from limestone slabs
His celebration of intelligence and erudition spans the whole course of The Multiverse, where entire poems are dedicated to progress in the fields of medicine or rocket science, imagining life on other planets, ‘striving for new birth’ (‘Mars’):
[…] The same
Who thrummed guitars
And warbled ‘Major Tom’ will spread
Across the stars.
(xxiv. Future Pastoral, from ‘Reveries’)
However, the poet also reminds us of our mortal limits and invites us instead to accept and embrace the brevity of our time on Earth: ‘Our journey’s brief / But, trust, it’s bright’, he writes in ‘The Slow Steal’. The poet wonders whether we have any ‘holding place’ and compares life to coffee seeping ‘from a punctured cup’; once again exploring deep ideas such as destiny and mortality through similes which use familiar experiences and small-scale events to make them seem more real and personable. The defeatist image of the seeping drink is later revised in a lengthier poem in which Wynn Owen writes that ‘happiness / Trickles like apple through a cider-press’ (7. Calm, from ‘Observances’). The Multiverse foregrounds a humanist outlook rather than a pessimist one: although our lives may fleet away rapidly, Wynn Owen is more concerned with celebrating the wonders within them than lamenting their ephemeral nature. He reminded me of G K Chesterton’s description of Robert Browning as ‘not just an optimist, but something more surprising and wonderful’; more than hope, happiness pervades The Multiverse. Whilst Wynn Owen is concerned with the power of the human mind to explore and create, he is also concerned with the authority we hold over our personal destinies: whilst death may be an inevitable outcome, how much freedom do we have when it comes to forging a path for ourselves? In ‘The Puppet’, the poet starts by describing a hand above his head, ‘the plotting force’ that pins his ‘life in place’ and makes it ‘go as planned’. Conversely, in the second stanza, he describes ‘organic links / Clasping [his] feet’ and finds ‘gentle guidance, patterned and complete’ in nature’s ‘support and givingness’. Wynn Owen juxtaposes spiritual and biological influences, and thus revises his initial judgement: ‘I realise that the hand I thought / Was besting me had only meant to bless.’ The internal rhyme echoes how easily one can misjudge the intent of an external force: the line between guidance and determinism appears to be a thin one.
Like ‘Green Earth’s effusive countenance’, spiritual guidance is portrayed as benevolent and shape-shifting: the poet asks for its help at regular intervals and under various names. Twenty-three poems onwards from ‘The Puppet’, he calls upon ‘Calm’ to help him ‘clear [his] head’, but a roar replies, telling him to look elsewhere than this ‘chaos-torn and restless land.’ The poet undertakes a physical and spiritual journey, encountering four characters who, at first, seem to have achieved a state of mindful relaxation: ‘a dreamer in a park’, ‘a schmuck who smoked / Hashish all day’, ‘a hermit’ and ‘a billionaire’. A stanza is dedicated to every character, debunking the illusion of their inner peace over six lines each: the dreamer is cursed by ‘phantom guilt’, the schmuck’s ‘childhood dreams’ have ‘huffed away’, the hermit, ‘always alone’, fears ‘all newness, all unknown’, and the billionaire’s money simply ‘guard[s] him from regret’: ‘calm [is] nowhere to be seen inside / His private jet.’ The poet gives up on his search and contemplates autumnal flowers ‘Depleting in / Dry seedpods’, until he hears the voice of Calm whispering in his ear: ‘I was within. / I am this ink.’ Wynn Owen foregrounds the cathartic quality of poetry, suggesting one can find calm through the act of writing.
Although this may be the poem’s ultimate message, Wynn Owen prefers thinking of ‘Calm’ as a piece in which several critiques bounce off one another: the idea of cathartic composition emerges out of a critique of excessive materialism. ‘More broadly,’ he suggested,
Poetry can do everything. It can help to change people’s world views, which is something I know from introspection. Poetry has been a very large part of my life, and, in many ways, has saved me. It’s a wonderful thing and anchors you to the world, helping you process all sorts of emotional problems and apprehend the infinite in the finite.
Wynn Owen does so by poeticising anecdotes from his day-to-day life, allowing us to appreciate the wonders and curiosities of the mundane and the commonplace; a ‘Chair’ or a ‘Fountain’, usually overlooked, hold as much potential for poetic inspiration as a ‘Waterfall’ or ‘Epistemic Communities’. Versifying our existence also helps to understand the structures that seem to govern them; in conversation, Wynn Owen tied this idea back to ‘objective idealism’,
Plato’s idea that there is a world beyond this world, that blazes through this world, giving structure and pattern to everything we do. I find this amazing, and think we should keep trying to understand it better.
As suggested by the collection’s punning title, Wynn Owen’s Multiverse seeks both to understand the ‘other world’ which patterns our lives and to replicate these patterns through polymetrical versification. In conversation, Wynn Owen stressed the importance of finding the right form for the right idea, and compared the ‘other world’ to the subconscious thoughts behind some of his stylistic decisions: both are transcendental, intangible and shape our lives – and poems – without us realising. Inspired by Auden’s view of poets as ‘Lords of Limit’, Wynn Owen keenly experiments with pattern and rhythm, finding freedom within constraint by shifting gear not only between poems, but also within stanzas. In ‘Reveries’, he creates a stanza containing, ‘in the shortest possible compass, all ‘gear-shifts’ between pentameter, tetrameter, trimeter, and dimeter’, as he explains in the poem’s afternote. The result is a mish-mash of pseudo-limericks and alternated rhyme schemes, with a dislocated hemistich here and a sudden enjambment there.
Coming towards the end of the collection, longer poems like ‘The Centrifuge’, ‘Observances’ and ‘Reveries’, each subdivided into several chapters, serve as a welcome summary of both the breadth and depth which Wynn Owen is capable of. By allowing greater room for experimentation, they reflect the way in which the poet masterfully straddles the line between flexibility and consistency. However, their length also implies a greater degree of philosophical and literary inquiry than can be found in the shorter, more conversational poems. Taking himself more seriously, Wynn Owen alerts the reader to his change in tone and addressee, no longer speaking to us, but to his book:
Since time is flying everywhere I look,
I take this opportunity to pause.
You, centrifuge, my futuristic book,
You heart of chrome, with ventricles of gauze,
I choose your spin to execute my chores,
To order what I cannot separate
And formalize the thoughts I cogitate.
(I. The Mechanism, from ‘The Centrifuge’)
Wynn Owen returns to the idea of cathartic writing, suggesting that poetry offers a medium for expressing and organising one’s thoughts and feelings. But what happens when one has an entire collection of poems to organise? An anthology offers new opportunities for the poet whose rhymes and echoes can be found not only within poems, but also between them; The Multiverse reads like an anthology of disparate dialogues which mirror the poet’s evolving mindset. Wynn Owen opened up about the philosophical contradictions inherent to a collection composed over several years. Rather than shying away from these, he has found original ways to juxtapose and embrace them. One of his favourite ways of doing so, he revealed, is through palinodes:
You write one poem, then realise it doesn’t actually say everything you want to say, and then write another poem, perhaps in the same form, that retracts, contradicts or expands what you wrote in the first.
He also revealed, however, that a palinode does not always come in direct succession to the piece to which it responds, explaining why a poem towards the end of his collection might echo one from the beginning. By playing around with structure across his collection and within specific poems such as ‘The Centrifuge’, where each subsection is headed with an epigraph by a renowned author such as W H Auden and Seamus Heaney, Wynn Owen writes himself into the English poetic tradition, which he described to me as ‘Platonist’. He stressed his debt to Plato by invoking his character Diotima, who claims that love is drawn to the eternal by means of beauty: ‘One of the hopes is that poetry can help with this process,’ he said.
He also took the opportunity to read out an extract from Iris Murdoch’s Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, in which Plato deplores the way his guests fling ‘art’ around as if it were just another side issue like ‘the silver mines’, ‘the war’ or ‘the latest news about Alcibiades’, when in reality art is ‘almost everything’. Whilst all art forms may display limitless capacities for breadth and depth, poetry is unique in its engagement with philosophy and abstract concepts, allowing the poet to address complex ideas more directly than any other artist. Wynn Owen’s advice to budding poets can easily be applied to us all:
You need to have the happiness to get into the flow of it [poetry] and trust that you are part of the processes of the universe, part of the pattern that gives you chairs and trees and so on. Those mathematical structures also operate through and structure your consciousness and, if you go along with them, that will surely produce something beautiful.
In a recent poem called ‘The Siege’, he observes a group of herons and wonders why their wings – and lives – unfold the way they do. The patterns in the lives around him restructure his own perceptions and allow him to experience new feelings: the herons’ ‘awkward flight’
[…] was spirit given force,
Beautiful, left-field, making me long to lift
My life to better ends […]
Poetry not only helps us understand the transcendental forces which shape our lives, but also helps us achieve a state where we feel free ‘to do what [we] know is good’. The Multiverse is a perfect enactment of this combination: freedom joins awareness to create crafty and thought-provoking poems replete with echoes, surprises, and positive reminders that happiness is often found in the smaller things in life.