Matthew Paul looks at poems featuring bowls by Stephen Payne, Pauline Stainer and Ted Walker
Outstanding poems about sport are rarer than they ought to be, but the best — for example Peter Sansom’s ‘Tennis in London’, Careful What You Wish for, Carcanet, 2015, p.18 Mick Imlah’s ‘Gordon Brown’ (and his other rugby union poems), The Lost Leader, Faber, 2008, p.103 ‘Snooker’ by Ian Parks, Citizens, Smokestack Books, 2017, p.23 Ann Atkinson’s ‘Shot Put’, The Singing and Dancing: Collected Poems, Smith|Doorstop, 2015, p.126 or the football poems of Alan Ross (who also wrote many poems about cricket) and Rory Waterman (inter alia) — are hugely enjoyable. The less glamorous the sport and the setting, the more pleasurable they are still. I can’t recall reading many poems about bowls over the years; curiously, though, I’ve come across three fine examples in the last year, each of which merits examination.
Stephen Payne’s second collection, The Windmill Proof,HappenStance Press, 2021, p.60 has rightly been praisedSee, for example, the excellent review by Mat Riches for the way in which geometry is often the starting point for poems which digress in intriguing directions. One of its many outstanding poems, ‘Crown Green Bowls’, lightly incorporates geometry in a charming coming-of-age vignette:
Crown Green Bowls
our best, that summer we were young
but played at being old
in whites and daps.
The big exams were done; evenings were long.
Our futures were on hold.
killing time on a shaded square
with elms along the side
muffling the noise
from the playground. Grass scent in the air;
the clacks as woods collide.
the bias against the crown, a mark
on the green near the jack for a guide,
or else we let
the effects add, sending the wood on an arc
that seemed impossibly wide.
Here are five sentences across three stanzas, each of which has six lines in an a-b-c-a-b-c rhyme-scheme and a syllabic pattern which appears to be strict but is actually variable. Payne has written about this form. He says, “All stanzas have the same rhyme scheme, and the same pattern of varying line-lengths (who can resist the word ‘heterometrical’?). A form like this somehow suggests itself during the writing of the poem (I think around draft 5 in this case), and then becomes a constraint for later developments. As everyone who writes in form says, the constraint pushes the writer’s imagination, and prompts ideas and expressions that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. It’s fun but hard work, I find, writing poems like this, and it’s possible that just getting them done leaves the writer feeling more fond of them than he should be. I hope not.”The whole quote by Payne is well worth reading
The sense of playfulness colliding with formality underlies the manner in which the poem gracefully and easily unfolds; much, one might argue, in the way that bowls travel across the nap of a green. That sense is also present in the thematic content. We are presented with four ‘boys’, on the cusp of adulthood, in those two months between taking ‘A’-levels and receiving the results which might determine the course of their future selves; yet that seriousness is ‘on hold’ whilst they play. Of course, this play is not typically age-appropriate and that unusual situation, seen from the distance of fifty or so years, gives this poem added interest and poignancy.
The poem’s opening word, emphasised by its isolation, suggests the memory’s strange ambiguity. It qualifies what would otherwise be a bold assertion, that that summer was not only the poet / persona’s ‘best’, but that of all four protagonists. As readers, we accept the possibility, and many will surely be lulled back to their own equivalent experience by those marvellous clauses, ‘that summer we were young / but played at being old’. Payne’s concise description of the outfits as ‘whites and daps’ is admirable, as is his usage of the colloquialism ‘daps’, meaning plimsolls, and how it initiates the poem’s rhyme-scheme on the readers’ ears. The last two lines of the stanza give us the fuller context in a manner which is both unobtrusive and impressively succinct. A lesser poet than Payne may well have opened the poem with this ‘big picture’ information. Positioning the last line as a new sentence of its own, rather than following the previous line with another semi-colon, is another example of Payne’s fine technique: it emphasises the unworldly impression of time being suspended and also slows the poem down so that it can be savoured.
The sense of playfulness colliding with formality underlies the manner in which the poem gracefully and easily unfolds; much, one might argue, in the way that bowls travel across the nap of a green
It would be difficult for any poet to maintain such momentum in the remainder of the poem, but Payne does so with what reads and sounds like almost effortless syntactical perfection.
As the middle stanza of the three, the second widens the scope with lovingly depicted details. Its interim nature is reiterated with that ‘killing time’, and by the placing of the four at play within a ‘shaded square’, as if awaiting a sunshine-filled life once this summer of bowls (and, doubtless, other, maybe wilder pursuits) is over. The specificity of the ‘elms’ adds another layer of time, given that so many in the UK were wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s. That the elms are ‘muffling the noise / from the playground’ further augments the intermediate state: these ‘boys’ are both temporally and spatially putting their childhood behind them. The slant rhyme between ‘time’ and elms’ – like the other examples: ‘bias’ and ‘else’, ‘crown’ and ‘green’, and ‘add’, ‘wood’ and ‘wide’ in the next stanza — is very pleasing.
The mention of the playground shows the reader that this bowling green is situated within a park or recreation area. One can imagine in the distance a series of football pitches with un-netted goalposts, a slightly dilapidated pavilion, a boating pond maybe — what’s as impressive about this poem isn’t just what it contains but what it omits: Payne trusts his readers to fill in the gaps. He skilfully gives us more context through other senses: smell and sound — the ‘scent’ of grass, newly-mown by the park-keeper presumably; and the onomatopoeia of ‘the clacks as woods collide’. Again, the way the rhymes slot into place is enviable. The overall picture given by this stanza is one of timelessness — unlike in the first and third stanzas, Payne doesn’t use the past tense within it; it is as if time has stood still.
The hint of geometry given by the ‘square’ in the second stanza is given carefully-measured rein in the third. The action is described in a manner which suggests that the skill of bowling is beyond the geometry of getting the line just right; that there’s magic involved in sending the wood so wide that its long curving path around towards the jack defies the logic of one’s eyes. It’s notable that Payne tempers that illusion with the tentative ‘seemed’ — which brings us neatly back to the poem’s opening word — as though it would be irrational to believe that the physics here could, in fact, contain even a hint of metaphysics. It suggests that the life-journey of each of the four boys might turn out to be like the movement of the wood: a long, wayward arc which miraculously leads to exactly where one needs to be.
At no point does Payne describe any of the other three lads or his own younger self. That must have been a conscious decision. It leaves the reader free to picture each of them, one or two no doubt more suited to ‘whites and daps’ than the others, and to speculate what has become of these young men playing an older person’s game; to wonder which arcs their lives took, and whether some of them have grown, metaphorically at least, into those whites and daps they tried on for size so many years ago.
What an utter delight this poem is. It complements two other lively poems featuring bowls: Pauline Stainer’s ‘The Bowls Match’ from her first collection, The Honeycomb, now collected in The Lady & the Hare, Pauline Stainer, The Lady & the Hare: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2003) and Ted Walker’s ‘The Lady Bowlers’ from his last collection, Mangoes on the Moon. London Magazine Editions, 1999, p.26
LLike Payne’s, Stainer’s poem is spaced on the page with varying line-lengths so that the reader can absorb the very careful precision of the words at a pace which maximises their unfurling impact:
she had trusted
the ophthalmic surgeon
to refocus light with the knife;
to the visual axis,
alter the curvature of the cornea
with a diamond-tipped scalpel.
she saw the sun through the glass,
and beyond the hospital hedge
ladies on the lawn
in crisp hats and light summer clothes,
hands raised above their heads
to clap a victory.
The verse’s clarity would be much less effective without that perfect ‘crisp’ and the final snapshot image, frozen in time, which could belong to a painting by Stanley Spencer or Beryl Cook. The poem continues gloriously:
for unerring alignment
was silent through the pane;
and they should have worn
for her perfected vision —
but she saw them
as if from a clerestory,
stout and middle-aged
in the undeceiving distance,
arms upheld in hierarchy,
at the scene
of an unidentified miracle.
The sonic repetition — the lovely phrase ‘unerring alignment’ being echoed by ‘undeceiving distance’ and then ‘unidentified miracle’, and the pararhyme between ‘clerestory’ and ‘hierarchy’ — helps to unify the poem and raise an already out-of-the-ordinary situation into one which is truly extraordinary. The Christian connotations — of ‘clerestory’, hierarchy’ and ‘miracle’ — might deter some readers, but they add another layer to the inkling gleaned by the protagonist and undoubtedly enhance the poem.
Both poems, like some of Larkin’s, capture timeless epiphanic moments which somehow grasp at a feeling which is always slightly out of reach: of simultaneously being caught in the past, present and future; and in both the micro-and macro-cosmos
In the way that Payne’s poem performs wonders with shifts in time and space, Stainer’s is equally as effective with visual and aural appearance. Both poems, like some of Larkin’s, capture timeless epiphanic moments which somehow grasp at a feeling which is always slightly out of reach: of simultaneously being caught in the past, present and future; and in both the micro-and macro-cosmos.
‘The Lady Bowlers’ by Ted Walker is a cheery English sonnet content to capture the titular characters in action, without drawing any overt conclusions:
O, you bowling ladies of Australia,
How perfect you all are at my distance
(I have binoculars) now the galah
Of pink sunset barracks your wide-hipped stance.
You send down polished shots, back-hands, fore-hands,
Along a rink as preternaturally green
As your blazers and your silken hatbands,
Until the end is played — when, once again,
(Aching feet correctly shod) you clock-clock
Woods together, adjust a mat, a wisp
Of hair, and confidently send the jack
Back to where you wish. Those skirts (pleated, crisp)
And blouses (freshly-starched) headily smell
Of you, lilac talcum powder, shower-gell.
The one-sentence opening stanza typifies the economy of Walker’s writing. The whimsical, faintly amused and admiring tone is sustained throughout, from the instant that the poet / persona looks from afar then uses binoculars to focus on the bowlers rather than the galah (a type of cockatoo) or any other exotic birds. The description of the galah as ‘of pink sunset’ refers to its colourful plumage, but also bestows upon the poem an ambiguous atmosphere. Maybe it has a colonial ‘eternal sunset’ connotation, or perhaps it hints at the ladies’ age, which Walker seems to return to in the poem’s couplet. Could the galah’s barracking of the bowlers be reminiscent of Australian spectators hurling witty abuse at England cricketers? One can surely discern Walker’s relish at framing the ladies’ stance as ‘wide-hipped’.
The details accumulate into a whole which has no obvious raison d’être other than the pleasure gained by capturing the scene for posterity. Sometimes, Walker implicitly affirms, that is all a poem really needs to do
The poem is a series of visual, and, as in Payne’s poem, auditory and olfactory sensations — the ‘clock-clock’ here is akin to Payne’s ‘clacks’, though Walker’s refers to the gathering of the bowls at the end of an ‘end’ whereas Payne’s is a mid-end collision — and colour. The mid-line rhyme of ‘wish’ with ‘wisp’ and ‘crisp’ provides a happy bonus. The details accumulate into a whole which has no obvious raison d’être other than the pleasure gained by capturing the scene for posterity. Sometimes, Walker implicitly affirms, that is all a poem really needs to do.
|↑1||Careful What You Wish for, Carcanet, 2015, p.18|
|↑2||The Lost Leader, Faber, 2008, p.103|
|↑3||Citizens, Smokestack Books, 2017, p.23|
|↑4||The Singing and Dancing: Collected Poems, Smith|Doorstop, 2015, p.126|
|↑5||HappenStance Press, 2021, p.60|
|↑6||See, for example, the excellent review by Mat Riches|
|↑7||The whole quote by Payne is well worth reading|
|↑8||Pauline Stainer, The Lady & the Hare: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2003)|
|↑9||London Magazine Editions, 1999, p.26|