Jan Owen, born in Adelaide in 1940, traces her lineage back through generations of Welsh seafarers and Cornish miners. She studied arts and librarianship and raised three children before claiming time to write and travel. From her prize-winning first book Boy with a Telescope to her CD, Laughing in Greek, her work reveals a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and a sure command of line and voice.

Owen writes with a pervasive musicality in both formal and free modes. Her work is characterized by sensuous imagery, vitality and unpredictability, turning readily from wit and word-play to elusive meditations on the mysterious links between beings and things. As Louise Oxley writes, ‘Owen is alert to the paradoxical, the equivocal nature of all things apprehended [and to] the way transience defines existence.’ Her poems explore the natural world, relationships, history, culture and science, moving easily from the microcosmic to the cosmic, from physics to metaphysics. Thus, a cloud of gnats evokes the process of thought as well as the uncertainty principle; a trellis fence opens onto an alternate universe; and water-colour guavas reflect on their own evolution.

Art is a common subject, as is language, whether treated playfully, as in ‘Parts of Speech’ where ‘gerunds are just present participles with delusions of grandeur’ and ‘joining words don’t practice the Kama Sutra’, or explored more seriously, as in ‘Brass’ where Owen asks ‘Does language despair of us? Inexpressible unlikelihood’s the bottom line/ to all the strangeness of our quarantine.’ Trees, fruit, flowers, birds, insects and children also flock into her verse, and childhood itself is the theme of Blackberry Season, a discontinuous narrative largely in sonnet form. In her fifth book Timedancing, bats and fireflies come in under the eaves, the cempedaks ‘dangle like killer jokes by Damocles’, a pangolin appears ‘out of the neat fit of the dark’, and monsoon rain comes down ‘like a sheet of Maugham.’ But, as Lisa Gorton has commented, ‘For all its detail and rapture, this is metaphysical poetry; full of things, certainly, but also full of abstract and fantastical images of time and music and memory.’

This reading shows her fine sense of play and rhythm: in ‘The trellis fence’ she propels the words along with a lively clarity, the upbeat engagement with sounds and language delivering an impetus to the poem’s inquiry, while in ‘Young Woman Gathering Lemons’ her well-modulated pacing and warm tone resonate with the poem’s reflective empathy.

The poems recorded here are from Owen’s audio CD Laughing in Greek. This recording was made by Carol Jenkins in Mosman, January 2010 for River Road Press.

Poems by Jan Owen

Young Woman Gathering Lemons - Jan Owen
Scent, Comb, Spoon - Jan Owen
The Trellis Fence - Jan Owen

Books by Jan Owen



Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal

Prize website