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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Harry Owen, author of a collection of poetic memories about his father, Worthy – Poems for my Father, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

Janet van Eeden - 2011-08-02

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Title: Worthy, Poems for my Father
Author: Harry Owen
Publisher: The Poets Printery
ISBN: 9780620430296


Review by Janet van Eeden

Harry Owen opens his collection of poetry, which is a memoir of sorts about his difficult relationship with his unyielding father, with this moving quote from Rumi, the Sufi poet:

When you think your father is guilty of an injustice,
his face looks cruel …

When you make peace with your father,
he will look peaceful and friendly.

Make peace with the universe. Take joy in it.

It will turn to gold. Resurrection
will be now. Every moment,
a new beauty. 

Owen goes on to explore his interactions with his father using the maxim suggested by Rumi: “When you make peace with your father, he will look peaceful and friendly.” With this focus setting on his lens, he examines the man who served in the armed forces during World War II as honourably as he could, but who became ruthlessly exacting of his own family on his return.

When Harold William Owen, senior, came back from the war, perhaps disillusioned by the frailties of humanity, he was converted and became a zealous Jehovah’s Witness. He found refuge in this unforgiving religion and imposed its rigid maxims on his wife and three children. This stark religion gave him the security which humanity and its flaws could not. He never thought he was “worthy” of God’s love, so he became even more fanatical in imposing the strictures of the religion on himself and his family. In this collection Harry Owen, the son, looks back on his father’s long life with compassion and judges his father less harshly than his father judged himself and his children.

From “Exodus”:

Strict I was and rightly,
for truth is not divisible.
No football, then, for them,
no mixing with the world
and plotting time off from Jehovah.

The God of love was just,
allowing for our frailty,
wanting only sacrifice from us
of that which Faithful
would not deem as forfeit.

For they were all of life to me
and threatened by all falsehood:
how could I let them squirm
in adolescent wallow?
But my sons have left me, left Him.
Who can I pray to now?

Owen realises that his father’s control of their beliefs and behaviour was done out of a deep love of his children and fear for their moral safety. He felt responsible for his family’s salvation and did what he did out of love. When most of his children reject his harsh ways, he is bereft. His life loses its meaning.

From “Second Sight”:

He awoke from sleeplessness
into a shuddering grey daylight,
eyes porridge thick,
opening upon a new truth:
Also-ran, it slobbered. Second rate.

Yet he saw in his misery
how readily the heart is maimed,
how delicate the fabric of the soul,
how easily the truth can lie.

This well-considered collection resonates with Biblical imagery, and each poem is written with infinite love and skill. Owen is a poet who works at his craft just as a surely as a metalsmith burnishes a bowl. The result is that each poem shines bright with meaning and reflects depths of heartfelt feelings. It’s a mature and sensitive work, one which can be appreciated as a tribute by one man to his own father after the father’s death. Or it can reflect our own struggles to make peace with our parents and can illuminate aspects of our journey into this universal contradiction. In the final analysis, Worthy is a sensitive tribute by a poet to his father as well as a commentary on the sometimes paradoxical feelings our parents inspire in us. Ultimately, though, this collection echoes a marriage of expectations with reality, of youth making peace with old age, of acceptance of our parents’ flaws and making peace with those same flaws within ourselves.    


Photo: Desiree Schirlinger
Q&A with Harry Owen

Harry, you start off this collection of poems about your father with an introduction which explains why you always felt unworthy of him. You talk about his very harsh passage through World War II and subsequent illness which plagued him and your mother through the forties and fifties. When he was converted to become a Jehovah’s Witness in 1958 it seemed to provide him with the certainty he desired. He subsequently imposed this religion on your mother and all of you children. You say that, as the eldest, you bore the brunt of his religious fanaticism. Can you explain to the readers of LitNet how his religion impacted on you in those formative years?

I hadn’t actually thought that I felt unworthy of my father, but perhaps that is so. Certainly my father felt unworthy of his faith, of his God, and he constantly reminded his children, of whom I was the eldest, of their unworthiness too. He was a great believer in the “fallen” nature of humankind, of the “imperfection” of everyone and their consequent desperate need for redemption. But he applied the greatest emotional pressure to himself, so that now it seems to me he lacked self-esteem and was perpetually striving for a “worthiness” that was by definition beyond him or anyone.

One thing which comes through strongly in this anthology is the deep love you feel for your father, even now. You’re aware that his desire for all of you to stick to what he saw as “The Truth” came about only because he loved you so much. How does one survive such a blinkered love? And what were the consequences for your development into adulthood? Could you ever shake off his disappointment in you or himself, in that he thought he had failed as a parent by not converting you to his faith?

Let me say at the outset that my father was an eminently good man. He had been brought up in a strongly Christian working-class family and had been influenced greatly by this. Indeed his father, my grandfather, was a Welsh Baptist lay preacher who worked tirelessly both for those who shared his biblical views and for the poor and largely unrepresented factory employees with whom he worked. So social “goodness” ran in the family. My father could never tolerate unfairness or discrimination of any kind, and when he found himself in India during World War II he aligned himself firmly with his men rather than with fellow officers who he felt often behaved with arrogant superiority, even though they professed to be Christians.

When, therefore, he eventually found a Christianity – the Jehovah’s Witnesses – that chimed with these attitudes and which promised an eventual redemption that he could believe in, he grabbed it with both hands. Unfortunately, his absolute devotion (and his conviction that Armageddon would happen in 1975) meant that his family had to toe the same line, or risk almost certain destruction at God’s hands.

For years as an adult I struggled to come to terms with what he called my “wilful blindness” and we had a strained relationship for a very long time. Although I don’t consider myself stupid, I never went to university (because, with Armageddon due so soon, what was the point?) and this fact in itself helped determine the course of my life. It was only after my mother’s death in 1999 that Dad and I managed to come to terms with each other – a process I describe briefly in the book’s introduction – and we learned to see the real Truth of each other. The poems in this collection are, I hope, part of the process.

Such a poetic memoir must have been painful to write. Did it put your relationship into perspective, though? And could you write it only after he’d died?

From  “Genesis”:

Wild man, fanatic in goodness,
who pained my adolescence near to madness:
you cede to me your pension?
Tyrant, cruel and heartless seeming ogre
of our youth, why did you disguise yourself?
We are like you: do we shame you?

Here, take it Dad, this likeness –
It’s all you’ll let me give you.
Take it, I say: I owe it.

I knew for a couple of years before he died that I would put this collection together; indeed that I had to. And I knew the title: Worthy. This worthiness was and is Dad’s, not mine. It’s my assertion that the man who castigated himself as “unworthy” for so long would live in my memory as the opposite of unworthy, that I would remember the genuinely good man, not the well-meaning but mistaken religious zealot. And a number of the poems (as with the one you quote) were written over a long period, hiding away and only finding a home at last here.

It seems to me that parents who went through the War were very rigid about their world views in some ways. It’s almost as if they’d seen the human race fall apart at its very seams and they had to construct their own realities very tightly to ensure that they “knew” what the boundaries were for them. The more rigid a philosophy, the more secure they felt. Subsequent generations can live with more inconsistencies, it seems. Do you think your father clung to his religion mainly as a form of security from the horrors he’d seen in the war?

From “Exodus”:

Strict I was and rightly,
for truth is not divisible.
No football, then, for them,
no mixing with the world
and plotting time off from Jehovah.

That’s possible, I suppose, and certainly the altruistic young man who went off to war returned to a promised “land fit for heroes to live in” that must have seemed horribly unlike the one he had imagined. But I think Dad’s attachment to his religion was more that he wanted to believe in something better, wanted to feel that God had a plan that would ultimately be in place, but he had become disillusioned by the Christianity of his youth. He was looking for a Truth he could commit to, and he found it.

Watching one’s father die slowly is a brutal experience for anyone. I experienced this when I was 21, too young really to forgive my father for the many wrongs I perceived he had done to our family. In a way, it is a better time to reflect on your parents when you’re more mature, perhaps knowing more about the disappointments of life, and how a person doesn’t always succeed in his or her plans in spite of the best will in the world. Can you explain to the readers of LitNet the feelings behind the beautiful last stanza in your poem “Yellow Days”?

Yet he smiles a lot now,
and I’d lose myself
in fifty yellow mornings
to unfurl my father
one of gold.

You are absolutely right: I consider myself immensely fortunate to have been able to “find” my father before it was too late. “Yellow Days” was written years ago, and I see in it now that even then, even when things were far from right, I was instinctively able to know that the father/son connection is a special one. I hope it is some kind of evidence that even the most fraught relationships can find resolution, given the willingness and the opportunity. Love really is a powerful thing.

Old age is one of the cruellest twists of nature. People who were strong and vibrant forces in their lives are diminished to soiling themselves in nappies and slurping their biscuits through toothless gums. It’s an ignominy I dread, to be honest. You cover this in a few of the poems, specifically “Keeping the Faith” and “Second Sight”. I think it can be a very humbling experience for a child to watch one’s parent lose his or her faculties. I think it demands more of us even than having children. Learning not to resent the inconveniences of an old person’s demands is almost superhuman at times. But if we succeed in loving them through this most humiliating rite of passage, we achieve compassion beyond measure. Do you think going through the unpleasant ritual of watching parents deteriorate allows us to embrace our own humanity more fully?

Yes, I do.  And if this book manages to achieve anything I hope it will be to celebrate just this humanity, this glorious fleeting humanness of being alive.

You write about your mother in “Your Gift”. She died of tuberculosis after your parents’ golden anniversary. She seemed almost impossibly patient with your father. Perhaps she saw his vulnerability which you, as objects of his fanatical religion, could not see. What do you see as the gift she left behind for you? Was it compassion with which to view your father for the first time? 

These are hard questions! My mother – a saint if ever there was one – died at the remarkably old age of 73, having suffered from TB as a young woman and having had a lung removed at the age of 27. And yes, I think that she, despite the huge problems that beset their marriage, was able to see the man, her husband, when her children could see only the ogre. How else could they ever have reached their Golden Wedding Anniversary? That’s truly a gift, and one I’m grateful for.

In “Aftershock”, twelve weeks after your father died, you realise in a moment that you are so similar to him physically. Even your mannerisms are the same:

… twelve weeks after
your death, I lean forward so exactly,
left forearm leaning on my right thigh,
so precisely as you would have done
that it shakes me like a sermon. I’m lost …

Is the realisation that we are inevitably so similar to our parents possible only after they’ve died? How does one cope with this incongruence when we have fought our parents and their influences almost every day of our lives? 

I’m really not sure. But I do see a lot of Dad in me now – and that’s not just the wrinkles! He had more hair on his head when he died than I have now. But what I hope I have acquired is some of his sense of how important it is to stand up for what you believe in, to follow the dictates of conscience and do your best to oppose that which is clearly wrong. Dad profoundly detested any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, class, language or background – so he was against racism even before the term was invented. I do not share his religious convictions, but I do hope that I can be half as generous a human being as he was.