Stanza Up Poetry

Comedian Owen O'Neill delivers verse that is both poignant and hilarious

Cookstown comedian Owen O’Neill has many strings to his bow. He is an actor, a writer and, of course, a poet. Having scribbled down verse since he was a young boy, O’Neill first incorporated verse into his stand up act in the 1980s. It's only recently, however, that he has developed a full show around it.

It’s hard not to like O’Neill. His stage persona is that of an unassuming funny friend, rather than an in-your-face stand-up. He starts his hour-long set with a succinct poem about falling head-over-heels as a seven year-old, entitled ‘First Love’. The delivery is deadpan. 'I don’t muck about with the titles.' And whilst the headings are indeed obvious, it’s the poems themselves that prove to be quite surprising.

Moving on from the theme of first love, O’Neill introduces a poem about erotic intimacy, relating a hilarious anecdote about unexpectedly finding himself reading the poem to a 6’4” Hells Angel named George in front a of baying audience. The story elicits snorts of laughter, but the poem itself proves to be overtly erotic, quieting the audience within two lines and provoking more than a few blushes.

Another highlight is a poem inspired by the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, called simply ‘Jagger’, which follows an explanation of his admiration for the singer. O’Neill narrates a farcical tale of getting punched by a teacher for walking around with orange peel stuck inside his upper lip in a bid to emulate his idol’s moosh.

The poems that receive the most praise are those that incorporate colloquialisms peculiar to Northern Ireland. O’Neill is good at slipping back into a broad Tyrone accent and the poem ‘Ah, C’mon!’ receives the most belly laughs. ‘Shoulder Bit’ is a much more reflective piece of work, however. It was a poem written for O'Neill's father, about life and death. It stands out as a serious piece and is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s famous ‘Death of a Naturalist’.

It’s at this point that things get a little strange. O’Neill declares (with gleeful gusto), 'Now we come to the death section!' When he attempts to read a poem about his sister – who died at 18 months old, when he was only five – he stops twice and is unable to continue.

Up to this point, O'Neill has been composed, easy-going, even giggly, and the audience is understandably a little taken aback by the change in mood. His stammer – which, he explains, appears when he is stressed – rears its head for a time, and it takes a few minutes for him to regain his previous composure.

When he does, thankfully, O’Neill then moves onto religious material, reciting some irreverently funny poems about his views on Jesus and various bible stories, sure to offend church-going audience members.

Finishing his set on an upbeat poem entitled ‘No-one Leaves Café Italia Angry’, O'Neill tells the true story of his fracas with the Russian manager of said café. Demonstrating his acting skills, he pulls off a perfect Cossack accent.

At turns poignant and hilarious, Stanza Up Poetry is the most unexpected of performances, but certainly one of the highlights of the 2011 Belfast Book Festival.