Philip Gross – thinking about about-ness

(alongside three poems: How He Lay, Writing It Out, Knife)

I’m guessing that you know this moment… And what do you do? asks someone. You say, ‘Poetry.’ A pause. Er… What do you write about? Another pause – yours, this time, because what can you say? You wish you had a ready answer, something like: ‘Oh, camels, mostly.’ And maybe you have one. I don’t. For most poets, I suspect, the question of about, the whole about-ness of a poem, is a daily and down-to-earth mystery.

Take one of my poems in this issue, Knife. Is it about knives? In one sense, obviously. In another sense, ‘knife’ is just the start. Of course, we can write for different reasons – some, to tell their readers something, a thought or information or a feeling, we already know. At some times in a life, nothing is more important than to establish that your story can be heard.

Other poems are written to discover something, to follow a trail of associations – ideally, to surprise themselves by the end. It’s a bit of a cheek, I know, but the contract is more ‘Come into this thicket of language with me and see what we find.’ Put like that, it’s asking a lot. In everyday life, who’d trust a stranger who said that to you?

With a poem like How He Lay, I can see why a reader might say (as one reviewer once did) ‘Spit it out! Get to the point!’ I understand that, but I think the point is what it misses. When I read other writers’ poems, it’s to go on a journey, often for no better reason than because the voice is one I’d like to travel with. If you have a more urgent message, just send me a text.

How He Lay is about, in a literal sense, practically nothing – a physical inertia, a dullness, a lull. This isn’t a state I take to easily; it comes with a suspicion that it’s age related. Having a lie down is what old people do. It arrived with a small shock of otherness. Who is this? thinks the poem, almost out-of-body, looking down on the 65-year-old body I am. It seems quite playful at first, but as those widening perspectives lead from one to another, by association, there’s a touch of vertigo.

Maybe that’s why the voice of Knife caught my attention. I apologise, not for the first time, to the grandmother in the poem who is partly, only partly, the one I actually knew. The canny, fierce, slightly fey strand of Cornishness in her could have said a thing like this about knives, though as far as I know she never did. She can wear the tone of it in a way that I, in my ordinary self, really can’t.

Besides, if this was me, would I have led it to that moral (is it moral?) at the end? I  think not. Then again, I’m a poet, so when a cluster of sensations, thoughts in orbit round a telling image, finds a voice, I trust it. (Yes, in the thicket of words…) It’s what’s not-me about the poem that intrigues me – otherness, again. I don’t own it. It asked to be said.

… Which might be what the fretful waker-in-the-night, the writer with his head so full of words they clutter up his dreams, is scratching for in the third poem, Writing It Out. This time, I’m willing to confess: he is a lot like me. This was a real dream, more or less… though its extrapolation into hints of a story is more metaphor than fact. Unless, of course, the missing ‘she’ is not a person but the poem itself, the sense of it that has brushed up against him and gone.

I’m wary of writing from dreams. The sense of conviction and depth they sometimes come with is often as not a dream-figment itself. In this case, though, it chimes with something in my waking, writing life – that physical presence of an almost wordless thing, the flow, the tensions, the connective tissues of a poem that can be concealed as much as revealed by the surface of the words. (The scratching-away, I know, connects with the creative/destructive image transfer technique I watched my artist-collaborator Valerie Coffin Price use in A Fold In The River, a book in which we found the powerful presence and, yes, beauty of the Taff Valley as much in its absences, what has been stripped away, as in the greener surfaces you see today.)

The movement of a poem, its dynamic… Sometimes when I try to explain what a poem is getting at, I find my hands modeling it, moulding a shape in the air. Maybe that’s what a poem – or my sort of poem, at least – is about. To use a birdwatcher’s term, it’s the jizz of the thing.

When I watch a dancer dancing, when they’re deep inside their dance, the last thing to do is to stop them and ask: That movement you just did, you know, that half-turn and sweep, with your arms up, just so… what’s it about? No need to ask. It’s the jizz. It’s alive. It just is.

All three poems discussed are featured in Issue 8 of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here. Philip Gross will be reading at our event at Little Man Coffee, Cardiff this Wednesday, 15/08/17 from 730pm.

Philip Gross is a poet, librettist and writer for children. He won the T.S. Eliot Prize 2009 with The Water Table, and Wales Book of The Year 2010 with I Spy Pinhole Eye. Deep Field dealt with his Estonian refugee father’s final years and loss of language, an exploration into our place in the world broadened steadily through later collections, most recently A Bright Acoustic (2017). Recently liberated from 25 years of academic life, he is an insatiable collaborator across art forms, e.g. with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold in the River, and with composer Benjamin Frank Vaughan on The King in the Car Park, a cantata about the re-discovery of Richard III, performed in Leicester Cathedral.

© Philip Gross, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.