From my Poetry Bookshelf – Philip Gross

I own two books by Philip Gross – The Water Table (winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009), and Love Songs of Carbon (from 2015), both published by Bloodeaxe Books. I’m not quite sure why I only have two of his collections. In my opinion he is one of our best contemporary poets.

I grew up in Somerset, so a lot of his location – based writing has deep resonance for me (Gross was born in 1952 in Cornwall), and The Water Table in particular is centred on the South West of England, with a particular focus on the Bristol Channel. Not only poems of place, but there is also elemental poetry about water itself.

Here’s Gross reading Severn Song, the final poem in the collection;

There are poems of environmental change – Atlantis World and Elderly Iceberg off the Esplanade, which begins with the lines;

Last night it came knocking, a first
since the end of the Ice Age. A stray eddy brought it,
a backhander from the Gulf Stream. It was heading
inland, could it be to spawn?

Other highlights (for me at least include a long poem which lifts off with observations in a retail car park (Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA), and a sequence running through the book (Betweenland I to Betweenland X) which as their titles suggest, explore the spaces between land, water and air.

A body of water: water’s body

that seems to have a mind (and
change it: isn’t that what makes
a mind, its changing?) not much
prone to thinking – rather, thoughts
curl through it, salt or fresh, or hang

between states: sometimes gloss
the surface with their oil-illuminations.

(from Betweenland I)

There are other poems of course, on other subjects, but this is a collection that is held together by water and how it connects us to our past and who we are. A good review can be found in the Guardian here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/23/philip-gross-poetry-eliot-prize

You can buy it on Bookshop.org here:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781852248529

There is an excellent review of Love Songs of Carbon , Philip Gross’ eighteenth collection in the Wales Art Review here:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/poetry-love-songs-of-carbon-by-philip-gross/

It’s another superb collection, and as with The Water Table, it’s a book I highly recommend.

As with The Water Table, it’s on my poetry bookshelf at;

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781780372587

This collection explores different themes, predominantly of ageing, and the language is, as with The Water Table word perfect. Take the first seven lines of A Walk Across a Field

A week of snow, slight melt, refreeze
and it comes to this: the ground
withholds consent
to every step;

it has us grappling, gasping, at each other,
like the fond emergencies
of young love.

To quote Michael Symmons Roberts & Moniza Alvi, writing in the PBS bulletin

‘The writing is sinewy, urgent and resourceful. The poet is a master of form, deploying his visual and aural patterns for emphasis, as if the page were a musical score. The absolute poise of the lines carve a way through the knotted difficulty of the raw material’.

Interested in finding out more? I’m going to finish with the classic social media / blogger’s faux pas, with a link away from this blog, but it’s worth it. You can read, and hear, a lot more of Philip Gross’ work via his website, at;

https://www.philipgross.co.uk

I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest post in my From my Poetry Bookshelf series. Any thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – John Agard – Alternative Anthem

Happy World Poetry Day!

A good day to ask whether poetry is still relevant, whether it can actually achieve anything apart from providing an outlet for creative expression. In these current times of misinformation and misdirection, where here in the UK, as elsewhere, the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian, what can poetry do?

A good day for this poem by John Agard.

Flag

What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to it’s knees.

What’s that furling from a pole?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that makes the guts of men grow bold.

What’s that rising over a tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.

What’s that flying across a field?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.

How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag my friend.
Then blind your conscious to the end.

From Half-Caste and other poems (Hodder’s Children’s 2004)

A good poem to share at a time when our politicians increasingly wrap themselves in the union flag, appeal to Britishness and blame others for their failings – whether the EU, migrants, travellers, woke lefties, there will always be a scapegoat. And 30-40% of the British public will fall for it. As no doubt was the case with every other similar regime in history.

This particular poem has been widely posted online, (which apart from it’s relevance today is one of the reasons I’ve chosen it), and looks like it has been used by teachers, as have some of Agard’s other poems – notably Half Caste and Checking Out Me History which have appeared in the AQA GCSE English anthology since 2002.

Flag‘s anger is perhaps a little atypical – as Maura Dooley states, quoted on the back of the Bloodaxe Books anthology which I am recommending today ( Flag isn’t in it BTW) – ‘His poems are direct and arresting. playful, full of startling imagery, and are hilarious, passionate and erotic as often as they are political – often managing to be all these things at once.’

John Agard was born in British Guiana in 1949. He loved listening to cricket commentary and began making up his own, which led to a love of language. Agard moved to Britain in 1977 with his partner, the equally fine poet Grace Nicholls. He was awarded the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012.

A good place to start with his work is Alternative Anthem, the Bloodeaxe Books published Selected Poems, which comes with a Live DVD (and available, of course, on my Poetry Bookshelf). I’m glad the DVD is included, because whilst the poems work very well on the page, to really appreciate them it’s best to hear and see them being performed by him.

I met John Agard at a Tongues and Grooves poetry event in the Square Tower in Portsmouth back in 2013 (was it really 8 years ago?!) It was a fantastic event, and he is a brilliant performer, one of the best I have ever seen. Once these days of lockdown are over, if you get the chance to see him read live, just buy a ticket. You won’t regret it.

There are lots of recordings available of him online. As it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share Agard reading Poetry Jump Up – if it doesn’t at the very least make you smile then please get someone to check your pulse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9gA8hzmsbo

Here’s a second recording, this time of the title poem in his Bloodeaxe selected, Alternative Anthem, which if you aren’t familiar with the poem, starts with the lines;

Put the kettle on
Put the kettle on
It is the British answer
To Armageddon.

It’s a joyous way to end this post

Oh and if you want to buy a copy of Alternative Anthem, it’s available via My Poetry Bookshelf on Bookshop.org through the following link

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781852248239

(If you do buy anything via My Poetry Bookshelf then I will make a small commission that will help towards the running costs of this website).