Philip Gross: Outside In

There’s a child at the back of the class. I don’t know who. But at some point in this poetry session, as if a sash window has slid open, clunk, a snatch of a poem we’re reading will blow in, inside them, and take root. They might not even notice. But thirty years later they’ll find it there, a memory, a sudden feeling of a possibility: yes, I could put words together like that. Somebody’s life will be changed.

No evaluation form will pick this up. The visiting poet may go home feeling pleased to hear the laugh at a punchline, or, in a sad one, the quiet sigh. Meanwhile, somewhere, a seed of the culture has been passed on.

I trust this. I can’t prove it, except to say I was that child at the back, the one who didn’t speak out loud, who would have shrunk to a quivering blob of himself if everyone’s attention had turned to him. That’s still who I write for when I write a children’s poem.

Poetry written for young people can do many things, from the most extrovert, bonding a roomful of children into a single response, to the most private. It can whisper a reminder of a birthright, one under threat in this performative, social-media-skilled age, which easily tips into scorn for the ‘sad’, the introverted – their right to their own inwardness.

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes

            except me:

a still room, a light room,

            a where-I-go-to-write room,

an any-day, any-time, a middle-of-the-night room,

     a feeling-low-and-slow or a high-as-a-kite room.

                                                                 Feel free!

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes.

There are cupboards and corners that nobody knows

            inside me.

The memory I treasure most out of forty-odd years of creative workshops is almost silent. A group of twenty middle school students have been exploring the gardens of Northcourt, on the Isle of Wight, moving between writing and visual art to capture the spirit of the place. The weekend’s theme is inside out/outside in. We pause; now is the time to let it sink in.

We’ve got hold of a forty-metre bolt of muslin from a local scrap store. The group sits down on the grass, in a slightly distanced line, and lift the fabric gently over their heads. This becomes a private space. They aren’t hidden – they can see out, they can lift the fabric aside any time they like. But a quietness spreads through us all. Birdsong sounds louder. And for longer than you’d dream of asking a class to be silent, nobody stirs. The poems they wrote after that were not self-centred. They were full of vivid impressions of the world around them… which also, as poetry does, caught honest sharp reflections of the children’s lives. At the end of the day, asked What was the most memorable thing?  child after child wrote The snake!

That magic happened because all of us were there as writers. They were readers too, but also finding how it felt to choose between that word, that line, that effect. Test this out for yourselves, doesn’t young people’s appetite for poems with nuance and subtlety, with layers to unpick, go up by leaps and bounds the moment they step from consumer (thumbs up, thumbs down, reach for the remote, flick channel) to creator mode? In poetry as in sport, the richest experience gets laid down when we feel like participants.

There’s the paradox – our inner spaces are where we’re at our most engaged. That outside-in place belongs to all of us. And it’s where poetry lives.

Philip Gross

Philip Gross has seen his poetry for adults and for young people as all of a piece through 40 years and some 25 collections. He won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009 and a Cholmondeley Award in 2017, while children’s collections from Manifold Manor (1989) onwards have won the Signal Award and the CLPE Poetry Award, and he chaired the judging panel for this year’s CLiPPA. There have also been 10 novels for young people and a few librettos along the way. He is a keen collaborator – e.g. with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold In The River (2015) and with scientists on the CLiPPA-shortlisted Dark Sky Park (2018).