Here is another temporary departure from my usual focus of 'magic fiction'. But I make no apology. I have always been a lover of poetry, both as an individual and as a teacher, and I would like to celebrate the work of Philip Gross, one of my all time favourite writers of poetry for children.*
Instead of magic fiction then, this is a post about the magic of language, incantations with a different kind of power, spells of being and of being aware. Children need and deserve more poetry, especially when it is of this quality - poetry proper, rather than simply 'children's verse'.
A poet and a hill
I have now followed the writing career of poet and author Philip Gross, collecting all his publications, over the course of more than twenty five years. I have had a very particular reason for doing so (over and above his simply being a wonderful writer). Even though I am sure he will have long forgotten it, he visited our school for a day way back in 1991, when I was a Primary headteacher in Lancashire's beautiful Ribble Valley. After starting his visit by reading and discussing some of his poems with our children, he and I took a group of them off on an expedition to climb the nearby Pendle Hill. As we climbed, we periodically stopped, took notes and made sketches that tried to capture our experience. On return to school, Philip led a workshop where the children composed a group poem about the climb. Later they wrote individual poems too (see below) and I combined them, with their drawings. into a booklet called 'The Poet and The Hill', which we distributed to parents and the local community. We were all thrilled that Philip Gross also contributed a poem of his own to our little 'publication'. I still remember that day of walking and writing with children as one of the highlights of my teaching career.
Over many years since, and with many cohorts of children, I have shared Philip Gross' poems to inspire and stimulate, which they certainly did. My favourite, and most often used, collection remained his first book of children's poetry Manifold Manor, although I also made extensive use of The All-Nite Café and Scratch City. All contain quite splendid, if sometimes challenging, material for sharing with children, and some of his poems even come with exciting suggestions for follow-up writing. I think these older books can all still be tracked down, with a little effort, and I warmly recommend them, alongside his subsequent writing.
Dark Sky Park
Now he has a new collection out, Dark Sky Park. Of course it is too late for retired old me to use it in classrooms, but if I were still teaching I certainly would. These 'poems from the edge of nature' are a treasure trove of language and condensed thought, imagery and fresh insight. Amongst its pages we are asked to think about the importance of seeing in the dark; of 'seeing' things far too small for us to see at all; of extremes and freaks of nature and of many things we may otherwise just overlook. If, like me, you have never even heard of a tardigrade, then this is the place to meet it.
As ever, Philip Gross' poems are challenging, in thought and in language, but they remain accessible once mind and ear are tuned to his idiom. In this new book they are made even more approachable by copious illustrations from Jesse Hodgson, by turn entertaining, illuminating and arresting - and sometimes all three. Philip Gross himself helps too by adding occasional notes of information and context. Together with the poems themselves, they help us see nature in fresh, vibrant ways and could do much to set children on a path of writing too. However, crafted as they are with consummate skill, if these poems did no more than open ears to the flow and patterns, the power and potency of language, then that would be no small thing.
mud worm blood worm
flood worm borne on waters boiling
liver fluke and tape worm
and the maggot and the leech
wire worm fire worm
dire wyrm and dragon coiling
rag worm and lugworm
making pockmarks on the beach
(from Worm Dreaming)
If you want a longer example of what I mean, just try reading aloud A Tardigrade by any other name on page 30-31. It is word-music of a truly enchanting kind. It is also a most potent invitation to write (whether about some alternative creature, or about yourself) as well as a cornucopia of ideas as to how you might go about it.
I know that many teachers have recently drawn wonderful things out of children in response to Robert Macfarlane's and Jackie Morris' superlative 'Lost Words'. Quite different, but not totally unrelated, Dark Sky Park could, perhaps, provide rewarding, directions to move in next.
I ask Philip Gross to forgive me if I close this post, not with one of his own poems, but with one written by a ten-year-old in response to that day back in 1991.
We walked and walked
Up the hill
Over the cattle grid
I picked up a stone
Over the stile
Through the field
Up the steep path
To the summit
Put the stone down
Five inches bigger
Dylan**, Year 6
I hope that Dylan, the human being, ended up just a fraction bigger too. Exposing children to poetry, like that of Philip Gross, can be a challenge, but it grows them little by little. In time it can build mountains.
* He writes for adults as well as children - and sometimes for either, or both.
** Dylan, I'm sorry that, after so long, I have no way of contacting you, so, in the very unlikely event that you come across this, I really hope you don't mind me sharing this amazing writing by your long-ago self.