Gross, Philip (John)

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GROSS, Philip (John)

Nationality: British. Born: Delabole, Cornwall, 27 February 1952. Education: University of Sussex, 1970–73 B.A. (honors) 1973; Polytechnic of North London, diploma in librarianship 1977. Family: Married Helen Gamsa in 1976; one daughter and one son. Career: Editorial assistant, Collier Macmillan, London, 1973–76; librarian, Croydon Public Libraries, 1977–84. Since 1984 freelance writer and writing tutor. Since 1989 lecturer, Bath College of Higher Education. Awards: Eric Gregory award, Society of Authors, 1981; National Poetry Competition first prize, 1982, for The Ice Factory; British Broadcasting Corporation's West of England Playwriting Competition, 1986, for radio play Internal Affairs; Arts Council bursary, 1990, for writing for young people; Signal award for poetry, 1994; first prize, Peterloo Open Poetry Competition, 1998. Address: 40 York Road, Montepelier, Bristol BS6 4QF, England.



Familiars. Upton Cross, Peterloo, 1983.

The Ice Factory. London and Boston, Faber, 1984.

Cat's Whisker. London and Boston, Faber, 1987.

The Air Mines of Mistila (for children). Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1988.

Manifold Manor (for children). London, Faber, 1989.

The Son of the Duke of Nowhere. London and Boston, Faber, 1991.

The All-Nite Café (for children). London and Boston, Faber, 1993.

I.D. London and Boston, Faber, 1994.

Scratch City (for children). London, Faber, 1995.

A Cast of Stones. Marlborough, Digging Deeper, 1996.

The Wasting Game. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1998.

Facetaker (for children). London, Scholastic, 1999.


The Song of Gail and Fludd (for children). London, Faber, 1991.

Plex (for children). London, Scholastic, 1994.

The Wind Gate (for children). London, Scholastic, 1995.

Transformer (for children). London, Scholastic, 1996.

Psylicon Beach (for children). London, Scholastic, 1998.


Critical Study: By Ian McMilan, in Poetry Review, 85(2), summer 1995.

*  *  *

A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement once took Philip Gross to task for writing different kinds of poetry. This, it was suggested, indicated a lack of poetic unity, as if concern for the human condition—for love, sorrow, despair, loneliness, or joy—was somehow not relevant. Perhaps the complaint was that Gross's poetry lacks a stylistic unity from the standpoint too prevalent today, that style is more important than content, when, of course, they should be complementary. The fact is that the joy of Gross's poetry lies in its variety, that some poems are actually different from others, with variety being the source of the strength of his work.

With its pyrotechnic displays of simile and metaphor, Gross's poetry can be distinctly Martian, as in "A Guest of the Atlantic":

   the surf was mixing concrete

But it is not the merely decorative Martianism favored by its progenitors. It is Martianism with depth, with purpose. Gross's poem "Flits" is a superb example of this. A poem about a taxi cab—

   with its meter alive
   like a sanctuary lamp:
   red numbers twitch
   in their sleep like dogs;
   at after-midnight rates
   they dream quick

—it moves on to embrace profoundly dark and deep implications:

                   Black cab
   are you waiting for me?

Elsewhere, however, Gross's poetry can be rhyming and traditional, as in "Him":

   He's the great I AM.
   He's a pushy little jerk.
   He's a bloke who rolls his sleeves up
   when he gets to work.

But the reader of his poems also encounters the most telling of visual imagery, the imagery of the poetic eye. Here are two examples, from "Out There" and from "This Train Does Not Stop Here":

    —A strand of smoke
   spooled up like milk in water.
   The faces reeling past
   like a photo booth strip.

The poem can then explode in delicious humor, all the more so for being dead accurate. This happens, for example, in "Walkman" in a description of two lovers in a room upstairs:

   it's like a woodwork-
   for-beginners class
   knocking up a pig pen
   with a pig already in it.

It is in Gross's first collection for young people, Manifold Manor, that his variety of styles and techniques comes into its own. The work is a tour de force, an amalgam of styles and modes. There are Old English poetry, riddles, hints of Ted Hughes's "Crow," Walter de la Mare's mystery, and traditional verses of all sorts. The second of Gross's collections for young people, The All-Nite Café, is another explosion of versatility, with wordplay ("A Bad Case of Fish"), fantasy ("The Iron Sweep"), and sentiment ("Growler"). His poetry for children is written by a poet and not by a so-called children's writer.

Gross's collection The Wasting Game, published in 1998, begins with a sequence of poems about his daughter's struggle with near fatal anorexia. Some of the poems are harrowing, and one can only empathize with his feelings:

   I could hate
   those frail maids fading beautifully
   in books—

But Gross's triumph is to make poetry out of the situation. To be able to transmute his anxieties, heartrending pain, and deep concern into poetry, as he does, shows great skill. It is, I suspect, the result of the use of a disciplined and moderated language under which the reader is conscious of the smouldering heat of a passionate and emotional engagement.

Gross is a modest possessor of a remarkable and complex poetic talent.

John Cotton