Steve Ely is one of the most exhilarating poets currently working in the UK and is just, at the time of writing, becoming well-known. Oswald’s Book of Hours deals with a sense of Englishness – specifically, northernness – exemplified by the events of a thousand years. Written in rich, textured, idiosyncratic English, the book was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection (2013) and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry (2013). Ely's more recent work deals with war – in Gaza, in the Somme, in human nature – and his second collection Englaland will be published in 2015.
The Chinese dissident poet Yang Lian has said, ‘There is no international. There are only many locals,’ and this is as good a way as any to begin talking about the Yorkshire poet Steve Ely. This most local of poets identifies the area he’s from, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, as the ‘Osgoldcross wapentake’ – ‘wapentake’ being the Viking-derived word for the local administrative areas, dating from 1086. In Ely's work, time moves slowly and gathers significance like dropped treasure in a riverbed.
Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack Books, 2013) is Ely’s first published poetry collection, and the fifth he’s written. It has all the authority of a writer at the height of his powers, in full control of an impressive range of technique and reference. His poems gain much of their texture from a combination of registers – from everyday demotic speech to heightened Biblical rhetoric and syntax to Middle English and even, in some places, to thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon, including the Anglo-Saxon technique of alliteration.
Ely started writing poetry on his 17th birthday, as the Forward Arts Foundation website tells us.
Oswald’s Book of Hours takes its form from the medieval devotional books, marking the hours by the ‘saints’ of Northern English history – from the seventh-century King (now Saint) Oswald, to modern figures such as the miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill. Ely’s poetic vision easily encompasses a thousand years, recounting historical events and questingly moral reflections in the voices of a wide range of characters.
Ely is a staunchly political poet (at a time when poetry magazines ask, ‘Where has political poetry gone?’), and this can be seen biographically in his ‘radical socialist’ past and what he has called, in an interview with blogger Zack Wilson, a ‘kneejerk animus to Conservatism’. This feeling underlies stanzas such as the first from ‘Patris sapienta’, which begins: ‘i, robenhode, englisc of barnysdale…’:
fellowship fails. tautology
of the weak. tostig’s cainbrand,
the oath-maker dead,
and the lamech inherits our earth.
gallows seventy times seven:
the bastard’s lesson in blood.
a few drew their daggers:
hereward, eadric, wulfric;
but the aetheling spirit bled out
at Senlac and Stamford bridge.
the ealdormen quit and lerned French:
for lords will have their manors.
This stanza presents the essential elements of Ely's book in a nutshell and demonstrates why even his historical content is political: his assumption of Englishness as opposed to Britishness, the identity we gain from our history, and his insistence that, as the following stanza says, ‘ballocks! the law is from god,/ and the king is from the people’. At the time of writing, the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s independence has thrown these issues into public debate, and Ely’s poetry is seen to come from a deep seam.
His socialism, in any case, does not fit the standard template: a declared love of hunting is anathema to the standard left-wing position in Britain. His poetry is almost exclusively concerned with men and maleness; the chief female presences are the Virgin Mary and Bloody Mary (both prayed to). While many on the left these days identify as atheists, Ely is Catholic and uses Catholic references (and quotes from the Wycliffe, as well as the King James, Bible) in his work. In his intense localism – of identity, religion, activity, relationship to culture – his poetry becomes inversely universal, suggesting that perhaps the loss of our localisms is the one thing we have in common globally. In the interview cited above, which merits reading in full, Ely summarizes his project as such:
It is a tragedy that discourse of Englishness, or of English nationalism, is pre-sullied by . . . reactionary racist populism.
He adds, ‘It’s up to the rest of us to wrest the discourse of identity and nationality away from those motivated by confusion, fear and hatred. And a precondition for this is engagement with the past to re-discover the wellsprings.’
These wellsprings are also beautiful. Ely's book pursues, among other things, the lost wildlife of the countryside. Everywhere throughout are descriptions of birds, animals and the lush plenty of the past – so longingly described it calls to mind CS Lewis’ descriptions of Narnia. In the section ‘Godspel’, a series of column-shaped poems in the vices of fallen heroes, the voice of Robert Aske (who led the Pilgrimage of Grace protest in 1536 and was executed by Henry VIII) says:
snipe whirring and whinnying over the
Lenten valley, the clamour of curlews; the
thundering heaven of larks. 9. It was all I
wanted: to live in my land and praise God
in his seasons. 10. The white owl roosted
in the rafters of the All Saints lych gate.
As we entered for Mass, we’d step in its
coughed-up turds, the luck of St Peter. 11.
He stole our gold, our plate, our
vestments of silk, our statues, saints, and
feasts. 12. Our way of life reduced to jobs.
Religion reduced to propositions. Where
once was meaning, now is only truth. (. . .)
Ely’s recent work includes a long series of poems called how dear is life, commissioned in commemoration of the First World War's centenary by the UK Poetry Society (and due to be published in an anthology at the end of 2014). The series widens Ely’s frame of reference, casting it across the Middle East and over several millennia in search of the origins of ‘English violence’. He centres the action, however, close to home in the person of his great-grandfather, killed aged 25 in 1917. ‘Tommy’, a straightforward but hard-hitting account of his life, begins:
and fell in with the flat-capped, hobnailed parade
tramping to the town hall at Pickering,
bantering and beaming in buntinged August swelter . . .
Another section, ‘Business, as usual’, takes a more sweeping approach, using an epigraph from the Geneva Bible (the primary Bible of 16th-century Protestantism), beginning with Exodus, witnessing Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and then:
river running green with Deutschmarks
sterling Frenchfrancs roubles dollars
the promissory land of bilk and money
banks and factories mines and munitions
Krupp Rothschild and Halliburton
Kronos devouring his children
in their blood is luxury and power
in their bondage is luxury and power
The rest of the sequence commemorates both war casualties and those who have died in mining accidents.
Ely is also the author of a novel, Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012). His second poetry collection, Englaland, will be published by Smokestack Books in 2015. Also in 2015, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough – a study of Hughes’ neglected Yorkshire period – will be published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Oswald’s Book of Hours, Smokestack Books, Middlesbrough, 2013
Englaland, forthcoming, Smokestack Books, Middlesbrough, 2015
Ratmen, Blackheath Books, Narberth, 2012
Ely’s own website
Talking points on his work from the Forward Foundation
Video of Ely reading ‘Arthur Scargill’
Poetry Review podcast on the Poetry Society website
Article by Ian McMillan discussing Ely’s work for the Yorkshire Post
Interview with blogger Zack Wilson