Skip to content

Northern poetry: From on high and from the tall grass.

Stanza Stones
by Simon Armitage, with Pip Hall and Tom Lonsdale.
Enitharmon Press 2013 | 112pp | hardback, £12.75, $24.97

Oswald’s Book of Hours
by Steve Ely.
Smokestack Books (Middlesborough) 2013 | 86pp | paperback, £5.89, $17.10

By Peter Riley.

IAndrew_Motion's_poem_'What_if-', YOU SET out from Sheffield railway station to walk to the town centre, you go uphill past the buildings of Sheffield Hallam University, and cannot fail to notice that one of them has a poem mounted on the facade facing you. The poem is about 30 meters high and is by Andrew Motion. It’s called “What If?”

O travellers from
somewhere else to here,
Rising from Sheffield Station
and Sheaf Square
To wander through the
labyrinths of air,

Pause now, and let
the sight of this sheer cliff
Become a priming-place
which lifts you off
To speculate
What if..?
What if..?
What if..?

Cloud shadows drag
their hands across
the white;
Rain prints the sudden
darkness of its weight;
Sun falls and leaves the
bleaching evidence of light.

Your thoughts are like
this too: as fixed as words
Set down to decorate
a blank facade
And yet, as words are too,
all soon transferred

To greet and understand
what lies ahead –
The city where your
dreaming is re-paid,
The lives which wait
unseen as yet, unread. 1

motion-tgraphAndrew Motion, former poet laureate, is Professor of Creative Writing at one of the London universities and was knighted “for services to literature” in 2009.

sheffld_armitageIf you continue past this attraction you may go on uphill, through the town centre and towards the west, to enter the grounds of Sheffield’s other university, the University of Sheffield, and behold! there you will be met by another enormous poem on the facade of one of the buildings. This one is by Simon Armitage and is called “In Praise of Air”.

I write in praise of air. I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.

I’ve carried it with me ever since.
Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted

to the lips. Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…
Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep

a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.

armitage_gdnSimon Armitage, C.B.E., is Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield.

SO WE ARE really among the high-flyers here, the rich and powerful of the poetry world, who preside over us from on high, secure in their top jobs, everywhere honoured and praised. There are not many of them — a dozen or so — and their careers are all much the same, though they do not all get the laureateship. Very few outside this elite bunch would ever have one of their poems mounted on the side of a building or engraved on a moorland boulder — it is a sign of their exceptional status. So is it not curious that these two poems, both from the same high niche of our poetical culture, differ so very much in their style, their concept of what a poem should be, and their quality — as surely everyone would recognise at a glance?

Motion’s opening is so Audenesque as to be pastiche, and the whole thing reads like some left-over bit of the 1930s: stiffly poetical talk, sententious generalities and local detail in a carelessly assembled formal structure. The discourse is empty of anything but gesture. A grandfatherly vice-principal welcoming the new students could not be more platitudinous: “Pause here on the threshold of your dreaming, your ‘What if…?’ and view the new world that opens before you…” etc.

Armitage’s poem is obviously ten times as competent as Motion’s. No avuncular voices, no wobbly pentameters, no banal repetitions.

Armitage’s poem is obviously ten times as competent as Motion’s. No avuncular voices, no wobbly pentameters, no banal repetitions. Instead, a boldly archaic start leads into a series of freshly thought figurations conceived with true wit and compacted in a semi-formal patterning which plays rhythmically across the lineation. It is a thoroughly crafted piece as the Motion poem is not, but rather a laboured exercise in professional facility. And the craft is also conceptual; the last line is a brilliant summation, tensely balancing figurative and actual to command a recognition.

The poem is, of course, ecological, a protest against atmospheric pollution, though it neither preaches nor deploys natural imagery as a self-evident agent. It is printed on a banner which is hung over the wall (and thus removable, unlike Motion’s built-in text) and which is impregnated with a photo-catalyst which “eats pollution”. This strikes me as rather a showbiz aspect of the enterprise, rather than any virtue the poem can claim for itself. As the “world’s first catalytic poem” it will absorb the exhalations of 20 cars a day, though it is placed next to a main road where, by my estimate, something like a thousand cars must pass every few hours. The poem’s catalytic function in the mind is if anything displaced by the science.

sissaypoem_examThese poems on public buildings are in heavy proliferation. There can hardly be a university in the land which hasn’t got one yet, and they are all, of course, by current “star” poets. I stumbled upon one recently at the University of Huddersfield, a forty-foot high plea for peace by Lemn Sissay. I thought it was all right, with some clever reversing of common figures, until it collapsed in the last line. The trouble with all these monumental poems is that they are not true public poems; they are private utterances mounted on a public platform. A public poem does not deal in someone’s opinions on a topic or problem; it speaks in a multiple voice concerning the totality. Motion’s poem shows this shortfall in its inflated gestural social discourse. Sissay’s does more so, since the desire for peace as a political achievement is personalised into a desire for rest and sleep, and being forty feet high doesn’t change this. 2 Perhaps this public/private discomfort is why Armitage has said that he finds the giant poem display in Sheffield “strange”.

My next encounter with an open-air poem manifestation was when I was walking over Byron Edge, which is in West Yorkshire, on the high moorlands east of Littleborough. As I was passing by an area of long abandoned quarries, with enormous views to the north over Rochdale and Oldham, I was tempted off the track by a sign, and found myself standing in front of a rock-face with some lettering recently carved into it. This is what it said:

_______________Be glad of these freshwater tears,
____________each pearl droplet some salty old sea-bullet
___air-lifted out of the waves, then laundered and sieved, recast as a soft
_________________________________[bead and returned.
And no matter how much it strafes or sheets, it is no mean feat to catch
______________________[one raindrop clean in the mouth,
to take one drop on the tongue, tasting cloud pollen, grain of the
_________________________________[heavens, raw sky.
Let it teem, up here where the front of the mind distils the brunt of
______________________________________ [the world.

This represents what appears as six lines on the rock face. As printed the poem is in 22 short lines of free verse in three stanzas as marked by initial capital letters, but I was particularly taken with the way the lettering accommodated itself to the long horizontal slab of gritstone which narrowed towards the top.

stanzastoneThis is the second of Simon Armitage’s six “stanza stones” which are situated at six points on high ground away from roads, along the South Pennine watershed between Marsden and Ilkley, each bearing a short poem, especially created, engraved on natural rock surfaces, boulders, old quarry faces, and in two cases specially imported page-like slabs of stone. Like “In Praise of Air” they are poems of natural elements, and water was chosen to be the subject of the six poems in different forms: Snow, Rain, Mist, Dew, Puddle, Beck.

HERE AND IN all six poems the basic technique is one of metaphorical diversion, to represent the subject indirectly through a re-imagining of its properties, and to effect this realisation through singular figures or small scenarios. They are quite like riddles, even though the “answer” is, of course, given in the title, and remind one sometimes of the playfulness and virtuosity of the Anglo-Saxon riddles. In “Rain” there are two enactments: the ingenious representation of the process of distillation which forms rain (“laundered and sieved”) and the elaborated fancy of catching one rain-drop in the mouth. These are not insignificant poetical techniques but require a fecund imagination which has the realm of the immediate at its command. There is nothing reductive about the processes involved, and apart from the faultless balance of elemental and domestic or individual (the constant slight tongue-in-cheek effect) there are details which give pause. Twice in characterising rain he uses an artillery term (bullet and strafes) without, I think, any polemical implications but colouring the picture with a momentary seriousness or sense of force. The modernities to which the watery element is referred reach further than the domestic or everyday and the image techniques are not straightforwardly comparative, but can cram conflicting properties against each other, as in the mixed metaphors at the end of “Dew” — “Then dawn, when sunrise / plants its fire-star / in each drop, ignites / each trembling eye.” But the simple image may be equally arresting, such as this one in “Beck” — “the source /might be nothing more / than a teardrop / squeezed from a curlew’s eye”.

And what about the ending to “Rain”? This was what stopped me in my tracks on my first encounter with the poem.

Let it teem, up here
where the front of the mind
the brunt of the world.

This, I thought, is not the Simon Armitage we all know, supplier of class-room fodder for “young people” with minimal vocabulary and nil cultural scope, bringing poetry “democratically” (see below) down to the level of the unprivileged (understood as young and likely northern). This transgresses any definition of the parameters of his style and could come from distant zones of the poetry scene. Let it pour, it says, up here where the front of the mind (that is, I take it, the mind (not the body but, accurately, the mind) taking frontally the attack (hinted at perhaps by the earlier “strafes”) of a rainstorm, distils (something like ‘extracts from the experience’) “the brunt of the world” (whatever that is). Not that the brunt is extracted but that something is extracted from the brunt. The dictionary definition of “brunt” is “the worst part or chief imprint” with an obsolete sense of “sudden outburst”. While acknowledging what an unpleasant experience the often horizontal rain can be in such places, this ending pushes itself right out of the poem and the locality. The words ‘distil’ and ‘brunt’ do not simply represent natural features disguised in riddle-like images; they stand alone as words in their own right, metaphors of mental process and experience. The rain at its strongest moment is indicated by words and enactments which inhabit the imagination.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION, Armitage speaks of the need to exceed the intent by transformation. He probably doesn’t mean what I see in that ending, and I doubt if there are many other moments in his work which go so far, that is, where the poetry takes off into a process without predicated boundaries. He also says that the poems of the stanza stones could not be audience-directed since the audience was unknown, likening them to the prehistoric rock engravings on the moors above Ilkley, “…appealing for the most part to an audience of nobody, presenting their ideas directly to the gods and stars above.”

Stanza StonesI’m not concerned here to cover Armitage’s entire career,3 but I have the impression that the work which made his name was very much audience-directed and continued to deploy the attitudes he then adopted for ever after. In other words, the poems of Stanza Stones are, as far as I can see, without precedent in his career. He began by locating a market opportunity in poems aimed at young people separated from high culture, which were immediately seized upon by the educational establishment. The poems are marked by diminished vocabulary, absence of ideas or flights of imagination, grim depictions of trapped people in monologues or accounts, and so forth. There is also a marked inclination towards depicting, and apparently endorsing, acts of mindless violence. Northernness is not emphasised so much as taken for granted; most place-names when they occurred are northern, and the impression given is that only in the north of England can such diminished currencies be dominant (though this is certainly not the case). Dialect hardly ever occurs and is mild when it does — the poetry is local but not too local. The picture is, anyway, bleak, and entertainment is effected mainly through clever, “Martian” style, verbalisms which are always careful to let one part of the equation be a common, unpoetical item (“the flashbulb of my heart” etc). 4

This poetry was immensely popular far beyond the target market and was, I suppose, admired in the way Philip Larkin’s poetry is, as a poetry which offers psychological protection by “capturing” the depressing social and personal conditions depicted so accurately, and thus in some way containing them. He was no doubt very good at this, and there are other modes too, such as grotesque and fantasy pieces trading in the same atmosphere of pessimism and tough-mindedness. I’m not aware, without claiming to have surveyed his output, that the field he laid claim to has changed or transformed at any time since, though his constantly developing facility in handling metaphor must have contributed. There may be a firmer grip on formalities in recent work, but it is mostly the same yarn-spinning, realistic or absurdist. But Stanza Stones are surely a very different matter as they enter directly into authorial perception quite aside from social conditioning, and they do so with ease. If there is any more of this I don’t know where it is, except on a building in Sheffield.

In Armitage, the focus is ‘on the present case or state of affairs exclusively, without the intervention of any larger considerations of space or time’.

WHAT ALL HIS work has in common is what some anthropologists call “hodieism”. That is, the focus on the present case or state of affairs exclusively, without the intervention of any larger considerations of space or time. This was striking in the long poem Out of the Blue (Enitharmon Press 2003), an account of 9/11 which is extremely effective writing and strictly nothing else. It is entirely a matter of what it must have felt like to be in one of those buildings at that time, and however much we might already have been able to assume that it was an unbelievably dreadful experience, it is realised with the hand of an expert. But there is no history, no politics, no “why”, no rationale to the event whatsoever. It simply happened — these things just came out of the sky and that was the beginning and end of it. What difference does it make if you are the victim, to know where they came from or what good somebody thought he was doing by it? This makes electrifying drama (there is a TV film version) but surely adds to our understanding of the event precisely nothing. If this seems rather shocking to a poet brought up in an atmosphere dominated by poets such as Yeats and MacDiarmid (or even Ted Hughes), it might seem even more shocking to a poet brought up on Shakespeare and Milton.


‘Apart from a few small toe-dipping ventures into contemporaneity this collection relishes the diminished concept and scope of the poem since 1945 because it is “democratic”.’

I’m sure Armitage has used the word “democratic” to justify his strategies in narratives like this and in the bulk of his short poems, but where I found it was in the Introduction to the anthology edited by him and Robert Crawford, The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (1998). Apart from a few small toe-dipping ventures into contemporaneity this collection relishes the diminished concept and scope of the poem since 1945 because it is “democratic”. Older poets, such as Yeats (and Hardy I wonder?) with their large-scale vision were “artistocratic” and we can’t have that sort of thing going on any more. It’s a book I greatly dislike for its hidebound conventionalism and unoriginality; it is virtually a repeat of a whole series of anthologies published by Penguin or Faber since the 1960s with largely the same poets and virtually the same introduction explaining again and again how “modernism” died the death. But what mainly disqualifies this anthology is not so much the omission of the avant-garde, most of whom are after all eminently omittable, but the omission of serious and talented poets whose language use is perfectly normative, such as Peter Levi, F.T. Prince, Frances Horovitz, Matthew Mead, Peter Robinson and a good dozen more. There seems to be a criterion of smartness or current high profile governing admission. There is no problem about poets such as Armitage and Crawford writing the way they do, but they don’t have to spread the aesthetic of themselves and their affiliates over the entire industry and openly declare that no alternatives or possible or permitted, that it is the result of an inevitable process. I don’t actually think Armitage’s poetry has much to do with democracy at all.

I think all of Armitage’s work is like this, including Stanza Stones, as is the work of many other popular poets of his generation. We are not to see any further than what is in front of our noses. But this is probably only felt as a loss by old campaigners such as myself, who have lived through a period of immense, world-changing, poetical ambition. If this survives anywhere now it is only in avowedly political or campaigning poetry, much of which has degenerated into immense anger in remote but generously subsidised encampments. And let’s face it, the great masters of global poetry, the self-appointed one-man universities, made a horrific mess of the job. There is a compensatory gain in thoughtful products of small scope, to which someone like Armitage undoubtedly contributes, certainly in the Stanza Stones poems.

IN THE BOOK the six poems occupy, of course, a very small amount of space, though they are at the centre of it. As well as Armitage’s Introduction there are extended accounts by Pip Hall the letter carver, including diary entries concerning work on individual stones, and Tom Lonsdale, consultant landscape expert, as well as a lot of very fine photographs, amounting to a thorough account of all the work and thought which went into the project. 5

Oswald's Book of HoursSTEVE ELY’S NORTH is a very different one from Simon Armitage’s, though they both live in West Yorkshire. Far from sitting in classrooms waiting to be inducted into modern poetry, Ely’s northern working class is in open rebellion. They are a people who have been robbed of their land and their religion, disenfranchised, trapped into deprivation and duped, and always have been in a long history. Most of the poems are spoken from the dead by leaders of revolts and victims of their repression (one of whom, Arthur Scargill, is still alive) in a fictive series of eulogies, laments and encomiums in honour of the seventh century Northumbrian King Oswald. Oswald spread Christianity across England in a series of campaigns against pagan forces, and came close to becoming England’s patron saint instead of George.

I think it helps to understand how this book is composed and aligned by noting two statements from the back blurb. Firstly, “King Oswald was a warrior, evangelist, hunter and scholar.” Secondly, Steve Ely (who is obviously a scholar) is described as a revolutionary socialist, “a Catholic in the tradition of John Ball, and he hunts with dogs”. The result of this convergence is that you are not going to get the revolutionary socialism without the Catholicism, and you are not going to get the Catholicism without the hunting, and you are not going to get the full message without all of them. Ely has set up a whole value structure on these four pillars, none of which could be removed without toppling the edifice.

The book goes through a series of episodes or sequences, all named with old church terminology, usually the “Hours” of daily services (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, etc.) in which the various dead warriors tell their stories and make their pleas, or sometimes the author or his familiars hold forth, usually in praise of lawlessness or hunting. There is a whole section, “Hours of the Virgin”, taken up entirely with dogs and their hunting prowess. In several sets like this it is as if with each poem we offer a service of remembrance, whether of king or saint or dogs. The cast of rebels is extended to include local and national criminals such as the highwayman John Nevison in a series of proud confessionals mainly about the people he has killed, inadvertently or not. It is difficult not to over-stress the endorsement of crime and violence in these poems, as I undoubtedly shall, since it stands there needing to be faced by the modern temperament, but there are also poems of dignified reflection and love of the earth.

ELY’S VERBAL RESOURCE is considerable, sustained as it is by a righteous anger which gives a bright edge to every image, every mentioning of events, histories, fights, early morning hunts, accounts of injustice, every complaint — all are in the grip of a rhythmic linear driving force, often alliterative, dedicated to remembering and honouring these names, brutes as many of them were, and piling up telling details, whether incriminating details of oppression or details of the hunt or symptoms of our lost rurality. For some pieces there is a plain manner, with complications, of declaration and indictment, as in this concluding outburst from a long piece on Robin Hood (who seems to morph into somebody else now and then)

Whatsoever schall it profiteth a man
that he gaineth the earth but loseth
his own land? that his tongue
become the mark of the beest
that no one may trade or speek
without it, but his words become
the world’s? that hound is put
to cur and terrier to alaunt
so that dogges designed for purpose
are but fit for pore utilitie? […]

forest for deer, covert for fox,
plantation for pheasant and erasing
the hovels of the poor, moor for grouse,
rivers for grilse, village for the rich,
farmhouse for the profit: barley, linseed,
oilseed rape, polytunnels, fishing lakes,
off-road mud-tracks, land-fill quarries
and mines, hayfields for corncrakes,
islands for the erne, fenland
for spoonbill and crane, the people
in their high estates loke downe:
on the pinks of the belvoir,
the national trust, the fleeces and gaiters
and the rspb. KEEP OUT.

It is obvious that this tirade against the ills of the countryside is not subject to reasoning and that its objective is, pretty well, the whole of modernity. I guess the poet would agree to both propositions and hold his head high. (I shall mention the items of strange vocabulary and syntax further on).

There is no room for any kind of ‘soft’ sentiment in these poem-stories….The delight [in Ely], is in the swiftness of the kill.

THERE IS NO room for any kind of “soft” sentiment in those poem-stories; it is viewed as a middle-class luxury for which the workers have had to pay. The bitch whelps, producing six puppies. The black one looks like a runt so he gives it three days and drowns it. Not a glimmer of pity is spared for all the rabbits, hares and birds killed by the hunting dogs “designed for purpose”. The delight, in the poems, is in the swiftness of the kill. And all forms of rural preservation whether of place or species are a matter of robbing the people of land which is theirs by right, and they are more important than any rare bird or plant. In the poem on Dismas, the forgiven thief at the crucifixion, there is contempt for penal reform (“poor-you councelling”); Dismas’ execution-cum-torture is the right and just punishment for his crimes. So it is with ecology and any other reformatory pressure. Neither is there any quarter given to the margins: Scottish, Irish, Welsh, islands, mountains or anything: England is the capital and the centre; the only time the rest get a mention is when they are defeated as “pagans” by Aethelstan in the 10th Century. Women don’t exactly play a major role either, but they are acknowledged through Elizabeth Barton, the “Nun of Kent”, another of Henry VIII’s victims.

Perhaps the most disturbing turn-up cast-wise is in a set of four prose poems near the beginning entitled “Godspel”, each given to one of Ely’s heroes as if initiating the second of their gospels (Incipit evangelium secundum), the first presumably consisting of their acts when alive. The first as Aethelstan, for his victory over combined foreign and pagan forces at the Battle of Brunanburgh. Next comes Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This was nothing to do with the north of England until its aftermath, and there are other sothrons involved in the book, so the principal issue is perhaps more class and faith than geography.

THE THIRD IS Robert Aske, a catholic who led the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, more by default than anything else, and would rather have stayed at home. He was executed at the command of Bloody Mary. There is some much calmer poetry put into his mouth concerning his reluctance—

I always preferred to be at home at the manor in Aughton. On winter afternoons I’d lean on the wall of All Saints churchyard and look out over the fowl-snidered ings, peewits and plovers tumbling from the skies, skeining greylags. the whistling wing of whoopers. […] In spring I’d watch the white owl haunting the twilight floodbank, drifting over the sheep like a tear of ectoplasm, crakes creaking from the ditches like the unquiet ghosts of Deira.6

All well and good, and a welcome relief. Then comes the fourth and last figure, “Scouse McLaughlin”. Who is, or was, he? It is difficult to find out anything about him. He was a paratrooper killed in 1982 during the Falklands War, and by all accounts a fearless, proud, and desperately brutal man. After his death he was cited for gallantry (carrying the wounded off the battlefield under heavy fire) but did not get the medal on account of a collection of the ears of dead Argentinian soldiers found in his pockets — he was thinking of making a necklace of them.

Cpl Stewart P. F. McLaughlinIt is typical of the textuality of this book that, difficult as the facts about McLaughlin are to find, few of them are given in text or notes; they are often referred to as if already known. The ears are mentioned twice in the poem in this way (“They screwed me out of my posthumous VC on account of the lugs”). This is not the kind of poetry that can spare any time for explaining itself or giving the reader a helping hand. The reader is complicit in everything.

It is difficult to know what this soldier is doing here. Ely knows or assumes that he was a Catholic. Otherwise he recounts his own bravery and death, and expresses the bitterest, most sweeping class hatred in the book—

Pay no attention to the middle classes, their self-serving dinner-party
morality […] They’ve no idea where they’ve come from, the spilled
blood and sacrifice it’s taken to get them to a place where they can
reduce their carbon footprint over rocket and parmigiana and
twitter on their iPhones insulated from the terror of the world. I
saw my friends cut to pieces around me.

We can’t simply attribute this to Ely himself, along with the implied notion that the “sacrifice” of a war such as that one served mainly to maintain the privileges of the English class system, but his endorsement is at least suspected. McLaughlin’s account of his own brutality, and by implication of the contradictions involved in his presence in the book, is “It’s like they say up here; [i.e., in Heaven, where he now is] Daemon est Deus inversus. Two sides of the same coin: you can’t have one without the other.” I think this occult motto (adopted by Yeats when he joined the Golden Dawn in 1890) which could be read as a condoning of evil, must be far from current Catholic usage, but it may explain something of the composition of Ely’s book.

McLaughlin is an extreme case in Ely’s assemblage of saints and sinners, though there are others like him, unrepentant thieves and rapists, “crude men, of appetite and violence” (this from a characterisation of Arthur Scargill’s clientele), all the men without whom our streets would be so boringly safe. The point is contempt for “the weak” in body or spirit, those who pity and do not fight. But there is balance, for at the other extreme (with not a lot in the middle) are men such as Robert Aske and Richard Rolle the Hermit of Hampole, who prompt Ely’s full-throated observations of unprotected nature—

On the earth path from Hampole
comes big-bosomed Margret, bearing bread, beer,
and shitbucket. Gledes mewing overhead.
Willow-wren tight in her feathery cave.
Dwale in the leaf litter, a woodcock’s liquid eye.
And ringing through Barnsdale’s sultry forest,
the nightingale’s hot sweet song. 7

But these were not “weak” men; Aske stuck to his beliefs and was killed for it. Rolle seems to be here simply as a hermit, perhaps with the courage to turn his back on the world. And both discourses show the same poetical thrust, the same narrative intensity. The whole book whether calm or vehement has the air of a sustained poetical onslaught against the usurpers and despoilers of England, their modern equivalents remaining anonymous. And there is certainly a defiance in it, a deliberate violation of the delicate sensitivities of what is seen as middle-class or artistic culture.8

ONE FEATURE OF this writing, which may have been noticed in my first quotation, is the distinctly odd use of language. He takes upon himself in the historical discourses, which is most of them, to substitute an old form of a word in the middle of passages of basically modern language, and does it inconsistently. Sometimes you would hardly notice it; elsewhere it can be very obstructive — you might think you are reading a whole sentence in middle English, though it would not be as consistent as that for a whole sentence — and, of course, no translations are offered. On page 44 we get “the cyng and his quene”. “Cyng” is Anglo-Saxon. Two lines later we get “the king is from the people”. This clash of two versions of the same word would be an unusual way of merely “historicising” the discourse and it is more as if these verbal anomalies are there as sheer obstacles in the flow of text, to remind us again and again that the matter in hand is difficult and unresolved. More disturbing is the scattering of archaic phrases which are plain wrong, and can never have had currency at any time, such as the use of the -eth suffix to a verb, indicating third person singular present tense, for an infinitive (“whatsoever schall it profiteth a man…”) and for a past participle (“my lord hath brenneth me out by fire”). There might be a lot more of these but I don’t have the scholarship to identify them; I am mainly suspicious. It’s another Ely puzzle: I can’t believe he does it by accident but I don’t know why he does. Is it, again, something put there to trip up the informed middle-class reader?

What Ely doesn’t have is adherence to a reading-list of continental linguistic philosophy which tells us that language itself is the only field of revolution…

Steve Ely is not a hundred miles away from the Neo-Marxist academic avant-garde poets,9 while working with very different material and in a very different manner. It is to his credit that the words “bourgeois” and “capitalist” will not be found in the book, but there is a kindred sense of a mission to be fulfilled, and rigid intolerance of any lapse from a strictly focused cultural agenda, particularly emotional softness, and there is a displaying of bodily violence to the same purpose, though not of the obscenities cultivated in the higher academy. The pitch of outrage is always high as the incriminatory details are piled up in narratives whether torrential or calm (local thugs or retired priests). What Ely doesn’t have is adherence to a reading-list of continental linguistic philosophy which tells us that language itself is the only field of revolution; by damaging and distorting it you act politically in the fullest sense. Ely’s language is eccentric and highly wrought, but transparent when you’ve stumbled past the pitfalls. If his politics could be separated from his religion and translated into more recent times he might look like a Chartist, or even more like a Spencean, that is, a believer in compulsory dispossession of the land owners and turning the land over to the workers in communal farms. 10 But there is very little present tense in this poetic, and what there is is mostly hunting or hooliganism.

But Ely is foremost a poet in the sense of craftsman, of an unusual and possibly unique kind and it is his craft which coheres all the outrageousness and cold beauty of this book. As poet he presents a tough and even mean figure, absolutely uncompromising in pursuit of his quest, not courting for a moment that offering of the self for sympathy which pervades current writing but with scenarios at his command the likes of which you will not locate elsewhere.

Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.


  1. This is how the poem appears on the wall. In print it is in longer lines, in fact fifteen iambic pentameters (or near misses), as shown by initial capitals, roughly end-rhymed in triplets.
  2. The last line is “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” I can’t be sure that I have counted the H’s accurately.
  3. Faber have recently published a selected poems called Paper Aeroplanes. I have used an earlier Selected Poems, Faber 2001
  4. It should perhaps be borne in mind that Armitage was one of the first modern poets to go professional, which left him with a family to support entirely from his art. When you do this you say “yes” to all opportunities (or your agent does) and you must be constantly concerned to maintain your reputation.
  5. There are also spin-offs, including The Stanza Stones: an anthology edited by Antony Dunn. (Ilkley Literature Festival 2012. ) This has the same ancillary texts as Stanza Stones, some shortened, plus poems of many different kinds by children and young people who had been shown Ilkley Moor. None of them resembles Simon Armitage’s poems in any way that I can see.deiramap
  6. Deira was one of the two British kingdoms united by Oswald to form the kingdom of Northumbria.
  7. Hampole, near Doncaster, is well beyond the northern limit of the nightingale, unless that has changed since the 14th Century. Ely has spoken of a preference for “meaning rather than truth”
  8. If Ely despises the middle class, the sentiment is not reciprocated, for he has been nominated for the Forward First Collection Prize 2015 and also the Ted Hughes award, and he may well become quite a success. This process inevitably involves substantial support from middle-class literati and academics. But it has often been said that the middle class relish being punished.
  9. I refer here to poets such as Keston Sutherland, John Wilkinson, Marianne Morris… all of whom would, I’m sure, reject the label.
  10. See Malcolm Chase, The People’s Farm: English Radical Agrarianism 1775-1840 (Breviary Stuff Publications 2010).
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian Creasey
8 years ago

Today I picked bilberries on Ilkley Moor. Afterward I walked away from the main path and sat down for a cuppa in a secluded spot by a beck. There I saw a boulder inscribed with Simon Armitage’s poem “The Beck”, part of his Stanza Stones project. Previous commenter Emma Bolland says “much of public art is oppressive in its masculinity, and its obsession with permanence and monumentality – size it seems, is everything” and asks for “a lighter touch please, you gentlemen poets”. I can report that, in fact, Armitage’s “The Beck” is extremely unobtrusive. It’s hidden away and would… Read more »

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x