Is Steve Ely like Geoffrey Hill or Basil Bunting?

incendium amoris

When I read a poem by Steve Ely in The London Review of Books, I was intrigued and sought out more of his work. Ely, who lives in Yorkshire, has produced three books: Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englalaland, (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017), all from Smokestack. The blurbs for these collections compare the poet’s work to Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. I thought it would be interesting to consider how far these comparisons can be sustained.

 

The three most obvious characteristics that come to mind are the autobiographical element, the strong sense of place experienced through time and the fact that all three poets are men. The work of Ely and Hill is also informed by a strong commitment to Christianity, whilst Bunting, reared within Quakerism, though less obviously Christian, arguably has a religious vision. For the purposes of this essay, I shall concentrate mainly on Incendium Amoris, Mercian Hymns and Briggflatts.

 

Incendium Amoris is inspired by the work of the same name by Richard Rolle, a fourteenth century and mystic. Ely uses the life and writings of Rolle to build connections between his own time and the past, in a manner which is “unapologetically inauthentic”, a phrase used by Umberto Eco to describe neomedievalism in its many manifestations from computer games to Dan Brown.[1]

Ely’s collection opens with the section, ‘Officium’, which may refer to the daily prayers or duties of the Catholic Church. It is made up of thirteen 13 line poems, with recurrent phrases and themes. The first poem establishes the link between past and present: ‘Catweazle in cuccula,somehow it’s me’. Catweazle, the poet’s note tells us, was a ‘time-travelling 11th century wizard in the eponymous 1970 LWT children’s TV programme.’ ‘Cuccula’ is a cowl, or monk’s hood, probably signalling the poet’s connection to Rolle, the hermit, and his own commitment to Catholicism. Again in the first poem, Ely refers to ‘Timeslip gleaners on Love Balk stubbles’; Love Balk is a place in the poet’s locality and the gleaners are apparitions in a dream or vision. However, the phrase also suggests the poet’s technique-gleaning fragments of local history over the centuries, perhaps redeeming the stories of the poor and the outsiders of the Yorkshire region where the poem is set. Contemporary characters the poet refers to as his ‘moochers’, Yommer, Joey Bach and Malc Spencer, seem like him, to have set their face against modernity –‘dynamiting windfarms, ‘chopping barbed wire’, deploring the ‘glyphosate sterility’ of commercial agriculture. These characters, like the speaker of the poems, exist on the borders of legality, poaching drinking and engaging in illicit sex, activities which bring them closer to Richard Rolle, who, though long regarded locally as a saint, never had this status ratified by the Church, possibly because of his scandalous relationship with the female nun, and later, anchoress, Margaret of Kirkby. This relationship, ‘Richard and Margret, couchant in bushes’ is celebrated in the sequence, particularly in the poem, ‘Pastoral’:

Dick pats her dry

with her untressed hair and orders her habit.

Her gret papys yet tremble and lift to his touch.

Ely’s identification with Rolle is suggested repeatedly: ‘somehow it’s me…She lay on me like brock-pelt, greasy as weasel./Lips found her nipples, familiar.’

By the end of the sequence, the voice is predominantly Rolle, perhaps a mystic but flawed and conflicted, ‘torrid and incontinent’. In his forest retreat he wakes ‘to the Beast, horned like Cernunnos, and flee[s] to the Name of Jesus.’ He preaches turning ‘your back/on this world’ but himself backslides repeatedly: ‘Seduced, we embrace,/ over and over, heat and sweetness, song.’ The penultimate poem quotes from and justifies Rolle as it reflects the title of the hermit’s treatise and Ely’s poems: ‘The fire of love incinerates sin:/in fullness of flame I am blent in bliss’. In the final poem of the sequence, the writer distances himself from the hermit using a third person perspective, but manages to make his allegiances clear. Sounding quixotic and almost forlorn, he is on the side of the poor, the uncouth, the enlisted men, lining up with the Pilgrimage of Grace, William Blake and the ‘Scrubbers at the lists on horsemeat ponies,/tilting at Zetors,[2] nephilim[3], windmills.’

 

Ely describes himself as a Socialist, a Catholic and a hunter. He is also an expert on Ted Hughes and the Director of the Ted Hughes Network in the English Literature & Creative Writing Subject Area at the University of Huddersfield. The blurb for Incendium Amoris describes the work as ‘peasant’s revolt against the accelerating cultural, social and environmental devastations of globalizing capital, a guerilla-pastoral prophecy of a yeoman-anarchist utopia.’ Ely, like Hughes, has been accused, despite his socialist protestations, of giving succour to the far right. Certainly, the survivalist references to ‘Baikal’ (a type of shotgun) and Realtree (camouflage wear), along with the neo-medieval nostalgia and the clinging to Catholic ritual and terminology have an effect which seems backward- looking and reactionary rather than seriously prophetic. It is hard not to hear Brexit in these poems.[4]

Briggflatts

How accurate, then, is it to compare Ely to Basil Bunting? Certainly, they share some of the same influences. Ely alludes to Pound and Yeats in his first poem, while Bunting was a friend and colleague of Pound, living close to him in Rapallo.

Bunting sees the past as existing still in the present, ‘Then is diffused in Now.’ They share some of the same texts, including the Song of Solomon and they have a shared northernness, Yorkshire for Ely, Cumbria for Bunting. They both like dogs:

I have a yong whippet

            off Baz from Brierley

            much is the mete

            she has brought to me.

                                                Ely

 

fell-born men of precise instep

leading demure dogs

from Tweed and Till and Teviotdale,

with hair combed back from the muzzle,

dogs from Redesdale and Coquetdale

taught by Wilson or Telfer.

Their teeth are white as birch,

slow under black fringe

of silent, accurate lips.

 

Bunting

This is an instructive comparison. Both writers place their poems with exact reference to people and places: ‘Baz from Brierley’, ‘Tweed and Till and Teviotdale’, ‘Wilson and Telfer’. In both there is an element of regional celebration. Both poems make use of alliteration, but for Ely this is a conscious archaism, part of his neo-medieval project where he mimics the poetic forms of middle English and the alliterative lines of pre-Chaucerian verse. In Bunting’s writing, the alliteration is part of the music of the poem which is in free verse, but relies on the sounds of vowels, consonants and syllables as well as the patterning of phrase to build up its complex effect. Moreover, Ely’s dogs are hunting dogs; Bunting’s are sheepdogs. Both writers are very male in their perspectives; both recognise violence as an aspect of masculinity. Bunting, despite his early pacifism, writes

I hear Aneurin number the dead and rejoice,

being adult male of a merciless species

Ely’s poems also refer to ancient battles and atrocities –‘Je te plumerai’, ‘Little Saint Hugh’ and there is a lot of killing, often of animals. The most violent aspect of his poetry is the language; there area lot of taboo words, often, I suppose, of Anglo-Saxon origins and plenty of references to sex and defecation. ‘Wesyll’ is an egregious example:

Stick your fucking wedding ring up your arse.

Sucked a cat’s brain through its orbital socket.

splunk pikejaws of viper, squirmed millipede

ribcage; et out via vulva, the unhinged head.

 

Shit in the hole. See them fall: Chaz, Lou,

Nick, Reza Pahlavi. They never sin

no one like me; stynkand, shrieking: curling

to sleep between hot breasts cold by morning.

With the references to executed kings, this may be the raw voice of the resisting common man, but it is definitely a male voice. It seems to me that Ely is exploring, or perhaps trying to preserve, a particular version of masculinity. He sets his face against modernity in all its forms. Women play a very secondary part to the role of the male; even the presentation of the relationship between Richard Rolle and Margaret Kirkby has a conventionally male perspective. The exceptions are perhaps the love sonnets in the section called ‘Flame’, but even here the male is shown as a hapless ‘man behaving badly’: ‘puking sweet purple/over her shoulder’ in the pub car park. Perhaps we can identify the same sense of guilt and betrayal in the two poets. Ely writes in his second sonnet,’Jacket’:

Gallant I gave her my envied jacket,

a red leather from X-Clothes in Leeds.

I cloaked it over her flowery shoulders

in a rite of debt and devotion. I would have

given her the world and everything in it –

my love, my honey, my harp. I gave her away.

 

The structure of Bunting’s Briggflatts depends on the betrayal of a lost love who is returned to at the end of the poem. “Fifty years a letter unanswered;/a visit postponed for fifty years.//She has been with me fifty years.” Like Ely, he makes use of traditional, almost courtly love language (here, an aubade):

We have eaten and loved and the sun is up,

we have only to sing before parting:

Goodbye, dear love.

Incidentally, in Bunting’s lines, the lovers sing together; in Ely’s, the woman has become a possession, something edible, an instrument.

 

Bunting’s poem starts from and returns to Peggy Greenbank and the hamlet of Brigflatts, but along the way it takes in not only his life and travels through Europe and Asia but the history and culture of the places he has seen. Ely, on the other hand, gives the impression that he would prefer to turn the history of civilization back to a period before the Reformation. His attacks on modernity include a concern for the environment but his ecopolitical view seems indiscriminate, rejecting windfarms along with weedkiller. His poems abound in Church Latin titles, but despite the central character of Richard Rolle, I find more religious reference than religious vision.. There is no overt religion in Briggflatts which could be described as a personal odyssey which offers no answers; in fact, the poem ends with a question mark. We might bear in mind Bunting’s upbringing as a Quaker, an approach to religion antithetical to Ely’s Catholicism; we might also remember Bunting’s own note to the poem:

In silence, having swept dust and litter from our minds, we can detect the pulse of God’s blood in our veins, more persuasive than words, more demonstrative than a diagram. That is what a Quaker meeting tries to be, and that is why the poem is called Briggflatts[5].

Although I imagine Ely is writing in the wake of Bunting and is familiar with his work, it seems to me too glib to consider the poets as similar. Bunting is a modernist, whose writing is located in high culture and a formalist in that he puts the poem before the message; Ely is post-modern, selecting and fabricating from the past, he is overtly political and he seeks to excavate and support his own rather strange notion of the proletarian and the peasant. With every word I write, I am conscious that I am probably being unfair to Ely, but I am put off by his relentless blokishness.

mercian hymns

When we come to consider links between Ely and Geoffrey Hill, some are immediately obvious.

Asiotic[6] night screams horned like Cernunnos-

we like that kind of noise.

These are the last two lines in the first poem of Incendium Amoris, and they seem to echo the last line in the first poem of Mercian Hymns: ‘”I liked that,” said Offa, “sing it again.’ That, along with the reference to Cernunnos, a version of the Green Man, who also appears in Hill’s collection, suggests an acknowledgement of a poetic influence or debt. Both poets are interested in the ancient past of England, before the Reformation, before even the country was a single kingdom. In Mercian Hymns, there is a fusion of past and present, of Geoffrey and Offa, a sort of palimpsest of two different times in the same place. The identification of the poet with the king is indicated in the second poem, where the two names are brought together in a sequence of half-buried puns; ‘curt graffiti’ = eff (Geoff) off (Offa).[7] The poems clearly rely on autobiographical material, although they are no more straightforward autobiography than Briggflatts or Incendium Amoris. Interestingly, the personal details which are worked into Mercian Hymns are mostly episodes from boyhood rather than adolescence and young manhood in the case of Ely and the whole life ‘fifty years’ of Briggflatts. It is not always clear whether Geoffrey or Offa is speaking and it seems to me that the poet makes use of the ancient king to create a figure of selfhood, who develops from the lonely but ‘staggeringly gifted’ boy drawing strength from his natural environment “I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings” to the arrogant adult capable of self-centred brutality. Hilary Davies notes Hill’s insistence ‘upon how much the ignorant egotism of the child lives on in the knowing malice of the adult man.’[8] The casual cruelty of the child who ‘battered a ditchful’ of frogs turns into something more horrifying in the flaying of Ceolred, the friend who lost his toy plane. This mythologised incident which forms poem VII and is titled ‘The Kingdom of Offa’ reverberates with meanings, not least in the appropriation of the name Albion for ‘his private derelict sandlorry’ –now more derelict than ever. The poem acknowledges cruelty and violence, in a way which is different and more horrifying than that in Bunting or Ely. This is violence which is gratuitous and selfish but which is owned by the complex persona of the poem. Offa was a king operating within the paradigm of Christianity and I think Hill is showing us sin and evil as part of man’s unregenerate nature. Later, on Offa’s journey to Rome, callous indifference to the torture of Boethius at Pavia fuses with a modern tourist’s journey:

He wiped his lips and hands. He strolled back to the

car, with discreet souvenirs for consolation and

philosophy.

Although I find the allusion to Boethius’ work rather flippant, it could be argued that this is part of the persona Hill is creating. The acceptance and even indulgence in cruelty is presented to us as a facet of human behaviour, just as Bunting refers to the ‘merciless species’ and Ely shows us violence through the centuries. Bunting clearly stands outside the violence he shows; Hill, and perhaps Ely after him, inhabit the context in which the violence is produced. This is the argument of Andrew Michael Roberts in his study of Geoffrey Hill:

…the poet writes from within the subject matter, inhabiting it and being inhabited by it, using its language to varying degrees, exploring the attitudes, mood and preoccupations of a particular ideology, tradition or historical period. The poem is less the utterance of the poet than something which the poet shapes out of the linguistic and cultural material found to hand within a particular cultural field….Hill sees himself as diagnosing elements of culture, not primarily as expressing his own feelings or views.[9]

 

This begs all sorts of questions. The poet is exculpated, the heresy Offa denounces in VIII, in an abnegation of responsibility which ignores the fact that the writer has chosen and selected the linguistic and cultural elements of which he writes. Moreover, the language Hill has chosen is clearly his own; no matter what the influences, his voice in these poems is distinctive. Ely, on the other hand, is writing in the parallel universe of neo-medievalism, often in an invented language that combines Northern dialects with middle or old English vocabulary, spelling and alliterative phrase-making. Hill has been accused, as Ely could be, of hankering after a ‘traditional, religious England’, in Tom Paulin’s phrase, of being a ‘chthonic nationalist.’ Both would reject charges of being apologists for right wing politics, but as we have seen with Brexit, radical right and radical left can meet up at the back of the hall.

 

It would be true to say that Bunting, Hill and Ely all concern themselves with English landscapes through time, bringing the past into the present or seeing it as co-existing with the present. This is a recurrent theme in English literature and an earlier version can be found in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Bunting, although he starts and ends his poem in Briggflatts, ranges much more widely than the other two poets. All three present a particularly male view of the world and this is linked to the way in which they deal with cruelty and violence, in all three writers shown as an attribute of masculinity. While Ely’s work is undoubtedly written in the shadow of Bunting and Hill, it is unhelpful to conflate the three poets. In writing this post, I have come to have a profound admiration for Briggflatts, for its range, for its generosity of spirit and for its fluid and beautiful language. I have always found Geoffrey Hill’s work difficult and difficult to like and my feelings have not changed. Steve Ely’s poems are still surprising me although I hope he will tone down the made-up medievalism which sometimes obscures rather than promotes his message.

[1] ‘Postmodern (re)constructions of the Middle Ages in contemporary poetry? Neomedievalism in Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley and Steve Ely.’ By Claire Hélie. Études britanniques contemporaines. No. 54/2018

[2] A type of tractor

[3] giants

[4] To be fair to Ely, his range is greater than this suggests and he has challenged racism, Islamophobia and global global capitalism in other work.

[5] Brigflatts was the site of a Quaker meeting house.

[6] ‘Pertaining,’ Ely tells us, ‘to the long-eared owl.’

[7] I find this sort of obscurity annoying rather than instructive, but then I have always found Hill’s poetry inaccessible and rebarbative, although I recognize the passion and level of seriousness which informs his work.

[8] ‘The Castaway of drowned remorse, the world’s atonement on the hill’ History, Language and Theopoetics: Geoffrey Hill’s dialogue with David Jones in Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae, (Revue Études Anglaises,2/2018)

[9] Geoffrey Hill by Andrew Michael Roberts (2004) p.55-56.

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