To soothe you / I ran back down to take a photo: / it's a splendid one of the horse / but you're only a hurrahing speck
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About Steve Ellis
Born in York in 1952, Steve Ellis has published three collections of poetry, including West Pathway (1993) and Home and Away, verse translations of Dante’s Inferno and The Divine Comedy and a number of academic monographs on writers such as Chaucer, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. He studied English and Art History at University College London, later completing a PhD there on the influence of Dante on nineteenth- and twentieth-century English poetry. He has been Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham since 1998. Of his translation of Inferno, The Independent’s reviewer has noted: ‘Steve Ellis’s Hell removes the grime and returns the smut until Dante’s vision vibrates again in all its original colour. The effect is dazzling.’
Ellis’s poetry is warm and wryly humorous, firmly situated in the day-to-day, tenderly drawing out the epiphanic from the domestic – a traffic jam leads to an encounter with nature; a trip to the cattery is soundtracked by Cole Porter; while another poem is delivered in the voice of an old plate. The poet’s academic background is sometimes evident in his poetry, as when his domestic scenes occasionally take on a medieval edge, the underworld of family life brought up to the surface. ‘Rubbish’, for example, recalls the process of burning nappies in a stove – ‘I thought: purification. / Here’s this shitty nappy, lamb and carrot aftermath, / I touch it to the jewels’; or ‘Washing’, which mockingly notes the contrast between a ‘discreet suburb’ and the intimate disclosures of its washing lines – ‘But the lacrimae rerum of laundry! /there, hoisted in shapeless surrender, / the vast flapping whites of old age.’
Childhood – the poet’s own, and that of his children – is a recurring theme, as can be seen from the poems available to listen to here. ‘The Age of Innocence’ recounts a primary-school drawing exercise, brilliantly capturing the busy colour of such a scene and delivered by Ellis with great drama in his recording. His generous and emphatic reading style brings the poems very much to life. ‘Scenes from Childhood’, meanwhile, and ‘White horse’, take the perspective of a parent resigned to a child’s energy spinning off in unexpected and sometimes unwished-for directions. In ‘White Horse’, a disappointing trip to see a chalk hill figure prompts a meditation on nearness and distance, that ‘to grasp is to extinguish’ it’s only from far away that the horse can be apprehended; up close, there is nothing to see: ‘To soothe you / I ran back down to take a photo: / it’s a splendid one of the horse / but you’re only a hurrahing speck / in a bobble-hat, almost invisible’, a notion which, paradoxically, Ellis pins down perfectly.
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 9 November 2015 at The Soundhouse, Bristol, and was produced by Richard Carrington.