The Poetry Place
The Steelworks - Owen Sheers
Some questions to get a discussion started:
• Someone wrote that the opening: ‘The Steelworks, except it doesn’t anymore’ was a cheap pun. Is it? Or is it a nice bit of word-play? [Does it matter?]
• The abandoned factory is compared to a ‘deserted mothership’. What would you normally associate with a deserted spaceship? [Aliens? People in space-suits? Something definitely weird? None of these crop up as the poem moves on. Is this a wasted opportunity?]
• ‘Breathless vents’ suggests something that once had life. But what gave it life? [Working machinery or the labour of employees?]
• ‘The work happens elsewhere now.’ Where – and is it really work?
(The items in square brackets are for you, as teacher, to use or ignore – as you think useful or appropriate.)
Some thoughts once the poem has been read and explored more fully:
The rest of the poem is a kind of extended metaphor, the movements and efforts of the men in the gym echoing the work that used to go on in the factory. Certain words and phrases (e.g. pumping iron) are clearly intended in this way, others (to someone unfamiliar with either steelworks or gyms) may or may not be (locking out?). Ask students to mark these in different ways. Is this comparison effective?
The poem ends with an obvious reference back to the lost industry with the clouds like ‘brushed metal’. What kind of mood does this (and other phrases in the poem) suggest? [Deserted / rusting / breathless. Is this mood deserved? Could a more optimistic poem be written using the same juxtaposition? Sunshine thought the windows; men no longer toiling but enjoying becoming fit; grim factory noise and pollution replaced by sheep and birdsong?]
Perhaps the most interesting word in the poem is ‘benediction’. Ask students to look it up. It seems out of place and must have been very deliberately chosen. But why? [In the poem it is associated with kneeling and bowing and therefore has a religious significance. Does this suggest that ‘working out’ has a more powerful significance for the men than merely passing the time or keeping fit?]
Does the poem convey anything more significant than ‘There was once a steelworks here but now the men who worked there spend their days in the gym’? [Are we allowed to say of a respected poet/poem, ‘So what’?]
Steelworks could be interpreted through the making of a video or a PowerPoint presentation in which the juxtaposed images of making steel and pumping iron could be made very clear – or there could be a more subtle fade from one kind of activity to another.
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