The Pity

They stuffed his lungs with poppies and crushed him
under a cenotaph. Where they weep.
from 'How dear is life' by Steve Ely

On National Poetry Day 2014 four of the UK’s most exciting contemporary writers performed searing new work about the legacy of the First World War. Two months later the Poetry Society published The Pity as a limited edition anthology, given free to Society members and available to purchase online.

The Pity showcases four of the most exciting British writers Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial, Denise Riley and Warsan Shire, explored their responses to the conflict. Their work explored the theme of conflict from many angles; from advice published in Vogue in November 1916 on how to 'dress becomingly after a death', up to the execution of British hostage James Foley in August 2014. Each writer explored their personal responses, as well as their family connections to not only the Great War, but to other conflicts that have touched lives.

The book also includes John Glenday's poem 'The Big Push', written in response to James Herbert Gunn's 1916 paining 'The Eve of the Battle of the Somme'.

The Pity was supported by The London Community Foundation and Cockayne – Grants for the Arts.


"This is heady poetry of conviction and the persuasiveness of phrase-making..."

Martyn Crucefix reviews The Pity on his blog. (Jump to part 2 here)


The Poets

Steve Ely

They sang Tipperary as they queued to sign on the line.
Zeppelin thunderheads mounting from Horcum.
Purple darkness, the lit silver shilling;
Private Thomas Herbert Sellars,
7th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment,
emerging to storm-snarl and deluge offensive.
from 'How dear is life'

Steve Ely is a poet from the Osgoldcross wapentake in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His first book of poems, Oswald’s Book of Hours, is published by Smokestack and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2013 and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Englaland, his second book of poems, will be published 2015, also by Smokestack. His novel, Ratmen, is published by Blackheath Books. The Poetry Review published Ely’s sequence of poems about werewolves in Spring 2014. He has just finished Made in Mexborough: Ted Hughes's South Yorkshire, a biographical work about Hughes’s neglected Mexborough period.


Zaffar Kunial

To get it, the scale had to be brought home.
Imagine them moving in one long continuous
column, four abreast … as the column’s head
reaches the Cenotaph the last four men
would be at Durham … in India, that column
would stretch from Lahore to Delhi. Whichever
the country, it would take three and half days,
this snaking march, before the tail caught up
with the head. Somewhere on the way you’d find
two who share a strand of my DNA.
from 'The Shape Remembrance Takes' 

Zaffar Kunial was born in Birmingham and currently lives in Cumbria where he is the 2014 Wordsworth Trust Poet-in-Residence. Selected as one of the latest Faber New Poets, his debut pamphlet Faber Young Poets 11 was published in October. His poem ‘Hill Speak’, placed third in the 2011 National Poetry Competition, remained his only published poem until his new poems appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of The Poetry Review. In 2012 he won a Northern Writers’ Award. A graduate of the LSE, for the past five years Kunial has worked as a full-time ‘Creative Writer’ for Hallmark cards in West Yorkshire.


Denise Riley

His name is weightier than he was.
He’s been flicked off from it.
It didn’t much suit him in his life.
That’s gone AWOL. Poor fit.
What is it for some name to ‘live’?
It’s lifeless. Set in stone.
Its bearer proved too slight for it.
He’d always been ‘Unknown’.
from 'A gramophone on the subject'

Denise Riley has a background in both poetry and academia. She is currently Professor of Poetry and the History of Ideas at the University of East Anglia. Riley’s many collections of poetry include Penguin Modern Poets 10 (with Douglas Oliver and Ian Sinclair), and Denise Riley: Selected Poems (Reality Street). She edited Poets on Writing; Britain 1970-1991. Her long poem sequence ‘A Part Song’ won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, and was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award (both 2012). Her poem ‘After La Rochefoucauld’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Forward Prize.


Warsan Shire

Look, one war giving birth to another
one war crawling out from between the
legs of another, out of the rubble
of one war crawls out another
look, a snake swallowing its own head.
from 'War Poem'

Warsan Shire showed her first poem to her father at the age of 11, won an international poetry slam at 16 (“I didn’t really understand what a poetry slam was”), and published her first pamphlet, teaching my mother how to give birth (flipped eye) in 2011 aged just 22. In 2013 she not only won the first Brunel University African Poetry Prize, but was also named the inaugural Young Poet Laureate of London. She was published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Poetry Review, and has new poems in the anthology Ten: the new wave, recently published by Bloodaxe. Born in Kenya to Somali parents, Shire currently lives in London.


The Pity


Steve Ely

Zaffar Kunial


Images top to bottom:
Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial, Denise Riley and Warsan Shire, taken at Southbank Centre, London on National Poetry Day, 2 October 2014, credit: Hayley Madden for the Poetry Society;
The Pity event flyer.