‘The Steelworks,’ by Owen Sheers: analysis 

Sheers’ poem ‘The Steelworks,’ consists of six tercets of free verse. He begins the poem by describing a ‘deserted’ Ebbw Vale Steelworks, then describing where a different type of ‘work’ happens now.
‘The Steelworks,’ has perhaps the most intriguing start to a poem out of the whole collection. Sheers uses a comma at the end of the title, making it a part of the first stanza: ‘The Steelworks, except it doesn’t anymore.’ The full stop at the end of the line adds finality to the line, resulting in it sounding harsh and almost critical.

Similarly to ‘Flag’, Sheers uses modern, contemporary language in contrast with natural, traditional language to create a happy medium between the past and present: ‘mothership’, ‘sheep…and birds nesting’.

Following the end of the second stanza, Sheers moves the setting of the poem to a gym, implying that this is where the former steelworkers now spend their time. ‘Sometimes all day’ could be referring to the period of time the men now spend at the gym, as well as the long shift they used to work at the steelworks’. However the use of the word ‘sometimes’ might suggest nostalgia and criticism – wouldn’t they have been better working than spending their whole day at the gym?

Sheers uses words like ‘lifting’, ‘locking’, ‘rolling’, ‘kneeling’ and bowing’ to depict the struggle and strength of the men. ‘Kneeling’ and ‘bowing’ create a religious image: perhaps the gym is a place where they can escape and find ‘benediction’. Another interpretation of ‘the benediction of the lateral pull’ is that the workers literally find the work a benediction – the lateral muscles are those of our lower back, therefore it is implied that the former workers finding the pull on these muscles a benediction (bestowing of a blessing).

Sheers presents a clear link between the men at the gym and the steelworks in stanza five: ‘pumping iron’. At the gym, the men are pumping iron; at the steelworks, the machines would pump the iron. Thus, the poet provides a flawless image of the men, and the steelworks, being one and the same. This idea is further explored when Sheers compares the men’s breaths to ‘pneumatic sighs’. Pneumatics is a branch of physics applied to technology that makes use of gas or pressurised air, hence comparing the men to machines. This might be because they have turned into ‘machines’ after losing their jobs at the factory – they haven’t been the same, human, since. On the other hand, Sheers could be emphasising how hard they work: like machines.

In the final stanza, Sheers returns to describing the imagery: ‘still the rain, rolling off the clouds in sheets across a brushed-metal sky’. This once again creates a link between the gym and the steelworks – the sky looks like the steel: ‘brushed-metal’. The ‘sheets’ are also a reminder of the products and met rials used and produced at the steelworks.  

 The footnote ‘Ebbw Vale, 2002’ suggests the poem was written about an event that happened there, on that date. The actual event was the closure of steel production of Ebbw Vale works – the first steelworks to integrate iron and steel production – on the 5th July 2002. The closure left hundreds of people in the area jobless. 

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