Here's a challenge. You have a short pamphlet of poems (there are 12 or 15, depending on whether you count a sequence as one poem or four) whose subject matter is football. Can you interest and engage a reader who admittedly likes poetry, but whose knowledge of football stops at a one-time adolescent crush on George Best and a liking for the film The Damned United?
The answer, much of the time, is yes. Of course, one reason is that subject matter is not the only thing, nor even the main thing, that poems are about. Here, football becomes emblematic of male solidarity, class conflict, a semi-condoned vent for energy and violence. In the first poem, "Tohuwabohu", it is more, the ball becomes the mythological egg laid by Night, from which the world hatches. This might sound OTT, and indeed there is a humour in the exalted language that would be hard to miss. But for all that, the comparison between egg and ball, and other round objects (suns, worlds, testicles) is not entirely frivolous. The mediaeval and post-mediaeval games involving whole towns, few rules and a lot of casual violence are represented here by the game at Bartholomew Fair, which was in August, but most of these games were held in winter, often around Christmas and New Year, when it is tempting to see the ball as a stand-in for the absent sun.
As one might expect from Ely, the matter of class conflict becomes central, and several poems concern the chasm between amateur and professional. The concept of amateurism in sport is often romanticised; here it is forcefully pointed out that "ludere causa ludendi" is a motto relevant only to people with money. The Carthusians and Corinthians, playing the game "for game's delight" are in a different world from the Northern slaters and riveters for whom football could be a rare escape route from poverty, provided they could get paid for doing so, and even non-football fans will at this point find themselves siding against the Carthusians with their "hands of white kid" and with Fergus Suter:
riveting plate till the shipyard hooter
blares and the working day relents
and limps to his cockroach tenement
where even a dram can't ease the pain;
play up Corinth, play the game.
It is interesting to note that the "Scottish game", the subject of the pamphlet's central sequence, differed from the English public-school game not only in being keener on paid professionals but in being more collaborative, as befitted its working-class roots. The English game had favoured individuals holding on to the ball and dribbling it as long as possible; the "Scottish game" introduced the passing play which characterises present-day football. There's something quite satisfying about that.
The final poem, "Jubilate Messi", is a praise-poem addressed to Lionel Messi and in a conscious echo of the style of Smart's "Jubilate Agno". This is a style that quite suits it, since it is Ely in his most allusive mode, jumping from association to association without stopping for explanations in much the same way Smart's unpredictable mind tended to. I wouldn't know Messi if I met him in the street and have certainly never seen him play. But I can recall the joy that radiated from Best's talent as he left the opposition behind, and it is much the same delight that comes through here:
I will rejoice in Lionel Andrés Messi, for he leaps before the Lord like David and his joy is uncovered: Let the rain streak bright on the flaring floodlights, Empire’s phosphorescent rainbow arching like a cat.
So… I can’t altogether share what seems to be Ely’s tolerance, if no more, of violence on the field (apologies if I’m misreading the tone, but in his “Ballad of Jack Ross”, the line “he tripped and hacked and chopped” sounds more celebratory than anything else). And yes, some background knowledge of football would probably make it more immediately accessible. But guess what: when first reading, I clean forgot Mr Ely’s helpful habit of putting notes at the back – I was too caught up in the momentum and exuberance of the poems. The notes are worth reading, they will give you a lot of interesting facts, but when I did read them I saw that the essentials had already come through to me. That says a lot for the craft.