Storying Sheffield

Steel Sonnets

Steel Stories is a current project in which three photographers and film-makers are producing visual narratives of the steel industry in Sheffield. They are accompanied on their shoots by students from the School of English who are writing reflections on the visits. In this post, Jess Stone considers how an understanding of the sonnet form can inform the process of film-making, and invokes the rhythms of industry and craft.


In the age of Twitter, iPhones and Justin Bieber, the place of poetry and hand crafted steel can be undervalued or overlooked to say the least. However, Shaun’s series of short films aim to combine these somewhat disregarded art forms to show that both are still relevant today. Now at the editing stage of the filmmaking process, he plans to take inspiration from the Shakespearean sonnet to tell Cliff’s story.
As a sonnet will generally open with a question, the obscure shots of scissor parts coming into form at the beginning of Shaun’s film will open up the question about what these images of industry mean to the viewer. One shot shows a grimy setting for monotonous labour, followed by another which displays the beauty and detail of a craftsman’s art. It is these conflicting images which, surprisingly, make the Shakespearean sonnet a perfect match for the structure of a short film. The alternate rhyme scheme of the sonnet (ABAB) reflects the way that contrasting kinds of shots are put together to maintain an aesthetic balance and shape a three-dimensional perspective of the story.
In the same way that each quatrain of a sonnet contemplates the question that the poet initially asks, Shaun’s alternative sequences of scissor ‘putting’ throw up varying ideas about what industry looks like today. Frames that could be taken from a period drama about factories in the nineteenth century are juxtaposed with light and gleaming images of the scissors as a finished product, exhibiting the lasting value of industry in the modern world. Repetitive actions become the rhythm for a melody as Cliff’s skill and pride over his work becomes more apparent with each sequence. With both sonnets and film, the sequential nature of the lines and shots build a narrative that they could not show on their own.
Looking back over the tradition of sonnet writing, industry has been regarded by poets as somewhat of a devastation of our green and pleasant land. In ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’, William Wordsworth can only find the beauty of London in the silence and stillness of dawn, before the people are out to trade and work. With this in mind, Shaun’s films could be a reaction against this traditional pessimistic representation of industry. A couple of hundred years after Wordsworth’s poem, and the production of steel which shaped the city of Sheffield is still going. This industry is no longer viewed as the autonomous, life-sucking machine, but the tradition which has brought purpose and value to thousands of people’s lives over the years. Shaun’s film shows that beauty does not lie in stillness, but in movement, rhythm and progression. The closing shots of Cliff, sat proudly amongst his tools, will answer the viewer’s question. This is how industry looks today. People of Sheffield: cherish it.