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Poetry is Coming to London's Olympic Park

Posted: 03/ 4/2012 3:03 pm

Poetry will have a place at this summer's Olympic Games in London thanks to the Winning Words program, conceived of by National Poetry Day founder William Sieghart. Sieghart is working with London's Olympic organizing groups to display poetry throughout the city's Olympic Park. The project aims to bring some of the history of the park to life while also drawing attention to poetry itself.

In an interview this past week, British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy pointed out that poetry played a role in the original Olympic Games in Greece, adding: "I think it makes us healthier, as well as our running, jumping and marvellous physical achievements, to look more internally at art, music and poetry."

The plan is for Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous and inspiring line, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," from his poem "Ulysses," to be the prominently displayed, while five new poems by some of the UK's best-known contemporary poets will be scattered throughout the grounds.

One of these new poems was written by Duffy herself. "Eton Manor," celebrates a community athletic center on the grounds, as well as amateur sports itself. Here's an excerpt:

This is legacy-
young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped
to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong;
believe community is self in multitude-
the way the past still dedicates to us
its distant, present light. The same high sky,
same East End moon, above this reclaimed wilderness,
where relay boys are raced by running ghosts.

John Burnside's poem "Bicycling for Ladies" will be fittingly displayed at the velodrome. The poem includes the lines:

I stand and rejoice every time I see

a woman ride by on a wheel

Lemn Sissay's incantatory poem, "Spark Catchers" remembers the Bryant and May Match factory, which still stands in the park's southwest corner.

In tidal shifts East london's myriad maidens made

Millions of matches that lit candles for the well to do

And the ne'er do well to do alike.
Strike.

Caroline Bird's poem "The Fun Palace" remembers Joan Littlefield, who helped start the area's Stratford East Theatre:

It is a love story. Joan and her theatre workshop.
They found a crumbling old slum in E15. They slept
illegally in the eaves like ghosts with unfinished business.
She created Oh What A Lovely War. She shovelled rubble
from Angel Lane. She said, 'Let the waters close over me.'
She was an outsider. She grafted. She changed the world.

Finally, Jo Shapcott's poem "Wild Swimmer" meditates on the waterways under Olympic Park, and then on the coming competition itself.

Shoot under the stadium itself,
where the little Pudding Mill River runs:

at last, dive up into a building shaped like a wave
and swim your heart out, for you are all gold.

You can read more about the poems, and the plans for their display, at the London 2012 Olympics website here.