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Poetry Holds Its Own Olympic Celebration

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While the Summer Games are still a few weeks away, poetry has been hosting its own global gathering in London this past week. Poetry Parnassus, conceived by Simon Armitage and Jude Kelly, aimed to bring together poets from all 204 of the participating Olympic nations to make up the largest poetry festival ever in the UK. The event featured a series of readings, workshops and discussions, and, true to the Olympic spirit, a little competition -- all of the participating poets were nominated through a public voting process.

Bringing in representatives from around the globe was no easy undertaking. This past spring, organizers were still struggling to locate poets from 23 of the participating countries, and they never did locate a poet from Monaco, which instead will be represented by the work of a deceased poet. Armitage explained to the BBC, "It's not through a lack of effort on our part. We could not have been more open in our invitation." Monaco, it seems, has no poets.

But Poetry Parnassus moved forward nonetheless, and not without a little drama. A Chilean group called Casagrande kicked off the event with a "poetry bombing," as a helicopter dropped more than 100,000 poems on to the south bank of the Thames near the London Eye. London is the sixth city that the group has "bombed" in their striking but peaceful re-imagining of an aerial bombardment.

Aside from the "bombing," the festival's most notable event was Saturday's Continental Shift, which featured readings by a half-dozen Nobel Prize winners and international poet laureates. Kay Ryan attended for the U.S. and Seamus Heaney represented Ireland. But the festival's most notable attendee may have been Jang Jin-sung, who had been deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il's personal poet. All of the attending poets will contribute a poem to an anthology of the event that will fittingly be called The World Record, with each poet writing in his or her own language.

For those of you wondering about the connection between poetry and the Olympics, the New York Times reminded us on Friday that literary events went hand in hand with athletic competitions in ancient Greece, and that poetry competitions were actually part of the Olympic games up until 1948.

I don't know that anyone would argue that the Games should trot out a few poets for a reading between the 400m and the high jump final, but it's nice to see that London is using this summer as an opportunity to bring the world together for more than just athletics. The world (ahem) without Monaco, that is.