Books, arts and culture
Poetry and the Olympic games
Some rhyme and reason at the Olympic Park
Oct 17th 2011, 18:10 by E.H. | LONDON
SINCE the announcement in 2005 that London would host the Olympic games, the event has been greeted with a mixture of excitement, ambivalence and dread. Given the low profile of the Cultural Olympiad, an affiliated programme that began in 2008, it is easy to feel sceptical about the lasting impact of the games, culturally and architecturally.
So the recent launch of “Winning Words” at the Globe Academy in Southwark made for a nice surprise. Sponsored by Bloomberg, with help from Arts Council England and various other donors and groups, “Winning Words” is a new poetry venture from the Forward Arts Foundation (the folks behind the Forward prize, reviewed here). An ambitious project, it includes a permanent installation in the Olympic Park, and is designed to encourage Londoners to study and create poetry. Selected works will soon be seen on electricity pylons in the East End and also, more conventionally, online, where 150 selected poems will be available for use in schools and by youth groups.
But the more tangible, and far more exciting, aspect of the project are the poetic works that have been commissioned to be permanently plastered around the Olympic Park. Five poets—Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, along with Lemn Sissay, Jo Shapcott, Caroline Bird and John Burnside, who just won the Forward prize—have all responded with poems that respond to the often rocky heritage of East London.
Mr Burnside has taken inspiration for his poem “Bicycling for Ladies” from the East London Federation of Suffragettes and the avid cyclist Sylvia Pankhurst. His poem playfully celebrates the freedom afforded to “match-girls and broom-makers, / cycling from street to street.” Similarly, Mr Sissay writes about the Bryant and May Match factory, and an article written by Annie Besant in 1888 which described the poor conditions of the women working there, “Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out…” Mr Sissay revels more than Mr Burnside in harsh realities, and yet writes with a lightness of touch that prevents his poetry from becoming dogmatic.
These poems, alongside Jo Shapcott’s lyrical evocation of the waterways that run through the Olympic site, and Caroline Bird’s celebration of Joan Littlewood, a theatre director, will be visible to visitors walking around the Olympic Park. Perhaps they will be also read. Whether “Winning Words” can have a lasting cultural effect, and inspire young poets such as the students from the Globe Academy, remains to be seen. But the very fact that the scheme exists is reason enough to hope.