Olympian Poetry

The Parnassus poetry festival in London, one of the arts and culture events organized for the 2012 Olympics, recently brought together poets from around the world.

One of them is Senegal’s Didier Awadi. This is a video of his work called “Dans Mon Revê”

Poetry used to be an essential part of the Olympic Games, going back to ancient Greece, as Tony Perrottet describes in his Sunday New York Times essay.

“In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the buff athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming with olive oil. Spectators packing the sanctuary of Zeus sought perfection in both body and mind. Champion athletes commissioned great poets like Pindar to compose their victory odes, which were sung at lavish banquets by choruses of boys. (The refined cultural ambience could put contemporary opening ceremonies, with their parade of pop stars, to shame.) Philosophers and historians introduced cutting-edge work, while lesser-known poets set up stalls or orated from soapboxes.

Criticism could be meted out brutally: when the Sicilian dictator Dionysius presented subpar poems in 384 B.C., disgusted sports fans beat him up and trashed his tent. At other Greek athletic festivals, like those at Delphi, dedicated to Apollo, the god of poetry and music, verse recital was featured as a competitive event, along with contests for the lyre and choral dancing.”

Poetry was actually part of the Olympic competition in the first half of the 20th century with medals being given to poems inspired by sport, Perrottet writes. But the validity of the competition and its ability to attract the top poets was discredited by 1948, and the competition was dropped.

Gatherings like the Olympics  are on such a massive scale that they will always inspire people from all walks of life, so re-inventing ways to showcase other forms of human accomplishment like poetry is a worthwhile endeavor.

I particularly like Perrottet ‘s closing.

“Of course, the ephemeral nature of worldly glory has long been a ripe subject for poets. For this year’s games, a panel of literary experts decided to adorn London’s Olympic Village with a line from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to sum up the gritty determination of the ancient wanderer: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Perhaps more nuanced are the words of Achilles pondering the vagaries of celebrity in Homer’s “Iliad”: “I too shall lie in the dust when I am dead, but now let me win noble renown.” Or as Emily Dickinson more cheerily put it: “Fame is a bee. / It has a song — / It has a sting — / Ah, too, it has a wing.”


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