Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Poetry at the Olympics, ancient and modern

Herb points us to a piece in the New York Times by Tony Perrottet about poetry and the Olympics, ancient and modern. A few snippets:
. . .the relationship between poetry and the Olympics goes back to the very origins of the Games. 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. ...
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... 
. . . the gold for literature in the 1924 Paris Olympics . . . went not to T. S. Eliot or Jean Cocteau but to one Géo-Charles, nom de plume of Charles Louis Prosper Guyot, for “Jeux Olympiques,” an evocation of the hammer-throwing and foot races?

(“The runners bend, tense flowers, . . . /A shot: A violent word! / And suddenly / Necks extended, forward / like stalks / faces like pale snatched / apples, / teeth and jaws rushing into / space.”)
Interesting that the article ends with a short poem by Emily Dickinson:
Fame is a bee. It has a song — It has a sting — Ah, too, it has a wing.
Pindar offered a complex fusion of athletic contest, myth, ethics and sheer joy in the beauty of the word that is unequaled. On the subject of fame and the sting of envy, intertwining an Olympian runner with his poetic challenge, he says this in the 8th Nemean (I came across it while researching Cinyras):
After all, men's longest-living happiness
is that which deity has sown for them:
happiness like that which gave vast wealth
 to Cinyras on sea-set Cyprus.
At the starting line I lightly stand and draw my breath
before my race of words; for verbal novelties
            are rife: experiments
in poetry are full of risk. Words whet envy's appetite, and
envy always nibbles at good men and never tries to trim the bad.
-- from Pindar's Odes, a translation by Roy Arthur Swanson.

More on the Olympics here.

[Update:] NPR has a related story here.

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