|April 7, 2012|
Tennyson in the London 2012 Olympic village
From Literary Review:
They are putting Tennyson up in the Olympic village. Last year, the final line of ‘Ulysses‘ – ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’ – prevailed in a public competition to select ‘Winning Words’, which means it will be emblazoned on a purpose-built wall on the Stratford site by the time the immense, sweaty circus comes to town this summer. It’s meant as an uplifting mantra for the athletes as they set about winning and losing, a taking-part-that-counts riff on the Pindaric victory ode. Clare Balding, the BBC sports presenter and member of the judging panel, said the line ‘encapsulated the endeavour, the glory and the dance with failure that Olympic sport entails’. A press release for a recent tie-in event sounded neither so convincing nor so convinced: ‘Why did we choose the words of a pirate hat wearing, big bearded Victorian giant’, it asked, ‘as a motto for London 2012?’
Well, partly in a pragmatic effort to promote poetry – and in this regard, the installation is welcome. I often feel that London’s buildings and monuments are somehow inimical to poetic inscriptions (whenever I hurry past Sue Hubbard’s ‘Eurydice‘ in that cold underpass at Waterloo, for instance).
Even so, Victoria’s great laureate has always seemed under-represented on the city’s surfaces. The age’s huge suburban cemeteries are dense not with stanzas plucked from In Memoriam but with an array of commemorative doggerel. And Tennyson himself had little truck with inscription poetry: it seemed an Augustan hangover by the middle of the nineteenth century, at odds with the introspective sensibilities of post-Romantic verse. ‘I hate doing this kind of thing,’ he remarked with his characteristic gruff humour when asked for an epitaph, ‘but they bother one out of one’s life if one refuses.’
‘Ulysses’ has star billing among the so-styled ‘permanent poems‘ to be dotted about the Olympic venues. Four newly commissioned works will be etched on wooden slatted boxes built to disguise the electricity transformers in the main Olympic Park, which sounds not only haphazard but also like hazardous planning (one of the poems, John Burnside’s ‘Bicycling for Ladies‘, has a good quip about ‘danger of death/forgotten’). It’s interesting to see three of these poems turning back to the radical heritage of this part of east London: Burnside to the suffragettes at Bow, Lemn Sissay to the 1888 match-girls’ strike, and Caroline Bird to Joan Littlewood’s visionary plans for a ‘Fun Palace‘ on the banks of the Lea River. In doing so, they gesture to the rich historical weave that many local writers and artists feel has been torn up by the Olympic grand project. I’m not convinced that lyrics tacked onto camouflaged infrastructure will do enough to preserve previous legacies. They risk looking like piecemeal excuses for wholesale erasure.
Make any cento you want! But try to make it as good as you want it to be. You don’t really want Seidel’s freedom. His poems are licensed by privilege, prestige and money — lots of all three. His deliberate transgressions look like power — to poets, any use of power looks like freedom. But I just read all Seidel’s work, straight through, and I think he’s wearing golden handcuffs.
Pale Youths in Love
I remember when I was a pre-teen and they moved into a loft across the street from me in Tribeca, where I lived. And an older neighbor friend told me they were living in her building, on the top floor. I saw him at my corner deli, and on the street smoking, but never her. At night, I sometimes looked up at their windows and saw their lights on. He was not very impressive in person. Cute, but no big deal.
What is Work?
Without a written record, we cannot know with certainty how the earliest humans thought about work, but the importance of sharing food and other resources means that prehistoric work embodied at least an element of serving the needs of a community rather than just those of an individual and his or her immediate family.
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When we read literature from the 19th century, we usually try to be vigilant in order not to project our contemporary ideas and obsessions onto the past for fear they might obscure the radical difference of another era. What happens when we look at our own century from a necessarily imaginary 19th-century viewpoint? How do we recognize fragments of discourse that persist in contemporary texts, ripped from their original contexts, but not quite consciously assimilated as a cultural reference?
An editor, a person of authority and supposed discretion, requested a friend of mine, the other day, to write an essay with this weird title: “How to Read a Book of Poems so as to Get the Most Good out of It.” My friend, “more than usual calm,” politely excused himself, suffering the while from suppressed oratory.
Since this is a paper about the computational context of literary writing, and to some extent poetry, I have invested heavily in metaphor, at least as far as the title is concerned. Taking key terms in no particular order: by end I mean not so much terminus as singularity or convergence of opposites, that defining, indefinable point where turn becomes return as one state gives way to another; from the imperative lift.