Winning Words


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.

“The Writings on the Wall”, Thomas Marks, Literary Review