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Honoring The Games, And The Past, With Poetry

Jul 27, 2012
Originally published on July 29, 2012 10:34 pm

In the days of the ancient Greeks, poetry and sport went hand in hand at athletic festivals like the Olympics. Poets sang the praises of athletic champions and, at some festivals, even competed in official events, reciting or playing the lyre. Here at NPR, we're reviving that tradition with our own Poetry Games.

From the far reaches of the globe, we've invited poets to compose original works celebrating athletes and athletics. Each morning next week, we'll introduce a new poem on Morning Edition, and then you, the audience, will judge who should win the victor's laurel crown.

To learn more about this ancient tradition linking the poetic and the athletic, we talked with Tony Perrottet, author of The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. "The ancient Greeks very much sought perfection in the body and the intellect," Perrottet tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "They saw it totally connected."

"At the Olympic Games," Perrottet continues, "the athletes ... would hire the greatest poets of the day to write victory odes. At the same time, all the poets of the Greek world would descend on the Olympic Games, and they would set up stalls or stand on soap boxes and just orate their new work, knowing that the finest minds in the Greek world were in one spot."

But the Olympic audience was a tough crowd — Perrottet cites one famous incident in 384 B.C. when tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse brought actors to the games to recite his poetry, and it didn't go over well: "The enraged crowd actually went and beat him up and trashed his tent," Perrottet says.

Fast-forward to the late 19th century, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the games in 1896. "He was a great fan of the ancient Greeks, obviously, and he ... saw that perfection in mind and body went hand in hand," Perrottet says.

At the Stockholm Games in 1912, Coubertin got music, painting architecture and poetry — both lyric and epic — included on the Olympic roster. Coubertin even anonymously entered his own poem called "Ode to Sport" which won the gold medal that year:

"O Sport, you are Beauty! ... O Sport, you are Justice! ... O Sport, you are Happiness! The body trembles in bliss upon hearing your call ... "

"It's very inspiring stuff. ... You can imagine the athletes on the edges of their seats," Perrottet laughs.

As poetry began coming in from around the globe, translation became an issue — and quality did, too. "That was the death knell for Olympic poetry," Perrottet says. "The officials started sending letters among themselves, and they speculated that perhaps, in the words of one official, 'There are not enough artists who have connection with the world of sport.' "

The poetry portion of the games was dropped after the 1948 London Games.

Poets have long grappled with the ephemeral nature of worldly glory. The Greeks' idea was to try to "win fame in this life and thus gain a level of immortality," Perrottet says. Most of the poems that were read at the Games — both in the days of the Greeks and in the 20th century — have since been lost. So Perrottet suggests NPR kick off the Poetry Games with a quote from Homer's Illiad:

"I too shall lie in the dust when I am dead," Achilles says. "But now let me win noble renown."


Poetry Games theme music composed by Colin Wambsgans and performed by Matthew Barbier.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And, you know, once upon a time the Olympics were not just about the body, but also the mind. Poets were celebrated at the games. And here at MORNING EDITION, we're renewing that tradition with our own poetry games.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: From the far reaches of the globe, we've invited poets to compose an original poem celebrating the games. Each morning next week, we'll hear their work when you will judge at npr.org which poet will win the gold.

But first, to learn more about this ancient tradition linking the poetic and the athletic, we spoke with Tony Perrottet. He's the author of "The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games."

Good morning.

TONY PERROTTET: Oh, hi, there.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the history, because it turns out that poetry goes clear back to the original games.

PERROTTET: Oh, it's a great tradition. It's very hard to imagine now, but the ancient Greeks very much sought perfection in the body and the intellect. They saw it totally connected. The Olympic Games, the athletes, you know, they were not Philistines at all. They would hire the greatest poets of the day to write victory odes.

At the same time, all the poets of the Greek world would descend on the Olympic Games and they would set up stalls or stand on soap boxes and just sort of orate their new work, knowing that the finest minds of the Greek world were in one spot.

MONTAGNE: And how would they respond if the poetry, say, wasn't great?

PERROTTET: They were very harsh critics. There was one famous incident in 384 B.C. when Dionysius of Syracuse brought actors to the games to recite his poetry, and it turned out to be doggerel. So, the enraged crowd actually went and beat him up and trashed his tent. And at some festivals, in fact, verse recital was an official event as well as playing the lyre and choral dancing.

MONTAGNE: And certainly another little known episode in the history of the Greek games is the recreation of the literary side of the games back in the early 20th century.

PERROTTET: Yeah. It's an entirely forgotten episode. What happened was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the guy who basically revived the games in 1896, he was a great fan of the ancient Greeks, obviously, and he as well saw that perfection in mind and body went hand in hand. And it took him a while to get going. It was only until the Stockholm Games in 1912, that he finally got poetry, as well as music, painting and architecture on to the Olympic roster.

So they were medal winning competitions.

MONTAGNE: Like you could get a gold.

PERROTTET: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Or a silver or a bronze, right?

PERROTTET: Yes. And they were, like, they extended the poetry to have lyric and epic poetry as well. So, you know, it was handing out medals left, right and center. And in fact, in 1912 Pierre de Coubertin himself entered anonymously and strangely enough, he won the gold.

He poem called "Ode to Sport": O Sport, you are Beauty. O Sport, you are Justice. O Sport, you are Happiness. The body trembles in bliss upon hearing your call. So it's very inspiring stuff. You can imagine the athletes on the edges of their seats.

MONTAGNE: Right. Although maybe it lost something...

PERROTTET: In the translation.

MONTAGNE: In the translation.

(LAUGHTER)

PERROTTET: And that did become an issue as they started to get poems coming from Finland and places like that, but it was really the quality of it, I think, that was the death knell for Olympic poetry. The officials started sending letters amongst themselves and they speculated that perhaps, in the words of one official, there are not enough artists who have connection with the world of sport.

MONTAGNE: And so in 1952...

PERROTTET: Yes. It was quietly dropped. After the London games in '48, yeah. You know, so poetry is long thought of the idea that worldly glory is a passing thing. And the Greeks were aware of this as well, so their whole idea is to try and win fame in this life and thus gain a little immortality. And winning the Olympic Games was a version of that.

My suggestion is that since so many of the ancient Greek poems have been lost, as well as the 20th century ones, a nice quote might be from Homer's "Iliad." We have Achilles who ponders the vagaries of celebrity and that's: I too shall lie in the dust when I am dead, but now let me win noble renown.

MONTAGNE: Tony Perrottet, thank you very much for joining us.

PERROTTET: Well, thanks so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Tony Perrottet is the author of "The Naked Olympics." Be sure to listen all next week for MORNING EDITION's own poetry games. Five great poets from around the world - you get to judge who gets the gold at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.