The art of losing isn't hard to master

Poetry and Olympic values.

Winning the UK Olympic bid provided some interesting and irresistible challenges, that I felt poetry should be part of. Our greatest cultural contribution to the world, our language and poetry, needed to be celebrated in 2012, not least in order to create some kind of legacy. Poetry from the ancient world has left us information about the games and its competitors. But in 2012, which poetry should we turn to?

I have spent many months looking for poetry that might resonate with Olympic values. A new poetry anthology, Winning Words, has now been published. Some of the verses reflect sporting qualities like ambition, potently captured by Robert Bly in Watering the Horse: "How strange to think of giving up all ambition! / Suddenly I see with such clear eyes / The white flake of snow / That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!"  Or resolve, with Leonardo Da Vinci’s simple observation from his notebooks: "Obstacles cannot crush me./ Every obstacle yields to stern resolve./ He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind."

But while Olympians can benefit from such a unflinching mindset, it is also worth remembering the Olympics is unusually cruel, offering the highest rewards but only appearing every four years. Many Olympians will only have one opportunity to take part in their career. Many face heartbreak, most will not win medals.

So our poetry collection for 2012 (and beyond) needed to be nuanced, to understand that winners also know what it’s like to lose. Elizabeth Bishop puts it beautifully in One Art: "The art of losing isn’t hard to master." The Medieval Persian poet Hafez offers a tantalising glimpse at consolation that cannot be reached: ‘I wish I could show you / When you are lonely or in darkness, / The Astonishing Light / Of your own Being!"

How should such an anthology be arranged? By date, or theme? I chose to do something else. There are no dates next to the poets’ names or their works, and the timeline darts from ancient to contemporary. This book is intended as a companion to everyday life, and I wanted it to be a source of unpredictable inspirations for readers.

It means, for example, that John Dryden’s Happy the Man can sit opposite Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang. Dryden describes a happiness based on fulfillment, "Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today." As you progress to Sassoon, you discover a completely different type of happiness, an involuntary explosion of it overcoming the narrator as he is surrounded by unexpected singing.

Inspiration works most effectively with an element of surprise. At this year’s Port Eliot Festival I’ll be dishing out poetry prescriptions from a makeshift pharmacy – listening to people’s complaints and prescribing three poems that they have to collect from the counter. I believe that in many cases a dose of poetic inspiration will have better health-giving effects than the drugs people are using.

And around the country I’m encouraging people to put poetry into the landscape. Visitors to the Olympic Park will encounter installations of specially commissioned poems about the history of the site. Is there poetry you’d like people to encounter where you are? For inspiration, visit our Winning Words website, www.winningwordspoetry.com.

"Winning Words" is published by Faber & Faber. William Sieghart has founded Forward Publishing, the Forward Poetry Prizes, National Poetry Day and Forward Thinking, a London-based NGO.

 

The Olympic Stadium in east London (Photograph: Getty Images)
Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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