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)
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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