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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage