In his poem “At Galway Races” WB Yeats laments the fact that poetry in the contemporary world cannot compete in popularity with sport. The predominance of mercantile values has made the world deaf to verse. It has produced a race of couch potatoes rather than the active, daring “hearers and hearteners of the work” poets need and once possessed.
Presumably Yeats is thinking back to an imagined ancient Greece as well as an archaic Ireland, populated by beautiful long-limbed horsewomen. In ancient Greece, not only athletes competed in the original Olympic Games, and other similar festivals held at Delphi, Nemea and Corinth, but also poets, dramatists and musicians. There has been some attempt to remind watchers of the London 2012 Olympics of this ancient linkage – in particular Simon Armitage’s Poetry Parnassus last month, the largest poetry festival ever staged in the UK, and the Winning Words campaign (of which more later, but I can’t say I am completely convinced by it).
Sport has become an immense industry, with a fair claim to have replaced religion as Marx’s opium of the people. At certain times of the year the excitements of just one sport can obliterate the sufferings and achievements of entire continents. Leading sportsmen and women are the heroes and gilded superstars of the age.
Poetry, by contrast, has declined in status to the level of a minor, harmless hobby, such as philately or numismatics. One might regret this fact; but could poetry and poets, at least in part, have only themselves to blame?
One striking contrast between contemporary approaches to sport and to poetry is that sport has become immensely popular by being shamelessly elitist, while poetry, at least in the public sphere, has languished while it tries for populist appeal. No one asks sportspeople or athletes to do anything other than strive to be the very best; but publically commissioned poets are often expected to be “accessible”.
The pre-eminent ancient Greek lyric poet Pindar was a contemporary of the tragedian Aeschylus; he lived through the period of Greece’s greatest danger (the time of the Persian wars) and its greatest glory. At some point Pindar appears to have switched allegiance from Thebes, which sided with the Persians, to Athens, which he celebrated in immortal lines. Pindar is of particular relevance here because his surviving complete poems are all victory odes associated with games.
Pindar had no thought of being popular, at least in the vulgar sense. He strove for excellence just as much as those athletes, the chariot racers and javelin and discus throwers and runners he celebrated in his victory odes. Indeed, in the great “First Pythian Ode” he compares himself explicitly to a javelin-thrower. Just as much as the athletes, he wanted to win and hated coming second. According to the miscellanist Aelian he was defeated five times in competitions by the poetess Corinna (what a tragedy that only fragments by her survive) and took his revenge by referring to her in a poem, with scant gentlemanliness, as “the Boeotian sow”.
Excelling as a poet, of course, is not quite the same thing as excelling as an athlete. It means articulating qualities in words; Pindar’s odes are not mere brash celebrations of victory, but remind victors of the fleetingness of triumph, and of the dangers of envy.
Nowadays it is the fashion for poets to be humble, to keep their feet on the ground. The poems commissioned for the Olympic Park as part of the Winning Words programme tend to take the side of the down-trodden – no bad thing in itself, so long as they escape the curse of worthiness, as I find those of John Burnside do but those of Jo Shapcott and the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy do not.
Pindar by contrast wanted to soar, like the eagle on the sceptre of Zeus he describes in one of his most splendid images. Surely the time for aquiline soaring in poetry is over: as Louis MacNeice put it in his “Autumn Journal” (1938), “it was all so unimaginably different/ And all so long ago”. Even Horace, who worshipped Pindar, compared his Greek model to a mighty swan, while he laboured like a country bee.
One person who disagrees is the classicist mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who commissioned the Oxford scholar Armand D’Angour to write an Olympian Pindaric ode, in the Aeolic dialect of ancient Greek – and then recited it at an Olympic gala last week.
D’Angour’s London ode is less serious than the one he wrote for Athens in 2004; in fact, it is full of puns, including one on the mayor’s name. A tour de force technically, it is more of a jeu d’esprit in terms of content. But no bad thing, if it persuades just a few to go back to Pindar, and read some of the most stirring lines ever written: “Creatures for a day! What is a man?/ What is he not? A dream of a shadow/ Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men/ A gleam of splendour given of heaven/ Then rests on them a light of glory/ And blessed are their days.”
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres