p u l p i t t homas marks
The Writings on the Wall
They are putting Tennyson up in the Olympic village. Last year, the final line of ‘Ulysses’ – ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’ – prevailed in a public competition to select ‘Winning Words’, which means it will be emblazoned on a purpose-built wall on the Stratford site by the time the immense, sweaty circus comes to town this summer. It’s meant as an uplifting mantra for the athletes as they set about winning and losing, a taking-partthat-counts riff on the Pindaric victory ode. Clare Balding, the BBC sports presenter and member of the judging panel, said the line ‘encapsulated the endeavour, the glory and the dance with failure that Olympic sport entails’. A press release for a recent tiein event sounded neither so convincing nor so convinced: ‘Why did we choose the words of a pirate hat wearing, big bearded Victorian giant’, it asked, ‘as a motto for London 2012?’
Well, partly in a pragmatic effort to promote poetry – and in this regard, the installation is welcome. I often feel that London’s buildings and monuments are somehow inimical to poetic inscriptions (whenever I hurry past Sue Hubbard’s ‘Eurydice’ in that cold underpass at Waterloo, for instance). Even so, Victoria’s great laureate has always seemed under-represented on the city’s surfaces. The age’s huge suburban cemeteries are dense not with stanzas plucked from In Memoriam but with an array of commemorative doggerel. And Tennyson himself had little truck with inscription poetry: it seemed an Augustan hangover by the middle of the nineteenth century, at odds with the introspective sensibilities of post-Romantic verse. ‘I hate doing this kind of thing,’ he remarked with his characteristic gruff humour when asked for an epitaph, ‘but they bother one out of one’s life if one refuses.’
Nevertheless, the laureateship brought its inevitable trickle of literary chores and courtesies. Westminster Abbey has his striking lines on the cenotaph of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin (‘Not here! The white North has thy bones’) and a tribute to the diplomat Stratford Canning; and he penned a quatrain for the (bombed-out) Caxton window in the adjacent church of St Margaret’s. He was also unofficially commissioned to provide a poem for the base of Cleopatra’s Needle, which arrived in London in 1878 after a nautical misadventure involving its abandonment at sea, half a dozen drowned sailors, and a farcical dispute about salvage.
In the event, the five couplets that Tennyson supplied were quietly forgotten. But with their confident, wry suspicion of what verse notched in stone might be called on to do, they make for what is, to my mind, the finest of his inscription poems. The obelisk was to have spoken with fatalistic self-awareness: ‘I have seen the four great empires disappear./I was when London was not. I am here.’ These are lines that recognise how poetry tends to be used in the built environment, as a sort of wishful assurance of its legacy (which is why verse is thought so suitable for gravestones).
The ‘Ulysses’ wall has been touted as a legacy in its own right,
since it will be bequeathed to the residents of the revamped Lea Valley when the athletes’ digs are transformed into housing after the Olympics. A CGI mock-up of the installation shows virtual schoolgirls paused in front of it and a mother and daughter strolling past. There’s barely a male figure in sight, an apt omission given that Tennyson’s dramatic monologue gives voice to an old sea-dog as he coaxes his men to abandon home again. In fact, the more one considers how the wall has been pledged as part of the architectural legacy of the Games – which have been so contentious before they’ve even got started – the more ironic the entire project seems. Few poems fret as intensely as ‘Ulysses’ about our inability to control our own afterlives.
You can sense this anxiety in the final line, as the verse yields at the very moment its speaker declares he will not. More generally, there’s Ulysses’s fear of what it means to have ‘become a name’ and to have to live up to it and, poetically, how the monologue testifies to things left behind or transformed on journeys (in the slippage from the Greek Odysseus to the Roman Ulysses, or from Homer to Dante’s Inferno to a Victorian blank-verse miniature). And there’s nothing to indicate how Ulysses’s mariners will respond to him: the poem is a piece of rhetoric that ends without letting us measure its success.
‘Ulysses’ has star billing among the so-styled ‘permanent poems’ to be dotted about the Olympic venues. Four newly commissioned works will be etched on wooden slatted boxes built to disguise the electricity transformers in the main Olympic Park, which sounds not only haphazard but also like hazardous planning (one of the poems, John Burnside’s ‘Bicycling for Ladies’, has a good quip about ‘danger of death/forgotten’). It ’s interesting to see three of these poems turning back to the radical heritage of this part of east London: Burnside to the suffragettes at Bow, Lemn Sissay to the 1888 match-girls’ strike, and Caroline Bird to Joan Littlewood’s visionary plans for a ‘Fun Palace’ on the banks of the Lea River. In doing so, they gesture to the rich historical weave that many local writers and artists feel has been torn up by the Olympic grand project. I’m not convinced that lyrics tacked onto camouflaged infrastructure will do enough to preserve previous legacies. They risk looking like piecemeal excuses for wholesale erasure.
A poem by our current laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, will feature at the former Eton Manor Boys’ Club, once a community sports centre and the venue for this year’s wheelchair tennis competition. ‘Eton Manor’ is the least mischievous and most dogmatic of all the Olympic inscriptions (Caroline Bird’s poem includes a cheeky puff for Joan Littlewood’s chain-smoking, at the heart of the world’s largest sporting event). It reworks ‘To strive, to seek…’ without any of Tennyson’s inflections of doubt, as it celebrates the philanthropic past of the club: ‘young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped/to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong’. ‘This is legacy’, it insists. Which is quite a claim for any poem to make. r a p r i l 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 1