Winning lines: Can poetry inspire Team GB at London 2012 Olympics?

Inspiring words from some of our leading poets are being installed at Olympic venues. We publish them for the first time, and William Sieghart, who helped select them, explains his motivation

Poetry is all around us. From the 1950s onwards poets and poetry became subsumed into other parts of our culture, writing advertising copy, song lyrics, chants on the football terraces, jingles and rap music. We are always using it, because we need to – whether to mend heartbreak, to inspire ourselves, to offer to loved ones, or to cheer on our football teams. Poetry is something we should celebrate.

My hope is that people will draw on our greatest cultural contribution to the world in 2012 and be inspired to cover Britain in poetry. I think that the Olympics is a passing event, which will be gone from London in a matter of weeks. What everyone is craving is a genuine legacy. We can point to the legacy of the Olympic Park itself, but across the nation what would be wonderful is if poetry could be writ large: on the walls of local authority buildings, of hospitals, in playgrounds, even in landscape. To find poetry a permanent presence in our towns and cities would be a wonderful legacy for 2012 that could be around for many generations to come. To help spread the word. Winning Words, a project of the Forward Arts Foundation, has published an online poetry archive on the idea of inspiration (at inspiring-words)

Last year, the Olympic Delivery Authority's Art in the Park programme and Winning Words asked the nation for suggestions of a line of inspiring poetry to be installed on the wall of the Olympic Village. We received a wonderfully broad range of suggestions, some directly about sport, many not. The selection of Tennyson's “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” is a very good summation of Olympic values and what the build-up to the competition is about. As the last line of “Ulysses”, Tennyson's poem about ancient Ithaca, it also has a link to the Olympic theme.

Five of our country's leading poets were commissioned by the Olympic Delivery Authority and Winning Words to create new poetry to be installed permanently in the Olympic Park. The five poems are published here for the first time. They include Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy's poem, “Eton Manor”, which can be found at the entrance to the Paralympic wheelchair tennis venue. The poem captures the spirit of the venue's previous existence as the Eton Manor Boys' Club.

All the commissioned poets were asked what inspires them about the area of the Olympic Park and its surrounds. Lemn Sissay has written about the Bryant and May match factory which still exists next to the Olympic Park and the extraordinary story of the first trade-union strike, which took place there. John Burnside has focused on Sylvia Pankhurst, the famed suffragette – and keen cyclist – who worked in Bow for some years. Caroline Bird's poem is about the life and work of Joan Littlewood, the life-force behind Stratford East Theatre, and who in the 1960s had a vision for an arts centre – never to be built – on what is now the Olympic Park. Jo Shapcott's commission for Winning Words reflects on the history of the Olympic site and the eight kilometres of waterways that run in and around it.

These poems are inspiring because they answer our great need for continuity. They tell of what was there before, not just what is new. New technology gives us ever more immediacy, but we also live in history and continuity. By bringing poetry into the Olympic Park we seek to provide something that will inspire athletes and spectators. Visitors can stop and look, read, think and feel. They can look around them, and not in a hurry.

Can you see poetry where you are? Or is there somewhere you would like to see it? I have always loved visiting old sites and finding inscriptions that have lasted over time. All across the country you can still see painted walls from the Victorian era of people selling their goods. Winning Words with the support of our sponsor Bloomberg is animating London with poetry. With your help we will be able to extend this across the country.

Whether you live in a tiny hamlet or a large city, I invite you to ask where poetry can go, and what you can do about it. Whether painted, planted or carved, put some poetry into your world.

William Sieghart is founder of Forward Arts Foundation and Winning Words (winningwords


Eton Manor

By Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate

The past is all around us, in the air,

the acres here were once 'the Wilderness'-

“Blimey, it's fit for a millionaire”-

where Eton Manor Boys Club came to train;

or, in the Clubhouse, (built 1913)

translated poverty to self-esteem,

camaraderie, and optimism

similed in smiles.


Hackney Wick –

fleas, flies, bin-lids, Clarnico's Jam; the poor

enclosed by railway, marshland, factories, canal-

where Wellesley, Villiers, Wagg, Cadogan came,

philanthropists, to clear a glorious space;

connect the power of place to human hope,

through World War One, the Blitz, till 1967...

on this spot, functional, free, real- heaven.


This is legacy –

young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped

to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong;

believe community is self in multitude-

the way the past still dedicates to us

its distant, present light. The same high sky,

same East End moon, above this reclaimed wilderness,

where relay boys are raced by running ghosts.


Bicycling for Ladies

By John Burnside

Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.

H. G. Wells

Factory Girls

after talking to Sylvia and other speakers I thought

that here is something I can dedicate myself to help

in some way to put things right

Nellie Cressall

Imperial Triumph; Golden Sunbeam;

Ladies' Light Weight No. 17, (The Suffragette);

between the morning and the evening wash

they dream of riding out, like Pankhurst girls,

in Rational Dress, on shiny new machines,

to Waltham Abbey, Thornwood, Magdalen Lever;

(I stand and rejoice every time I see

a woman ride by on a wheel)

though no kind word can ever wash away

the lavender and lilac of their days,

and not for them the solitude of some

far crossroads, with its litany of names

from ancient times,

they want to ride for hours, on country lanes

through Saxon woods and miles of ripening grain

and end up at some point of no return,

like changelings, in some faded picture book

from childhood, going headlong through the dark

to some new realm , where no mere man is king.

The Bow Cyclists

not merely for votes but towards an egalitarian


Sylvia Pankhurst

I dreamed you came again

through the smog of time,

match-girls and broom-makers,

cycling from street to street

with The Women's Dreadnought;

the houses lit for miles,

like beacons

and a true friend

stepping from every door

to greet you, brushing flakes

of lanolin or matchwood from her sleeves,

the dawn light on her face

and some fresh scent

of elsewhere on the wind, as she resumes

the life she set aside, a grief ago.

The marches are done with,

the hunger strikes, danger of death

forgotten, as the sun cuts through the fog


Ulysses (extract)

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

To strive, to seek, to find, and yet not to yield

...that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts

Made weak by time and fate but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and yet not to yield.


The Fun Palace

By Caroline Bird

It is a love story. Joan and her theatre workshop.

They found a crumbling old slum in E15. They slept

illegally in the eaves like ghosts with unfinished business.

She created Oh What A Lovely War. She shovelled rubble

from Angel Lane. She said, 'Let the waters close over me.'

She was an outsider. She grafted. She changed the world.

It is a love story. Joan and her theatre workshop.

They rehearsed in a graveyard while bombs were falling.

She loved a ripper. A ripper is a miner who breaks new tunnels

out of stone. He almost got a lion cub into Ormesby Hall.

Gerry stood in front of bulldozers to save the Theatre Royal.

She tore up scripts. She guffawed. She changed the world.

It is a love story. Joan and her theatre workshop.

She directed Macbeth at school. She plunged

the fake sword into the hidden butcher's meat and

the Mother Superior fainted. She wanted a university

of the streets. No cup and saucer hats. She chain-smoked.

She said, 'To hell with them.' She changed the world.

It is a love story. Joan Littlewood and her theatr e.

She was blacklisted from Broadcasting House.

She knew that two tons of coal equalled more

than two ounces of cheese. The Fun Palace was never built

on the banks of the River Lea. She almost cracked it.

She kicked the bucket. She changed the world.


The Spark Catchers

By Lemn Sissay

Tide twists on the Thames and lifts the Lea to the brim of Bow

Where shoals of sirens work by way of the waves.

At the fire factory the fortress of lames

In tidal shifts East London Lampades made

Millions of matches that lit candles for the well-to-do

And the ne'er-do-well to do alike. Strike.

The greatest threat to their lives was

The sulferuous spite filled spit of diablo

The molten madness of a spark

They became spark catchers and on the word “strike”

a parched arched woman would dive

With hand outstretched to catch the light.

And Land like a crouching tiger with fist high

Holding the malevolent flare tight

'til it became an ash dot in the palm. Strike.

The women applauded the magnificent grace

The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air

The precision, perfection and the peace.

Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow

In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon

They practised Spark Catching.

“The fist the earth the spark its core

The fist the body the spark its heart“

The Matchmakers march. Strike.

Lampades The Torch bearers

The Catchers of light.

Sparks fly Matchmakers strike.

there is a certain

electricity between us

a spark.

Living is in Living is in Living is in Living is in

Living is in Living is in Living is in Living is in

Living is in Living is in Living is in Living is in

Living is in Living is in Living is in Living is in

Living is in Living is in Living is in Living is in

Living is in Living is in Living is in Living is in

Living is in Living is in Living is in Living is in


Wild Swimmer

By Jo Shapcott


Open this box


dive in



you are mostly water


in your element



Surface in the Bow Back Rivers, quite at home

because you are small and tidal like them.

Here, the River Lea became a man-made mesh

of streams and channels to drain the marsh,

a maze for lightermen, of channels through

old waste, today's liquid green corridors.

Count off rivers as you swim: Bow Creek, the Waterworks,

the Channelsea, the City Mill, Hennikers Ditch.

Swimming through time is rough: all swamp

and sewage until the Northern Outfall drain

where you don't swim but give a grateful nod

as you plunge with kingfishers, otters, voles.



Backstroke through the past

and remember how Alfred the Great

dug the Channelsea to keep out Danes

and how the mill streams powered on

through centuries. Waterworks were King.

Swoop underwater through the Prescott Channel,

touching pieces of the lost Euston Arch as you go

and break surface among reeds, oak, willow, ash.

Shoot under the stadium itself,

where the little Pudding Mill River runs:

at last dive up into a building shaped like a wave

and swim your heart out, for you are all gold.