I listen to the news while I exercise each morning. Focusing on current events helps me through the drudgery of the repetitive motions so ingrained in my brain that little conscious thought is required, much like my autonomic nerves breathing and digesting and balancing.
This week’s series on NPR about revival of the Poetry Games caught my attention. I didn’t know the ancient Greeks saw poetry on an equal plane with sport and encouraged poets to attend the games, set up a tent, climb on a soapbox and shout out their latest work. Imagine all these men, sporting muscular, oiled, naked bodies hurling the discus, javelin, or…words? Quite a sight.
The tradition was revived briefly with the modern games but soon abandoned when the challenge of global competition in many unfamiliar languages resulted in confusion. Better to leave determining the winner to precise measurements, time clocks, or wise experts with clipboards.
So each day this past week a competing poet read an original work whose subject needed to extol athletes and athletics. The opening event described the heavy lifting required to explain the word “love.” Next, the kicks, punches, and feints of taekwondo reminded the second competitor of the three-line surprises found in the Korean sijo. Poems about Slovenian oompahs heard in folk music, East Indian tales of wrestling with power and love, and a South African poet extolling an olympian swimmer competing with one leg, rounded out the events.
Hearing these lyrics strung together with words chosen to project mental images, feelings, and perceptions, I was reminded of my parochial grade school teacher, Sister Felicia, assigning our sixth grade class poems that were to be committed to memory and then publicly recited. Imagine the groans we stifled, thinking of the hours ahead memorizing, repeating, rehearsing, and then regurgitating what we considered stuffy, stilted lines in front of our tittering classmates. But one did not challenge the wisdom of Sister Felicia.
Now I realize and appreciate what a gift the good sister gave me. I can recall with ease the flowing words of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and Poe’s”The Raven” or Longfellow’s “Sail on, Oh Ship of State.” Now I find pleasure in speaking lyrically, quoting with authority, and owning those words that bubble up from my brain when I see a field of flowers, a flock of birds on the wing, or Old Glory floating over the high school football field. The words come to me and make the voice inside my head soar. The plot thickens.