Writing Between the Lines: Poetry Event 6. The Hurdles

The wonderful thing about exploring an archive – any archive – is that you never quite know what you’re going to come across, or what direction that new lead might take you. As a researcher, you often begin with one intention or line of enquiry, but all it takes is one glance down a list of records, one spot of an inconsistency or passing reference, or one click of a digitalised subject list, and you find yourself exploring a whole new set of stories. It’s hard to explain that excitement, and occasionally the hunt itself can be more fun than the finished find. However, sometimes you really do come across some gems.

If you haven’t ever taken a look through Gallica – the digital library of the National Library of France – then I would highly recommend it. Today I spent far too long going through 1921 newspapers and searching for anything i could find about the Olympiad. It turns out there was quite a lot! It’ll be fascinating to compare these documents against those in the archive at Westminster.

Today’s poetry challenge is the hurdles, and I had planned to share the little we know about the competitors. France dominated the event, winning gold, silver and bronze, and so, unsurprisingly, it is not focussed on in the few British (tiny) news reports that were written about the Olympiad. However, via Gallica who hold digitalised records of some of the French media from the event, we can see the the Poly athletes and GB team in practice and in action. Here, for instance, are GBs Daisy Wright (left) and Hilda Hatt (right) practicing before the event. Wright’s leading leg is nice and high!

And here is Mary Lines caught in mid-flight, with the packed balconies of the Casino and the Monte Carlo scenery behind her.

These pictures are remarkable – they show the athletes in action, they show the crowds and dramatic backdrop, they even show the patchy grass on the pigeon shooting field. They bring the heats and the practices and the women themselves to life, and give us a sense of the grit, humour, and even form and gait of the athletes. I’ll leave the hurdlers to judge how they look.

But without wanting to fall headfirst into a clunky athletics metaphor, it wasn’t only wooden hurdles that these women had to scale. A brief look at a contemporary report of the time also demonstrates the unabashed sexism that Alice Milliat and the athletes encountered, not only from their male peers and the IOC, but also in the contemporary media.

Here’s an extract from the April 9th edition of the Menton and Monte Carlo News. reporting on the events of the Olympiad:

‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ Shades of Zeus indeed…

In another opinion piece from the April 2nd edition of the same newspaper, this is what the columnist had to say about the athletes:

excerpt from the Menton and Monte Carlo News, April 2nd 1921, via Gallica.

The focus in both pieces on the appearance, ‘flush’ and attractiveness of the athletes is distasteful to read, but it doesn’t feel all that far away from some of the media coverage of women’s sporting events and sportspeople now. There are still plenty of hurdles left to to clear..

The Poetry Challenge

Today’s poetry challenge is all about working with a refrain. Like evenly-spaced hurdles on the track, a refrain is a phrase or line repeated at intervals within a poem, especially at the end of a stanza.

In his poem, ‘In Paris with You’, for example, James Fenton takes his title and brings it back to conclude his subsequent stanzas.

Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful
And I get tearful when I've downed a drink or two.
I'm one of your talking wounded.
I'm a hostage. I'm maroonded.
But I'm in Paris with you.

Yes I'm angry at the way I've been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I've been through.
I admit I'm on the rebound
And I don't care where are we bound.
I'm in Paris with you.

While the mood within each stanza shifts up and down and the speaker sways between ironic complaint and wounded bitterness, the refrain brings the poem back each time to the intimacy and romance of the titular address. It creates a humour and affection that builds to the final stanza, so that in these final lines we find a bold, laughing declaration of desire.

Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris.
I'm in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I'm in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I'm in Paris with... all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I'm in Paris with you.

In Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘They’ll say: she must be from another country’, we find another example of this poetic hurdle. In her brilliant exploration of what it means to exist in the vibrant spaces between countries, cultures, identities and languages, Dharker turns the words used to dismiss her into a declaration of independence and a celebration of individuality.

When I can’t comprehend
why they’re burning books
or slashing paintings,
when they can’t bear to look
at god’s own nakedness,
when they ban the film
and gut the seats to stop the play
and I ask why
they just smile and say,
‘She must be 
from another country.’

When I speak on the phone
and the vowel sounds are off
when the consonants are hard
and they should be soft,
they’ll catch on at once
they’ll pin it down
they’ll explain it right away
to their own satisfaction,
they’ll cluck their tongues
and say,
‘She must be
from another country.’


The poem ends on a triumphant note, as the speaker by takes back and reclaims the refrain. 
And I’ll be happy to say,
‘I never learned your customs.
I don’t remember your language
or know your ways.
I must be
from another country.’

With this defiance and celebration in mind, in today’s poetry challenge we are going to engage directly with the archives. Zoom in and choose a short phrase/extract from the Menton and Monte Carlo News reports above, or else take a bit of one of Pierre de Courbetin’s recorded statements on female athletics that I’ve discussed in the 800m challenge as your title and refrain, and use your poem to interrogate, ridicule or reflect on your chosen statement. Feel free to adapt your phrase slightly as you go through, but have it there as something to return to and overcome in each of your stanzas.

I think I’m going to take ‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ or else ‘the girls gave evidence of the physical strain’ as my hurdle.

Happy Writing!

5 thoughts on “Writing Between the Lines: Poetry Event 6. The Hurdles

  1. Pingback: Now get out your dancing wands! Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. The exhibition | Hannah Copley

  2. Pingback: Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Event 7: The Javelin | Hannah Copley

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