Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Event 7: The Javelin

The penultimate challenge! We’re almost at the end of our week of poetry challenges and 1921 stories.

On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses. They resumed their studies and continued to compete alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.

In my final post tomorrow I’m going to talk a little about their impact; about how their trip to Monte Carlo changed the conversation around women in athletics and ignited debate at a time when women were being actively excluded from competitive sport.

But before that, let’s do a bit more throwing!

Violette Morris in training for the Olympiad in 1920. Via Gallica.

The javelin, like the shot put, was won by France’s star, Violette Morris. I have already written about Morris’s controversial life and career in the Shot Put poetry challenge. She is a fascinating and troubling figure, but her relationship with the French sporting authorities of the time also reveals a great deal about the anxieties surrounding sexuality, gender identity, and bodily ‘propriety’ that these athletes’ performances provoked.

In the UK, the GB athletes were met with similar derision. As I’ve explored in earlier posts, you can see this a little in the media focus on the ‘exhibition’ events rather than the athletes’ specialisms, as well as in the inevitable focus on their appearance and levels of attractiveness. Looking ahead to a subject I’ll cover in my final post, in the months and years after the Olympiad, the proof of their athleticism proved difficult to accept for certain journalists and athletes.

But let’s not let all this sexism distract us!

What is perhaps most remarkable about the 1921 javelin competition is that it was a two-handed event. That didn’t mean that the athletes had to lob a spear over their heads like a football from the sidelines. Instead, each athlete was required to throw using their right hand, then their left. Their final mark was the total of the best mark with their right-handed throw and the best mark with their left-handed throw. This was also the case for shot put. Looking at the footage from the 1921 and 1922 Games, there does not seem to have been a run up. Athletes would often throw from a stationary position, as depicted by Morris in the above photo.

Although she wasn’t placed in the finals of the 1921 javelin, Florence Birchenough again shone through as the emerging throwing star of the UK. More than Mary Lines, Birchenough would emerge as the household name of UK athletics in the decades to come. She played a vitally important role in women’s athletics in the 1920s and 1930s. She also made headlines for continuing to compete at an international level after marriage and children – an unusual and noteworthy occurrence at the time.

From the Daily Mirror, 28th March 1935. Via British Newspaper Archive.

The Daily Mirror have got it wrong in their caption. Florence Birchenough, or Mrs Millichap as she was then also known, was not the bare-headed woman in the picture, and her son was sixteen months old rather than sixteen years. But the fact that she was back in training, this time for speed walking, was enough to cause a stir.

Here’s another picture of Birchenough, this time competing in a cross-country match in 1928. If anybody knows why she might be carrying that large cross body bag, please get in touch!

Going back to the Olympiad, in this image Florence practices her right-handed javelin technique before the crowds arrived and took their places in the stands.

Compare her technique to that of her French rivals. She doesn’t bend into the throw as deeply. Look at the way she seems to hold the javelin almost like a pen. It looks staged for the cameras. It might not have been a winning throw, but it’s a stunning shot.

For her achievements in athletics, her coaching, her activism on behalf of women’s sport and her decades of active participation at the top of UK sport, Florence Birchenough deserves far more attention and celebration than she currently has. I came into Writing Between the Lines knowing nothing about her, and am still exploring. But there is so much more to say.

Poetry challenge

Today’s challenge is inspired by the trajectory and shape of the javelin, as well as the challenging technique involved in mastering the two-handed throw. We are going to have a go at creating a narrow poem that stretches down the page, and we are going to do it in a form that demands that you ‘hold’ the words in a way that might feel a little strange at first – syllabic poetry!

Syllabic verse is a poetic form that has a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line. It is not measured in meter, but instead on syllable count. If you fix on a syllabic rule, then you don’t deviate from that, even if it means breaking up a word over two lines. Often, syllabic poems will have a specific rule or patter that is decided upon by the poet before they begin. For instance 7/7/7/7 – which is a four line stanza, with each line totalling seven syllables. You can mix up your syllable count in any formulation you like, for instance 5/6/7/8/9 9/8/7/6/5, which would create a lovely ascending/descending pattern. You may also already be familiar with syllabic poetry. Haikus – or Hokku – with their (traditionally) 5/7/5 rule and 17 syllable total, are one of the oldest syllabic forms.

For poetic inspiration today, here is an extract from Caroline Bird’s poem, The Amnesty. If you count the syllables, you’ll see how every line is made up of 7. The poem never breaks from this rule:

I surrender my weapons:
Catapult Tears, Rain-Cloud Hat,
Lip Zip, Brittle Coat, Taut Teeth
in guarded rows. Pluck this plate
of armor from my ear, drop
it in the Amnesty Bin,
watch my sadness land among
the dark shapes of memory.

Syllabic poetry offers another way of engaging with form and poetic ‘rules’. It also creates a different sort of rhythm from free verse, or a poem in iambic pentameter. Abiding by a set syllable count (but not a set meter or rhyme scheme) can create an interesting and productive constraint. It can shape the language choice in ways you’re not used to, forcing you to either locate a new word that fits within the line, or else break up a single word over two lines – an act that draws attention to the phrase, giving it new significance within the piece.

With this new technique – and the technique of the two-handed javelin in mind – today’s poetry challenge is to write a narrow syllabic poem. Each line must be 5 syllables long – no more and no less. As for your starting topic/line, you have two options: 1.) things I’ve thrown away… or 2.) with my other hand….

Happy writing!

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