Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Events 8 and 9: High Jump and Long Jump

It’s the final day of the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge! Thank you for taking the time to join in with this week of stories, hidden histories and creative and sporting inspiration. I hope you’ve come away with some new drafts and ideas. I’ve certainly learned a great deal in the process of putting together these posts. When we first came up with the idea of a poetry ‘Olympiad’ I knew comparatively little about the 1921 event, or about the athletes who took part. It’s been a pleasure to discover more about their achievements and legacy.

Our final events are the jumps – high jump and long jump.

High jumpFrédérique Kussel
 France
1.40Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
shared GoldMadeleine Bracquemond
 France
1.35
Long jumpMary Lines
 United Kingdom
4.70Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
4.60Lucie Bréard
 France
4.52

These were strong events for the GB team. Hilda Hatt won joint gold with Frédérique Kussel in the high jump, and in the long jump Mary Lines took gold, with Hilda Hatt taking the silver.

Rare footage and photos from these events shows the very different technique used by these athletes from today’s long and high jumpers.

There was no mat for the high jump, so competitors had to land on their feet or else risk serious injury. Variations of the scissor kick were really the only option!

Hilda Hatt in the middle of a high jump
Hilda Hatt in motion

For the long jump, competitors did, thankfully, have a sandpit to land in!

Mary Lines in mid-flight
Hilda Hatt

Mary Lines excelled in this event – she won gold in the long jump in almost every international and national championship up until her retirement from competitive sport in 1924.

Lines was twenty-seven years old in the 1921 Olympiad, the oldest competitor on the GB team. She had never run a race before the games. In the next three years she would set world records and win championships in events ranging from 50 metres to 880 yards, as well as in the long jump and the hurdles. She worked as a waitress in London and attended evening gymnasium classes at the Polytechnic (a 1924 article in the Dundee Evening Telegraph later has her as working for a ‘well-know mineral water firm’ [18th Jan, 1924]). Her success is an example of the fact that, unlike many other sporting activities open to women at that time, athletics at the Poly provided opportunities to keen sportswomen from a variety of backgrounds.

Unlike Florence Birchenough, who continued to compete at an international level after her marriage and the birth of her son, Mary Lines’s engagement to a man named ‘Mr Smith’ signalled the end of her international athletics career. Lines, the ‘famous Streatham lady’ slowly starts to disappear from the lists of competitors, her records gradually matched and beaten by emerging athletes.

After the death of her husband in 1946, Mary Smith (Lines) continued to live in London until 1971, when she moved to Worthing to live with her two unmarried sisters. She was killed in a traffic accident in 1978 at the age of 85 – she was running to post her Christmas mail, and was hit by an oncoming van.

There is so much left to learn about Mary Lines. The new plinth in the foyer of the University of Westminster’s Regent Street building is only the beginning in what will be a much longer process of discovery and re-writing her name back into the history of the University and of UK sport.

Legacies and Impact

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 at Lyon’s Corner House. They resumed their studies and competed alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.

But they did change the conversation around women’s sport, provoking heated debate in sporting circles and beyond about women’s physical capabilities, modern femininity and of women’s status as sportspeople and competitors on the world’s stage.

The Women’s Amateur Athletics Association (WAAA) was formed in early 1922 at the Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster, with many of the early committee members coming from the 1921 team. The WAA would change the nature of women’s track and field, regulating, organising and supporting women’s athletics for the next sixty years. The members of the WAA would also champion the cause of women’s sport in the face of sexism and dismay at the apparent loss of propriety brought about by these new physical excesses.

This article from the April 6th 1921 edition of the Evening Telegraph is a little hard to make out, but it expresses the concerns shared by many in athletics and wider society about the ‘physical and nervous strain’ placed on the fragile female constitution by ‘excessive’ levels of exertion. It is interesting to note how athletics is compared with women’s football. The many links between these two emerging sports is fascinating, particularly given the parallel degrees of discrimination both sets of sportspeople faced.

The nature and level of participation in women’s football and women’s athletics changed dramatically during the First World War, and in many ways demonstrated the shifting role of women in British society and the workplace during that time. After 1918, there were some who sought to reverse these changes, including those in the sporting establishment. While the IOC chose to ban women from taking part in Olympic track and field events – leading to the 1921 Olympiad – in December 1921 the FA banned women’s football on the grounds of ‘unsuitability’. This ban would not be lifted until 1971.

The Bystander, 13th April 1921.

Yet while some publications were wary of the rise of these ‘unnatural’ women, there were also clear signs of the shifting attitudes towards women in sport, as this patronising but ultimately celebratory piece in the Belfast Telegraph from 2nd April 1921 highlights:

Change was on its way, and the 1921 athletes were at the head of the sprint.

Poetry Challenge

For the final challenge in the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Olympiad we’re going to think about the many ways that histories and achievements can be erased and censored, and what we can do as writers to address and alter this silence.

One technique that I turn to a lot in my own work as a poet is to engage directly with archival material. That might mean ‘finding’ poems in the text of a historical document (such as a letter, a census record, or a newspaper article of the time) or directly responding to images and objects to create a written ‘artefact’. Either way, poetry is a powerful tool for historical excavation. It can shine a light on forgotten stories, it can allow silent voices to speak, and it can interrogate ‘official’ histories.

Here for instance, is my light-hearted attempt at taking on a historical document. Using censorship, I have attempted to change and interrogate the original text of the 1921 Evening Telegraph article:

Today’s challenge is to have a go at your own censorship poem. Here is the article I used:

Why not print it off and get busy with a black marker pen. Or else download it and start highlighting the text in black. Or if you don’t want to use this article, head over to a particularly awful national newspaper and choose an article to copy and paste into word and then erase into something new. If you want to save time, you could even copy and paste your chosen text into a ‘blackout generator’ and have a go there. Then share the results!

Finally…

I hope you have enjoyed these poetry challenges. It has been a pleasure to put them together. Happy writing, and get in touch if you’d like to learn more about the Writing Between the Lines project and the women of the 1921 Olympiad. I’m certainly going to be writing a lot more about them in the coming months!

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!

Now get out your dancing wands! Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. The exhibition

Today marks a brief intermission in my poetic exploration of the athletics events of the 1921 Olympiad. But don’t worry, after you’ve caught up on yesterday’s hurdles I’ll be back to annoy and delight you with facts and challenges tomorrow.

Today I want to simply lament and celebrate the fact that alongside competing in multiple events, the athletes of the 1921 Women’s Olympiad were also expected to perform pre-assigned European folk dances (in costume) and show off their ‘wand-waving’ in a public exhibition.

Depressingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this exhibition received a disproportionate number of lines in the already narrow newspaper columns dedicated to the Olympiad.

In the April 6th edition of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, for instance, reporter Eustace White lists the activities that ‘Les Charmentes Girls’ performed.

They also gave a splendid display of physical exercises, which consisted of wand exercises, Indian clubs, free exercises, parallel bars, vaulting-horse, Dutch dance and Grecian tableaux.’

Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Wednesday 06 April 1921

White goes on to note the comparative slowness of Mary Lines’s winning times with her male peers, commenting that they could give her a ‘200yd’ head start and still win with ease. Charming indeed.

In the lead up and during the events of the Olympiad, there is very little in the British media about the athletes. However, the London Daily News and the Daily Mirror did publish pictures of the ‘graceful athletes’ rehearsing their Dutch and Greek dances.

The presentation of these women as a sort of exhibition in their own right was further cemented in the brief reporting of their departure. It is hard to imagine GB men getting a similar write-up in the Daily Mirror:

‘Laughing Amazons’. ‘Pretty Girl Athletes’. ‘Sturdy’. ‘Romping’. ‘Sweet seventeen – with pigtails’.

I’ll leave it at that.

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!

Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge: Event 5: The Relay

Windswept! The relay team: Hilda Hatt, unknown – Hornsby? , Daisy Wright, Mary Lines

Today is all about passing the baton, both in terms of the legacies of 1921 and in our poetry challenge.

1921

Led by their star runner Mary Lines, the British team took home gold medals in both the 4 x 75 m and 4 x 200 m relays. Their B-team also won bronze in the 4 x 75 m.

Aside from the switch of Daisy Wright for a ‘Miss Bradley’ (first name currently unknown) in the 4 x 200 m, the team line up for both events was the same: Mary Lines, Hilda Hatt and Alice Cast. Both Lines and Cast were students at the Polytechnic and they, along with Hilda Hatt, all belonged to the Polytechnic Ladies Athletics Club. The photograph below, which is from a few years after the 1921 Olympiad, definitely contains a couple of the team: Hilda Hatt (middle, third from left) and Florence Birchenough (middle, fourth from left) – although there may be others in there (thanks to this excellent post by ‘Running Past’ for the identification of Hatt and Birchenough, as well for as the fascinating information on the Inauguaral WAAA championships).

I have already written a little about the brilliant Florence Birchenough in the Poetry Challenge Shot Put event. 1921 really was only the beginning in her long career in athletics and as a member of the WAAA. Yet alongside Birchenough, Hilda Hatt is another name that continues to crop up in the decade to come in, both national and international rankings and medal lists.

Hilda Hatt, 1922

In 1921 she won joint gold in the high jump, silver in the long jump (coming second to Mary Lines), bronze in the 60 m (after Mary Lines and Daisy Wright) and gold in the relays. But for Hatt – just as with Birchenough – 1921 was only the beginning. In future events, such as the 1922 Women’s World Games, her talents as a jumper shone through as she took on and matched the records set by figures like Mary Lines.

Passing the Baton

The relay is a good time to discuss another set of absences from the history of athletics. As some of my previous posts have explored, the athletes of 1921 – and others like them – were clearly discriminated against and even excluded from elite track and field events for decades on the grounds of their gender, their sexuality, their status as child bearers, and their supposed fragility and femininity. However, they still carried the privilege that came with their position as white women. As far as I can tell, the 1921 Olympiad was comprised entirely of white-European athletes.

On the UK team, it was not until 1930, at the third annual Women’s World Games (still organised by Alice Milliat) that an athlete of Caribbean heritage would represent GB in an international athletics competition. Ethel Edburga Clementina Scott, a sprinter and relay racer, would be part of the highly selective squad of 15, and would go on to win silver with her teammates in the relay.

UK team, 1930. Ethel Scott in third row.

Interestingly, she would also be the first athlete to match Mary Lines’s 60 m British record. On 30 August 1930, Scott set a personal best for the 60 m at a track meet in Mitcham, London. Her time of 7.8 seconds was 2 tenths of a second off the world record of 7.6 seconds and equalled Lines’s current British record.

Ethel Scott

Ethel Scott was the first black woman to represent GB at an International Athletics Competition. She was a record -breaking athlete. She took on the sprint and relay baton from Mary Lines and the athletes of 1921. Indeed many of them would go on to be her teammates in future games. And yet her name does not appear enough in the history of UK sport. She should be a household name.

Thanks to this post on Ethel Scott for some of the key information for today’s post. Here’s a brief post about Ethel Scott in the Black Plaque Project.

Poetry Challenge

In the spirt of passing the baton, today’s poetry challenge is all about picking up a line from somewhere else – your favourite song, another poem, the opening line of a novel – and creatively running with it.

There are many ways of going about this. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example of this is ‘The Golden Shovel’ form, coined by the American poet Terrance Hayes in his poem of the same name. Hayes takes ‘We Real Cool’ by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and effectively spells out each word of the original in the final word of each line of his new piece. So…

We Real Cool 


               The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.


            We real cool. We   
            Left school. We

            Lurk late. We
            Strike straight. We

            Sing sin. We   
            Thin gin. We

            Jazz June. We   
            Die soon.

Becomes..

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981
 
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
 
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
 
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
 
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
 
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
 
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
 
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

This is just an extract of Hayes’s remarkable poem. I urge you to read the whole thing here. What he achieves in this complex piece is not an erasure of Brook’s vibrant original, but a tribute and an extension of it. ‘The Golden Shovel’ is a form of translation. It is also a carrying on the conversation, as the lines of the Pool Players in ‘We Real Cool’ are picked up and carried into the new century.

In many ways, this poetry project is trying to do exactly the same thing.

If you want to attempt your own version of The Golden Shovel technique with a line of your choosing then go for it!

However, as a shorter, alternative option, here’s another way you can run the poetry relay: take your line from your chosen poem, song, novel, short story etc. and make it the first line of your poem today. See where it leads you!

Click here to catch up on yesterday’s 800m event and learn about why women were not allowed to compete in many International long distance events for 30 years

Writing Between the Lines poetry challenge: Event 2. Shot Put.

Yesterday, for the 60m sprint, the name of the game was ‘speed’. Today, we’re dealing with heavier matters…

Florence Birchenough

Today’s poetry event is the shot put competition, which was won in 1921 by the French athletics star and controversial sportsperson, Violette Morris.

Violette Morris

Morris was a gifted athlete. She excelled at shot put and discus and also played football and water polo at a national level. She was a boxer, a motor car and road bike racer, motorcyclist, wrestler, archer, swimmer, tennis player – just to name a few of her sporting interests. She also played on the French women’s national team.

In 1928 the French Women’s Sports Federation refused to renew her licence amid complaints about her lifestyle and she was therefore barred from participating in 1928 Summer Olympics. The agency cited her lack of morals, in particular, Morris’ penchant for wearing men’s clothing. Her homosexuality was clearly the major factor in the decision…although she had also punched a football referee. Afterward, Morris decided to undergo an elective mastectomy, which she said was in order to fit into racing cars more easily.

After her ban from sport, Morris’s life didn’t quieten down and she became a controversial figure in a different, altogether more sinister way. Courted by the Nazis and personally invited to Berlin by Hitler, Morris likely became a Nazi spy and collaborator, although the extent of her crimes and involvement are debated. She was assassinated by the French resistance in 1944.

The Polytechnic star – Florence Ethel Birchenough

Representing the English interests in the Shot Put was Florence Ethel Birchenough – a Polytechnic student who would go on to become a hugely influential figure in shaping women’s athletics in the UK.

Birchenough was a pioneer in the throwing events, representing her country several times in the javelin, shot and discus. Although she didn’t win the Shot in the 1921 Olympiad, she would go on to become a British and Olympic champion in future events, becoming the WAAA title-holder for discus 1924–8 and captain of the British team at the 1926 Women’s World Games. The 1921 games were her first taste of international competition, and a chance to learn amongst the best.

Here’s Florence in action in 1922 – along with some extremely questionable captions…

Pathé

‘The new theory that “sport may kill sex” does not worry them!’

Yep – you read that right. Pathe, 1922 Olmpiad. Monte Carlo.

Florence continued her work in athletics throughout her life, working as a coach, official, committee member and staunch advocate of women’s athletics. Although Mary Lines was the medal star of the 1921 team, Birchenough’s name is more well-known in the history of UK women’s athletics, due to her long involvement in championing women’s sport.

The Poetry Challenge

To celebrate the incredible balance, technique, precision and strength of Florence Birchenough and her fellow Shot Put competitors, today’s poetry event is all about manoeuvring heavy things.

First, some inspiration. Here’s an extract of ‘Scale’, by the poet and keen sportsperson Helen Mort:

Scale

My weight is
four whippets,

two Chinese gymnasts,
half a shot-putter.

It can be measured
in bags of sugar, jam jars,

enough feathers for sixty pillows,
or a flock of dead birds

but some days it’s more
than the house, the span

of Blair Athol Road.

Here, Helen takes on the heavy topic of body image and individual and societal expectations and skilfully uses the list form to subvert the measurements by which we calculate our relationship to the bathroom scales. Measuring herself through pets, household objects, childhood homes, streets, and strange, uncanny images, Mort converts lbs into lived experiences and in doing so creates an effective litany of the self.

Just as ‘Scale’ uses the list form to explore both physical and metaphorical weight, today’s poetry challenge is all about making a list of shot puts and other heavy items.

Using the title: ‘The heaviest thing I’ve ever carried’, make a list of all the weightiest things you can think of…including shot puts. Why not start realistic/small and grow more and more outlandish, so that by the end of the poem you’re taking over from Atlas. Or, why not move between the concrete/object and the metaphorical, so that your poem becomes a list not only of bulky Ikea cabinets and boxes of books, but also the burdens and expectations that you might want to pick up and hurl away in the style of Florence Birchenough.

Let me know how you get on.

Follow the links to find out more about the Writing Between the Lines project, the sporting records and resources available to explore at the University of Westminster, and how poetry can help to celebrate the legacy of the Poly athletes. for the Regent Street Polytechnic Athletics Team

The Complete Poems of Jon Silkin

Last Thursday was the Leeds launch of the Complete Poems of Jon Silkin. Edited by Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner and published by Carcanet, the book comes in at around 1000 pages – a testament both to the prolificacy of Silkin, and to the hard work and dedication of Jenner and Glover.

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It’s a wonderful brick of a book, packed with published and previously unpublished work, with an informative and thoughtful introduction by Glover. Nicholas Lezard picked the Complete Poems as his Guardian paperback of the week in March, and it’s easy to see why. There’s so much to read, and it’s wonderful to be able to appreciate the scope and ambition of Jon Silkin’s vision. His poems bring nature and the environment into dialogue with Anglo-Jewishness and the Holocaust. They consider how a poem might affect the social and political conscience of its reader without losing its aesthetic power. The reader is transported from biblical kingdoms to post-war Britain; across the wide open fields of Iowa, through the Australian outback, along the cherry blossom lined streets of Japan, beneath the left-over traces of concentration camps, and back to the flowerbed at the bottom of the local Leeds garden. Despite these changing landscapes and themes there is a consistency of thought, image, and voice that demonstrates the enduring issues that preoccupied the imagination of the poet. Bringing all these poems together in one place allows you to really appreciate this. As Lezard notes in his review: ‘This book is Silkin’s postwar anthology of his own: his gift and his voice – or voices, if you wish – finally have their own monument’.

I’d like to think that the Leeds event on Thursday was also a ‘monument’ to Silkin. It certainly felt like a celebration both of the (under-appreciated) poetry and the man himself. The reading was held in the beautiful Brotherton Room of the Special Collections at The University of Leeds – a fitting location given that Silkin’s archive forms a part of their wonderful ‘Leeds Poetry 1950-1980’ collection (also included are the archives of Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage, and Ken Smith). All around us were papers from Silkin’s manuscripts – including drafts of his ‘Astringencies’ poem, and his most famous poem ‘Death of a Son [who died in a mental hospital aged one]’:

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This is the original letter sent to Silkin from London County Council declaring his son Adam ‘mentally deficient’, followed by some of the early drafts of the poem that Silkin sent to the poet and translator Michael Hamburger. Here’s the finished poem (originally published in The Peaceable Kingdom, 1954):

Death of a Son [who died in a mental hospital aged one]

Something has ceased to come along with me.
Something like a person: something very like one.
And there was no nobility in it
Or anything like that.

Something was there like a one year
Old house, dumb as stone. While the near buildings
Sang like birds and laughed
Understanding the pact

They were to have with silence. But he
Neither sang nor laughed. He did not bless silence
Like bread, with words.
He did not forsake silence.

But rather, like a house in mourning
Kept the eye turned in to watch the silence while
The other houses like birds
Sang around him.

And the breathing silence neither
Moved nor was still.

I have seen stones: I have seen brick
But this house was made up of neither bricks nor stone
But a house of flesh and blood
With flesh of stone

And bricks for blood. A house
Of stones and blood in breathing silence with the other
Birds singing crazy on its chimneys.
But this was silence,

This was something else, this was
Hearing and speaking though he was a house drawn
Into silence, this was
Something religious in his silence,

Something shining in his quiet,
This was different this was altogether something else;
Though he never spoke, this
Was something to do with death.

And then slowly the eye stopped looking
Inward. The silence rose and became still.
The look turned to the outer place and stopped.
With the birds still shrilling around him.
And as if he could speak

He turned over on his side with his one year
Red as a wound
He turned over as if he could be sorry for this
And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones,
And he died.

(Jon Silkin, Complete Poems)

There is something so simple and yet so profoundly moving and desolate about ‘Death of a Son’. The straightforward nature of Silkin’s description, epitomised in the final line, sits like a stone in the mind long after the poem comes to an end. It also epitomises Silkin’s style – stark, bold, sensual, and intense.

Although this poem looms large in any conversation about Silkin’s work, no one read out ‘Death of a Son’ at the launch. Instead, each reader chose lesser-known poems. I think everyone felt that it was time to celebrate the many poems within Silkin’s Complete Poems that hold the same power and intensity of feeling as ‘Death of A Son’, but that, until now, have not received the credit they deserve. These included: ‘Urban Grasses’, ‘A Death to Us’, Selections from The Flower Poems, ‘Caring for Animals’, ‘No Land like It’, and ‘Trying to Hide Treblinka’, as well as some of the poet’s previously unseen juvenilia.

There were seven speakers in total – Jon Glover, John Whale, Emma Trott, Jeffrey Wainwright, Emily Timms, Kathyrn Jenner, and myself. It was a really nice mix between those who had known Silkin personally, and those who had come to his work recently. We all had our different reasons for appreciating his poetry, but what everyone commented on was Silkin’s bravery – his willingness to take risks, to ask difficult questions and address difficult subjects, and to try new forms and modes of expression. The pieces we chose ranged across the Complete Poems, but what each poem had in common was the bravery, vitality, and ‘commitment’ so fundamental to Silkin’s poetic identity and voice:

My Enemy Weeps

A) There are many voices in my poem
B) Yes, they are all listening

(Jon Silkin, Complete Poems, read on the night by Kathryn Jenner)

The whole event was very moving (I even got a bit choked up during certain poems). It was wonderful to hear colleagues, mentors, and friends who I admire read out poems that are equally so important on both a personal and an academic level. Over the course of my research on Silkin I’ve ‘grown close’ to many of the poems that were read out. But to have them removed from an academic context and voiced in such an intimate setting reminded me why they remain important (and should be more so).

Speaking of voices, it was equally strange and wonderful to hear his poems take on new meaning and vibrancy in the mouths of each reader. Auden may have said that ‘the words of the dead are modified in the guts of the living’, but here it felt as if Silkin’s words took on a new character with each person. Everyone had his or her own style of delivery, and it affected the overall sense of each piece. Old and familiar poems became new and surprising, and it offered an insight into the words, phrases, and images that had landed, like ‘stones’, in the imagination of each individual reader. There were indeed ‘many voices’ in Silkin’s poetry on Thursday.

It’s been a privilege to watch Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner put together this wonderful book, and I hope that it will bring a whole new generation of readers to an under appreciated and important writer.

One more thing:

It’s fitting that on the same day as the reading the Oxford University magazine ISIS published an interview with Geoffrey Hill, who was a contemporary of Silkin in Leeds. In the interview Hill, the now out-going Oxford Professor of Poetry, described 50’s and 60’s Leeds as ‘the great creative centre of English poetry’. He named Jon Silkin as one of the important figures in this alternative decidedly off-centre movement and called Jon Glover (along with Michael Schmidt) his ear to the ground for new poetry. Given that Hill unavoidably featured in our evening discussion of Silkin and the Leeds scene, it was lovely to hear him echo our sense of Leeds as a vital and under appreciated ‘creative centre’.

(First two images via Amy Cutler. Poems and archive images reproduced with kind permission from the Jon Silkin estate)