The Poetic Games

Two Wrestlers, circa 510 BCE

The Isthmian Games of Ancient Greece included many of the same sporting events as the Olympics such as wrestling and chariot races.

They also included poetry contests (I love that!).

In Symposiacs Plutarch mentions that a woman named Aristomache won a coveted poetry medal.

Polyhymnia, Muse of Sacred Poetry

On a side note, Plato himself is said to have participated in the Isthmian Games. The ancient writer Diogenes Laertius writes that Plato was a wrestler in the Games and that his nickname “Platon” (his real name was Aristocles) may have been given to him by his coach, Ariston.

“Platon” being short for “platus,” which in Ancient Greek means “wide or broad,” could have referred to Plato’s athletic body (ooh la la).

Historical accounts differ, however, and “Plato” or “Platon” could have referred to his broad forehead or his broad, eloquent manner of speaking.

I love watching the Olympics: the Opening Ceremony, the athletes’ nervous anticipation at the starting line, the sheer joy of the winners, finding myself becoming ridiculously critical of the divers (oooooh, there was a little splash there… that’s a shame…).

But most of all because I think we see what the human body is capable of. Grace, speed, and strength as a form of physical poetry perhaps.

When I found out that poetry was part of the Isthmian Games, it reminded me that Olympic medals used to be awarded to poets too (if you’re interested in the history of poetry and the Olympics, you should read this great NYTimes article by Tony Perrottet called “Champions of Verse”).

But, I thought how fun it would be if poetry was somehow introduced into the Olympic events themselves this year.

Perhaps as a relay race, each runner adding a line of poetry? Or a poetic high jump, the jumper yelling out a word or haiku in mid-jump?


All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sources: Plutarch’s Symposiacs, Pausania’s Description of Greece, Laertius’ Life of Plato.

30 thoughts on “The Poetic Games

  1. I envision an event that’s more competitive… like poetic wrestling. Imagine two semi-naked people in a ring, grappling each other while trading quips. It’s like that rap-battle at the end of 8 Mile, except with steroids and unitards.

    • I know, I think the media should spend more time on the cultural part of the Olympics perhaps as it’s a crucial element (critical to being selected as a host city even). I like the idea of medals at Poetry Slams, or perhaps laurels to be worn on one’s head…

  2. great research, Letizia. i loved your idea. it would be fascinating to listen to each runner or jumper say a poetic word in his/her own native language 🙂 by the end of the Olympics we all could learn a little bit of many different languages.

  3. Okay, I am very pleased to have found your blog site. My passion for all things book related is huge. I love the idea for a an Olympic Poetry Event. Yes, bring it on. I’m a follower now, by the way! 🙂

  4. Thank you 🙂 Monti is so much better and the same happy boy as always 😉
    The country side in Norway is not that different I think, we have mountains and fields 🙂 We have lots of forest but not as much as finland 🙂

  5. Really cool stuff, Letizia! It reminded me how a philosophy teacher of mine once stressed how Aristotle also loved to wrestle and drink, and was very different from the stereotypical idea of the brooding anti-social philosopher.

  6. Hello, thank you for the like! it brought me to your lovely blog which I look forward to following. Your about, brought to mind The Namesake, forgive me, i can’t remember how to spell the authors name, which contains a character who walks while reading 🙂 I had no idea about the poetry games. I love the yelling, jumping hiaku idea!

    • I loved “The Namesake” as well and had forgotten that one of the characters walks and reads at the same time! Thanks for the nice words about my blog 🙂

  7. Loved the idea of a poetry Olympics… could we have an endurance marathon, to see who could recite Hiawatha or the Ancient Mariner? Have you seen the Monty Python Ancient Philosophers contest.? It’s on Youtube. It’s delicious. My grandson introduced me to it.!

    • An endurance marathon is a wonderful idea! Wouldn’t that be great to watch 🙂

      I haven’t seen the Monty Python’s contest although I’m a fan of theirs – I will definitely look it up – thank you!!

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