Friday, July 27, 2012

From the P&PC Vault: The Poetry of Michael Phelps

Boy, can London do the Olympics right or what? Olympic Park is decorated with permanent poem monuments like the sweet-looking one by Caroline Bird pictured here and the Tennyson one pictured below—3-D verses that are part of the Winning Words initiative run by U.K. National Poetry Day founder William Sieghart who has said he wants to "carpet our nation with poetry." But that's not all. Winning Words has also designed an interactive poetry game to go with the Olympics, and there was an Olympic poetry competition that received over 2,000 entries from kids in London. Furthermore, on July 23, London mayor Boris Johnson recited (in ancient Greek as well as English) "Ode for the London Olympics 2012," a poem commissioned from Oxford scholar Armand D'Angour who composed one for the Athens Olympics back in 2004 as well. Add to all this the Poetry Olympics held in London in late June, and you've got one heckuva Po-lympic scene going on across the pond.

All of this poeti- fication seems to have gotten people inspired, too. NPR has reported on how poetry was a regular part of the Olympics before 1948 and, in that tradition, is hosting a Olympic-themed poetry contest on Morning Edition next week where listeners will get to choose the winner. The Economist, Huffington Post, and The New York Times, among others, have been writing about poetry and the Olympics. And Wells-Next-the-Sea in England has stepped up and done a collaborative performance of "Going for Gold" that you can watch here.

All of this made the P&PC staff think back to February of 2009 when we posted "What's In Your Bowl Today: The Poetry of Michael Phelps," which we are re-posting here to help commemorate the opening of the 2012 games. Phelps may have moved beyond the little marijuana-involved indiscretion that provided the occasion for our meditation on inspiration, inhalation, and ingestion, but "Amazing Awaits"—a theme also taken up by Maya Angelou in her 2008 Olympic poem "Amazement Awaits"—reminds us that while London's efforts are pretty darn cool, it isn't the first, nor the last, endeavor to mix poetry and sport. London may have erected monuments to poetry, but in 2009 Kellogg's and Phelps asked us to eat it up. 

Here's what we had to say back in '09:

 It's perhaps a little unfair of Poetry & Popular Culture to bring up the topic of gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps so soon after his recent indiscretion, but we're going to do it anyway, because the poetic box of Corn Flakes with his smiling mug on front is nigh irresistible. Issued not long after his record-setting Olympic performance, the 18 oz. carton pictured to the left includes a 10-line snippet of poetry from the official U.S. Olympic Team poem on one side panel (betcha didn't know there was such a thing as a U.S. Olympic Team poem in the first place) and the entire 30-line verse, "Amazing Awaits," printed inside. The 10 lines printed on the exterior begin with the title and read:

where we least expect it, or
after training for it all our lives.

it awaits in our Olympians.
in all Americans.
in the honor of victory
and the glory of pursuit.

with a nation behind us,
with a world before us,
and within us all ...

amazing awaits

Mind you, this isn't the first time that the Battlecreek, Michigan, company has used poetry to promote a bowl of its cereal as the cure for the morning munchies. Early in the 20th century, for example, Kellogg's issued illustrated booklets full of rhymes (pictured to the left) serving to promote the most important meal of the day. Nor is Phelps the only recent Olympian to hitch his athletic cart to this blog's favorite genre. Iowa gymnast Shawn Johnson, for one, includes inspirational poems under the "Get to Know Shawn" portion of her web site. (Poetry & Popular Culture has tried to reach Johnson for comment, but she and her agents have declined to be interviewed.)

The inclusion of "Amazing Awaits" isn't gratuitous, nor does it disrupt the overall rhetoric of Corn Flakes. Kellogg's printed an order form for a free Michael Phelps poster on the inside of the box, so it took little in the way of extra time or money to print the poem there as well. As the order form suggests, the lion's share of the box's rhetoric works to direct the consumer's attention toward the morning goodness inside the carton: the order form is inside, the nutritional information focuses on the contents ("Corn used in this product contains traces of soybeans"), five of the six pictures of Phelps show him in the water, a sentence printed near the tab instructs the hungry breakfaster how to open the box ("To open, slide finger under tab..."), and a little blurb cautions us against accepting poseur cereals: "If it doesn't say Kellogg's on the box, it's not Kellogg's in the box." Kellogg's and Phelps share a predilection for, and particular expertise with, the preposition and prefix "in." Kellogg's is occupied with ingesting. Phelps—the swimmer and recreational user, natch—is in the business of inhaling.

As the genre most associated with interiority, the poetry follows suit if not swimsuit. As the excerpt above suggests, "Amazing Awaits" is taken with the language of inherence, immanence or inspiration. The poem's first stanza—

it awaits in 200 meters,
in a hundredth of a second,
in our courageous first steps,
and with our every last breath

—establishes this focus, and while the rest of poem plays with the various other places where "amazing awaits," it makes sure to end with lines—

with a nation behind us
with a world before us
and within us all

—that repeat the central trope of inspiration illustrated so well by the amphibious Phelps who, in two pictures, is gulping in air as he swims. Along the way, of course, Kellogg's is managing to make its product not just a source of Olympic and national inspiration but also a means by which hungry Americans can participate in Olympian endeavors themselves—via, well, whatever bowl they happen to have at the breakfast table.