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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Written World

Olympic Coffee by devin.berg, under a Creative Commons license

Ever since the fall of the Tower of Babel, language has divided as much as it has united mankind. Sport, on the other hand, is a way of bringing different nations together safely; whatever their differences, everyone wants to see a good game, race, jump, or throw. London 2012 is the embodiment of sport as a force for peace in the world. Where does poetry fit into this picture?

Inspired by London 2012, The Written World is a project run by the Scottish Poetry Library in partnership with the BBC, and is one of the major projects of the Year of Creative Scotland. For the Written World, each of the nations competing at the Olympics is represented by one poem. The poets may be living or dead, but their words had to be reflective, funny, lyrical, or passionate.

Poetry acts as an x-ray of a country. It sees deeper than a news report can. What people like to eat, how they are shaped by their landscape, the ways in which family life is celebrated, the weather – these are some of the subjects that recur throughout The Written World’s selection. Although there are regional differences – beautifully captured in the verse chosen – it is heartening to encounter the ways in which a variety of human endeavours and emotions recur, whether the poet hails from Mogadishu or Montreal.

The Scottish Poetry Library is perfectly placed to co-ordinate this project. The SPL is the only purpose-built poetry library in the world; collections written in every part of the globe sit on its shelves. One might also argue that Scottish poets, as recognised by the judges of literary prizes, are currently the UK’s literary gold-medal winners.

Drawing on its international collection and connections, the SPL has searched the world for its finest verse. The Written World has proven a massive undertaking. A good selection had to be gathered and then judged, a process repeated for each nation. When you factor in permission to use each poem has to be sought and gained, you start to see why this endeavour has proven such an ambitious undertaking.

The SPL is particularly pleased to partner with the BBC, who will broadcast each selection. The Written World runs from March 12th to the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games on September 9. Beginning on Wednesday 14th, every day a new poem will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland; during the Olympics, two poems will be broadcast each day. They are read by someone based in the UK with family ties to the relevant country.

On Thursday 15th, the SPL web site will reveal a new section dedicated to The Written World, where you can read the poem the day after it is broadcast. It will feature a map; if you click on a country, it will reveal the poem chosen to represent it. By the close of the project, this site will host a remarkably rich collection of world poetry. There is also a Twitter stream – @splwrittenworld – which will tweet lines from the chosen poems throughout the period the project is running.

There is one poem chosen to represent a country that we are keeping under wraps for the time being – and that is Great Britain’s! Will it be an acknowledged great from Albion’s past? A Chaucer or a Blake? Or will it be a fresh voice, alive to the complexities of life in the twenty-first century? All will be revealed in the coming months.

The Written World takes poetry to new audiences; a key aim of the project is to engage with people who would not normally read or listen to it. If sport is bringing the world to London this summer, let poetry be the sixth Olympic ring, connecting people through The Written World, wherever they may hear or read it.