mark o'connor - australian poet

An Olympic Poet for the Modern Games

In 2000 The Australia Council for the Arts (the Australian Government's arts funding arm) awarded Mark O'Connor a fellowship to "report in poetry on all aspects of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games". Intense media interest was generated, and the project was a popular success that heightened public interest in poetry. O'Connor now advocates that Britain appoint a British Olympic poet for the 2012 London Games.

For further information see:

Poet a man of pentameters and pentathlons - Sydney Morning Herald, Main News section, 8 April 2000

By Tony Stephens

Mark O'Connor, the semi-official poet to the Sydney Olympics, hopes his Games tickets are in the mail. "I don't have any yet," he said yesterday. "I might have to take it up with SOCOG." Meanwhile, O'Connor, one of Australia's best-selling poets and editor of the Oxford University Press anthology Two Centuries of Australian Poetry, is in training. He wants to improve his physical fitness and he is working hard on Olympian words.

Encouraged by the Premier, Mr Carr, to write about the Olympics, O'Connor applied to SOCOG, where officials suggested he try the Australia Council. O'Connor was granted an $80,000 Literature Fund fellowship to write a book of verse on the Olympics and another on remote places in Australia. He will spend some time following the torch relay and expects his book to be called Following the Flame. He wants to strike a balance between quick, "journalistic" poems on immediate events and more serious reflections. He offered Ticket Stakes as an example of the former genre:

We've ripped the sweat out of the Games.
Look, it's done by computer
and the results arrive by mail. Hush! Can you hear?
---All over the suburbs, the roar
of envelopes tearing? And Yes!, at Number 10
It's Gold! Gold! Gold! for the Protheros!
They've lit a fire. They're dancing on the lawn.
---Not so good at Number 15.
The Grampolis are bit bronzed off.
They thrill to the shrill of the soccer ref's whistle.
Hard luck! It's the Lady's Nude Luge for them!
And Rhea Yemenis at no. 1, well she really loves
those elegant gymnasts. She's got the Clean and Jerk.
Welcome back to the world, Australia.
When was it ever all winners?
When was there ever splendiferous gold
without a pining bronze and a whole heap of losers
under the winner's chariot wheels?
But be grateful too, to have bumped the ground hard,
and be up and running.

---Mark O'Connor

By contrast, a less-popular style:

Moon Over Mindil Beach, N.T.


The moon rises, baseball round, big as Africa
up over the sea's rim, pock-marked, full.

Its straight course torn in a circle
by rough pull of Earth.

No passion on earth like the tug of these two
that can never tire of pulling, never slip their total hold.

Judo-wrestlers, fixed to each other's lapels,
whirled on a mutual pivot.

Indifferent to shooting stars or to encrusting empires
each feels only the tug that comes
from the other's dead centre.

K-Marts and craters will ravage them both
without putting pause to this dance
where one hefts the other round its hip
---thirty diameters away.

Poetry in motion - The Sydney Morning Herald, News Review Section, 8 April 2000.

Mark O'Connor is the unofficial Olympic Games poet and he is looking to the ancient Greeks (and Ian Thorpe) for inspiration, says Tony Stephens. Mark O'Connor, poet, says he will have to improve his fitness for the Olympics. He wants to follow the Olympic torch around Australia, for a start. That could be physically and mentally exhausting, even if he doesn't run all the way.

Then there will be the "games" themselves, with all that running and jumping, and standing still on the winners' dais, waiting for the medal ceremony. And there will be those seemingly impossible days, such as the underwater leg of the torch relay, off the Great Barrier Reef.

"Oh, that won't be a problem," the poet said this week. "I go scuba diving. And I've written poetry under water, on a plastic pad." He has, you know. O'Connor, who takes at least some sport seriously, is serious about the Games. He is preparing, mentally and physically.

He is, more or less, the official Olympic poet; more, because half of his $80,000 Australia Council grant is so that he can write Olympic poetry; less, because he has no formal accreditation or tickets to attend Olympic events. Perhaps the tickets were in the mail? "I might have to take it up with SOCOG," he said.

Encouraged by Premier Bob Carr to pursue the idea of writing poems about the Olympics, O'Connor applied to SOCOG. He was told there were no available funds but to try the Australia Council. About six years ago, O'Connor, fellow poet Les Murray and pianist Roger Woodward attacked the Australia Council over its choice of grant recipients. This time, however, O'Connor received the $80,000 Literature Fund fellowship to write a book of verse on the Olympics and another on remote places in Australia. Sandy Hollway, SOCOG chief executive officer, sent his congratulations. Australia Council representatives were enthusiastic about taking the arts "out of exclusive performance spaces, such as the Opera House, into the wider community".

O'Connor is enthusiastic about putting poetry back into the Olympics, where the Greeks had it, when Pindar was a lad. O'Connor would like the Greeks to follow his example at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and for Sydney to be remembered as the city that brought back the poetic Olympics.

"People may be surprised that a country like Australia, well known for its sport, might have revived the concept of poetry at the Games," he said. Pindar was born about 520BC - during the 65th ancient Olympiad---and spent most of his 80 years writing poetry about the Olympics. His words about the Games and athletes are his only complete poems to survive. In fact, we wouldn't know much about the ancient Olympics if it weren't for Pindar. Destroying Thebes in 336BC, Alexander the Great spared the poet's former house out of respect.

The Wordsworth Classical Dictionary describes him as "the greatest lyrical poet of Greece". In the somewhat jaundiced words of the Oxford Companion, Pindar by clever use of mythology made great poetry "from the monotonous and unpromising material of athletic victories". Unfortunately, Pindar lived before the time of Emperor Nero, who won song and poetry competitions at the Olympics. He triumphed, too, in the chariot race, although he fell out of his chariot and did not complete the course. The judges' decision suggests that Olympic corruption goes back a long way.

In any case, O'Connor plans to include a Pindaric ode in his Olympic collection, to a sport or sportsperson deserving of the most celebration.

O'Connor is one of Australia's best-selling poets and the editor of the Oxford University Press anthology Two Centuries of Australian Poetry. Well known as a poet of environments, the third edition of his collected poems will be published in July. He expects his book of Olympic poems to be called Following the Flame. "It will give me a chance to put the Green Games into the wider context of Sydney's stunning circle of harbours and national parks and the still wider circle of Australia's harsh yet delicate environments," he said.

He wants to strike a balance between quick, "journalistic" poems on immediate events and more serious reflections that might become lasting reminders of the Games. He will consider, for example, the notion that sport is an entertainment on the one hand and a pseudo war on the other. He accepts the Konrad Lorenz theory that games can be substitutes for war and points out that the ancient Olympics were used to bring periods of peace to warring city states. He will consider the notion that, while few activities are so fleeting as a sporting event, few memories are so lasting. Since most people will watch the Olympics on television, he might write, too, about the TV sports fan.

O'Connor now lives in Canberra but comes from Victoria, where, he believes, the Melbourne tradition holds that there should be no divorce between sport, particularly football, and academia. He tells the story about Manning Clark presenting a footballer called Buckley with a volume of his history, after Buckley had made a spectacular mark. A distant relative of O'Connor lies in Bendigo cemetery under a headstone which says: "Here lies William Cullen, the once famous runner." The poet's grandfather Jack Riordan was mayor of Shepparton, a footballer, shoemaker and running trainer.

O'Connor says he has a "strong muscular response" to, even an irrational passion for, games he has played, such as Australian Rules. He likes cricket and tennis. He looks at several other sports with a cold eye. He is, for example, lost over basketball. He scuba dives, but says of swimming, certain to be Australia's most successful Olympic sport: "In some ways it is the most boring sport. The swimmer's face is down and you can't see much, but I see the excitement of winning. It's nationalism in its simplest form." He believes the general public has never forgiven poets for abandoning metre, the rhythmic arrangement of syllables in verse, in favour of free verse. He plans to write in a variety of poetic forms but adds: "Sport gives the excuse for going back to metre. Some sports crave metre. Look at equestrian."

O'Connor aims to write about as many sports as possible. He likes the aesthetics of gymnastics and might write a celebratory ode, perhaps a sonnet, about the sport or a particular gymnast. He might write a simple ballad about another sport, a clerihew (a form of comic or satiric verse) about something else.

The poet feels a verse coming on:

Now begins the age of gold.
Now the young replace the old.

Now, that could refer to the new champion conquering the old, or to the young, dewy-eyed athletes with their dreams of eternal glory taking over from the IOC and SOCOG administrators who have dominated Olympic news to now. Step aside Juan Antonio Samaranch and Michael Knight; bring on Ian Thorpe!

O'Connor, in training, has preliminary words for the torch relay, too:

A flame from excellence and peace.
Fanned by the flail of Pindar's tongue
from Olympia's dry creeks it leapt
past empires, swift as signal-fire from Troy...


Now the flame runs South
through the blood-heat places
where a firm-fleshed human dries like a jellyfish,
and the bicycling lizard gets up, levitates
on its blur of legs
outrunning the bare red earth.
South, south, past cool morning interludes
of parrot song and gully chortle
as any in Australia's winter,
further south than Ulysses
dreamed could be

"There is an appetite for memorable words," O'Connor says, "if they are good enough."

ANU Poet to Get Inspiration from the Olympics - The ANU Reporter, Canberra,

The Australia Council has awarded a two year $80,000 Fellowship to Canberra poet Mark O'Connor to record the Olympic Games in verse. Mark is currently in residence at the Australian National University as its 1999 H.C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellow. He is a well-known environmentalist as well as poet. His book Fire-stick Farming: Selected Poems 1972-1990 has been a set text on the NSW HSC syllabus.

The Australia Council fellowship will run for two years, the first year being spent on the Olympic project. In the 2nd year (beginning January 2001) Mark will return to his long-running project of "biologically knowledgeable poetry" about remote regions of Australia. Many parts of Australia, he said, are undervalued and vulnerable to misuse because they lack a literary and artistic tradition. He hopes to do books of verse on both the Games and the regions of Australia.

Mr O'Connor said today, "My plan is to place the Sydney Olympic Games in the wider settings of Sydney Harbor and the physical environments of central NSW and Australia. This will help put the Green Games into a greener vision of Australia. It may also help direct the attention of visitors towards NSW's and Australia's wider and more long-term attractions.

"I hope to produce some topical, almost journalistic poems or epigrams, and perhaps also some poems that may become lasting reminders of the Sydney 2000 Games. I also hope that the Greeks, when they have the Games in Athens in four years also appoint a poet, and that this becomes a tradition that each future host nation will follow."

SOCOG does not have funds or authority to commission literary works, so Mr OConnor applied for funding to record the Sydney Olympic Games with poetry through the Australia Council. The original Olympic Games had an intimate link with poets. The famous ancient Greek poet Pindar and others preserved the legend of the Games down the ages, and helped make possible their revival in modern times. Mr O'Connor said his brief would be to celebrate and respond in real time to the unfolding events of the Games. I also want to follow and record the path of the Olympic Flame as it arrives, Mr O'Connor said.

Sport is a substantial theme in his writing. So are classic antiquities and the cultures of ancient and modern Greece. In 1983 he produced the book "Poety of the Blue Mountains" on a Park Writers Fellowship. NSW National Parks commissioned him to produce a book of verse about the Snowy Mountains called "Tilting at Snowgums." The book's longest poem, "A New Ballad of the Man from Snowy River" re-shapes the legend of one of our greatest "sporting heroes" and imitates Banjo Paterson's driving rhythms. The Bulletin magazine, which published Paterson's original poem a century earlier, published this long poem as a special feature in its New Year 1997 edition, calling it "a version for our times."

He has also written books of environmental verse with sponsorship from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority, and from the rainforest unit of Environment Australia. His recent prose book on the Australian environment, "This Tired Brown Land" was described by NSW Premier Bob Carr in his "Best Books of 1998" piece in the SMH 5/12/98 as "the most important Australian book of recent times."

Mark O'Connor will remain at the ANU as H.C. Coombs Fellow until the end of December.

Funding Critic Accepts $80,000 as Olympic Games Poet - Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October, 1999


A new demonstration sport---the modern pentameter---was added to the Sydney Games yesterday with the appointment of controversial Canberra-based writer Mark O'Connor as Olympic Poet.

Not wishing to peak too soon, Mr O'Connor, 54, will not start serious training until the end of the year. But he has already laid an ambitious Games plan involving several verse forms.

"I am keen to respond in real time to the unfolding events of the Games with some quick, throwaway stuff. Epigrams, if you like, celebrating sporting achievements, capturing the changing mood of the moment.

"But I also want to re-create the intimate link that the ancient games enjoyed with poets such as Pindar, who through odes, hymns and songs preserved the legend of the Olympics down through the ages. I hope these will become lasting reminders of the Games."

Mr O'Connor, a campaigning conservationist, also intends to place the "green Games" in their broader context, as they relate to Sydney Harbour and the outback. Some poems, he says, will be celebratory, others cynical.

The post of Olympic Poet is not strictly official, but Mr O'Connor has the backing of the Premier, Mr Carr, SOCOG, and--most importantly--the Australia Council, which has awarded him a prestigious Literature Fund fellowship, worth $80,000 over two years.

News of the award came as a shock to Mr O'Connor, who with fellow poet Les Murray has been an outspoken critic of the Australia Council selection process, calling it vindictive, cliquish and politically correct. The two poets even helped form an association to campaign for reform of the council.

"I don't want to sound too negative, but organisations under attack tend to close ranks against critics," he said. "I only submitted a proposal as a matter of principle.

"Of course, I'm most grateful that the literature board should honour me in this way."

The Australia Council was equally delighted. "It is perhaps evidence of the new sincerity and transparency in the board's selection process that a past critic should now be acknowledged by his peers," said a spokeswoman.

She added that the award demonstrated the council's determination to take the arts "out of exclusive performance spaces, such as the Opera House, into the wider community".

Mr O'Connor was so pessimistic about his chances---and so impoverished after "two years in the wilderness" deprived of finances to pursue his poetic calling---that he did not even bother to apply for tickets to the Games.

Now he hopes SOCOG will be able to provide him with accreditation appropriate to his laureate status.

His sporting enthusiasms are eclectic. He skis, scuba-dives and practises martial arts. And Australian Rules produces a "strong muscular response".

Of Olympic sports, he is attracted by the aesthetics of gymnastics and the spectacle of pole vaulting, but he can barely watch basketball and has "never seen the point of throwing the shot putt" (sic).

The poet, who is also author of the acclaimed prose-book on the environment Tired Brown Land and presently H.C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellow at the Australian National University, is looking forward to the challenge of capturing in verse the various aspects of the greatest sporting event on Earth. "Sport lends itself to strong, gutsy rhythms."

His previous attempts at tackling sport have provoked mixed reactions. Under Martian Eyes, an extra-terrestrial view of football, was well received. A reworking of the The Man from Snowy River was praised by The Bulletin, but damned by traditionalists.

"I even received death threats. One letter writer said God should have someone to castrate people like me."

By comparison, the Olympics should be a breeze.

Other recipients of fellowships were historian and environmentalist William Lines, and writer of young-adult fiction Sonya Hartnett. Eminent poet Judith Wright, 84, received a $15,000 grant, which will help fund the second part of her autobiography.