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Richard Price poem to represent Team GB in Cultural Olympiad project


Little-known poem Hedge Sparrows will fly the flag for Great Britain as part of Scottish Poetry Library's Written World project

A "snapshot" of Britain is given in Richard Price's poem Hedge Sparrows, which has been chosen to represent Great Britain as part of a Cultural Olympiad project.

Under the Poetry 2012 – the Written World initiative, poems have been selected for each of the 204 competing nations in the 2012 Olympics.

The unveiling of the choice for Great Britain was held back until Thursday. Although nominations were received for poems by Blake, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, the Scottish Poetry Library, which is spearheading the project, decided Price's little-known poem was the perfect fit.

"In this project we're not going for the oil painting, the Great National Poem, we're going for the snapshot you'd send your friends, something distinctive, appealing, and British. I think we found it in Hedge Sparrows," said Scottish Poetry Library director Robyn Marsack. "We wanted a poem to speak for the whole of the British Isles, and here was one that spoke in the voice of a bird, thus loosing us from region, gender (could be male or female), ethnicity – a representative voice … This is not Keats's nightingale nor Tennyson's eagle – and it's definitely not Ted Hughes's crow. There's something artless, confiding and entirely engaging about this bird."

The Reading-born Price works at the British Library; his collection Lucky Day, which contains Hedge Sparrows, was shortlisted for the Whitbread poetry prize in 2005. Written in one continuous, breathy sentence, the poem is told in the voice of the sparrow, talking enthusiastically about hedges, "and when I say a hedge I'm not talking about a row of twigs between two lines of rusty barbed wire".

Price said being chosen to "wear the Team GB T-shirt for poetry" was "amazing". "It was such a surprise to have Hedge Sparrows chosen for this project," he said. "It's meant to be (in my head, anyway) half a punk record, half a praise poem. It's meant to be a challenge but also a work of affection. Yes: a prose poem of punk praise."

A poem a day has been broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland as part of the Written World project. The poems will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Front Row for the first two weeks of the Olympics, from 30 July; they will also be aired on BBC Radio 2's Aled Jones show, and on In Tune for BBC Radio 3 listeners. Price's poem, read by Jim Broadbent, will air for the first time on BBC Radio Scotland on 27 July at 5.28am.

Broadbent said the poem "immediately brings to mind all the hedgerows I have seen disappear in Lincolnshire, and of course all the ones that are still there, thriving, and a home to so many creatures, all busily going about their lives harmoniously. There is an understated humour in the poem which brings the world of the hedge sparrows, and indeed ourselves, into sharp focus. As a poem for our nation, I couldn't imagine a better choice."

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy also praised the pick, calling Hedge Sparrows "full of energy, both startling and moving".

Hedge Sparrows by Richard Price

You don't see many hedges these days, and the hedges you do see they're not that thorny, it's a shame, and when I say a hedge I'm not talking about a row of twigs between two lines of rusty barbed wire, or more likely just a big prairie where there were whole cities of hedges not fifty years ago, a big desert more like, and I mean thick hedges, with trees nearby for a bit of shade and a field not a road not too far off so you can nip out for an insect or two when you or the youngsters feel like a snack, a whole hedgerow system, as it says in the book, and seven out of ten sparrows say the same, and that's an underestimate, we want a place you can feel safe in again, we're social animals, we want our social life back, and the sooner the better, because in a good hedge you can always talk things over, make decisions, have a laugh if you want to, sing, even with a voice like mine!

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