What a great idea to display Poems on the Underground. The scheme was launched in 1986 to “make journeys more stimulating and inspiring”. Most recently, the poems have been featured inside tube trains, though I recall seeing them, billposter-sized, taking the place of advertisements behind the tracks themselves.
Organisers argue that the idea is to move away from poems being elitist and obscure. One can hardly argue with that – especially when more than 50 other cities, from New York to Shanghai – have followed the idea and displayed poetry on their public transport. (Why not every town though? Why not on trains through the United Kingdom? Why not on buses that run in provincial towns and villages?)
Recently, I was given a copy of Best Poems on the Underground, a selection of more than 300 of the poems chosen for public display, edited by Gerard Benson, Judith Charnaik and Cicely Herbert. It is a marvellous and varied collection, arranged alphabetically by poet. Some of the poems are familiar but many are new to me – which is a great delight.
Here’s an example. Fleur Adcock (b1934) came to England from New Zealand and encountered difficulties being understood. She reflects on this in Immigrant, writing:
“I clench cold fists in my Marks and Spencer’s jacket
And secretly test my accent once again:
St James’s Park; St James’s Park; St James’s Park.”
I had not heard of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) before. Her series of poems, Requiem, depict the suffering of the Russian people under Stalin, between 1935 and 1940. Her husband and son were both arrested. In a translation by Richard McKane, we hear:
“I would like to name them all but they took away
the list and there’s no way of finding them.”
Imagine reading this on your morning commuter: it kind of puts things into perspective. Is it really necessary to rush to get there a couple of minutes earlier?
There is John Betjeman (1906-1984) writing about the boom of the great bell, heard whilst sitting in St Botolph Bishopsgate Churchyard; Connie Bensley (b1929) spending her way out of the recession in Shopper and, gloriously, Sebastian Barker (b1945) finding the inspiration of nature In the Heart of Hackney:
“In the hear of Hackney, five miles from Kentish Town,
By Lammas Lands the reed beds are glowing rich and brown.”
I have only read the first 30 or so poems but I know there are further great riches in store.