Poems on the Underground

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If for some reason you ever find yourself playing ‘Tube Bingo’ there a few things that you are guaranteed to be able to cross off. Non functioning escalators. Officious officials. Discarded debris revealing which brand was offering samples this morning. And poems. Proper poetry, not graffitti (that’s a discussion for another time). It’s a welcome and recognisable mainstay of the underground system. Launched in 1986 by Judith Chernaik, the scheme has grown in size, and today Poems are displayed on posters in 3,000 advertising spaces in train carriages across London, selected by Chernaik, together with poets Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson, and the scheme is supported by bastions TfL, Arts Council England and The British Council.

Like much literature, or any genre, a name and category can not encompass everything.
Poetry seems to occupy two positions, each at an opposite end of the metaphorical pole. Often viewed as an elite interest, it has been a hobby of the educated and the wealthy, and who hasn’t heard poetry described as ‘posh.’ It has also seen huge swathes of influence as part of an underground movement, subversive and often cynical, an agent of the counterculture. In London we see poetry literally underground, on posters and billboards across the tube system. Sometimes a stimulating read, often thought provoking, and at the very least always a welcome distraction, but do we ever ask why?

Let’s start with the cynical theory. Is it an example of institutions trying to impose their tastes upon harried workers? Whether it was hip hop rhymes in Tahir Square or gentle dissemination of ideas in the Enlightenment period, poetry has long been a tool or agent for social change. Of course, we’ve  moved beyond that, and the institutions that rule our country would no longer be trying to influence how we think – would they?

In the week surrounding the 2013 National Poetry Day Transport For London commissioned a number of poets to write and perform pieces encouraging people to behave on the tube – ‘poetiquette.’ Strategically placed around stations, the idea was that people would hear the words and think twice about dropping litter, obstructing doors and other anti-social behaviour that contributes to travel delays on the tube. Financed by marketing, this is a perfect example of poetry being used to change a mindset. Similarly, what is an advertising slogan if not a succint and snappy piece of poetry. It’s ok when we know what TFL are trying to get us to do (not leave our newspapers) or what the advert wants us to do (buy the product) – but the poetry…what message are they hoping to infiltrate into us there? What do they want from us?

If not an example of polemics and propaganda is it an example of the dumbing down of literature? I like seeing the poems. But then I quite like literature. It warms me and excites me to see people gazing at the words on the train, reading everything from William Wordsworth to Ayikwei Parkes, on subjects as diverse as daffodils and council estates. I’m the kind of girl who laments the loss of libraries however, and most people clearly don’t, or they wouldn’t be being lost. Is this in itself a slightly pretentious outlook to have, being pleased that the great masses are still reading. If people want to be absorbed on their phones or the metro, who are TfL or any of the other funders to dictate otherwise.

People in London are busy. Despite it being one of, if not the most, culturally stimulating and scintillating cities in the world, full of new and old theatre, performances, galleries and architecture, the culture quota can be difficult to achieve. Sometimes gazing at the poetry that lines the commute is simply the only way that we have time to engage with such work in our busy lives. As well as being an uplifting and stimulating sight (which is surely what art is for, to provoke an emotion) it can be a gateway, to bigger, better, harder poetry.

Often the first exposure to a poet or their work, the fact that people read those words on their commute and then go and look it up is testament to the power of the medium. Even this is  reflection of changing society and the way in which whilst the content of the poetry may not change, the mode  in which it is presented and delivered must be. We don’t (usually) hear of a poem via a friend and then go and read a book of their works by the hearth. We see a sentence on the tube and google it, or pick up one of the little pamphlet collections occasionally produced – and on a far higher print run than most poetry publications. Being in this environment, these emotions and resonances have the ability to capture people off guard. Invite them to a poetry evening and their ‘anti poetry’ barriers will shoot up. But tired and weary on the tube, they scan for something to absorb, and find it. Tourists and visitors are opened to rich literary and cultural heritage, which is not always London centric.  Poetry has an elite and ephemeral representation and reputation, whereas actually it can be very accessible and real. Times change, but the power of poetry as an educating and emotive art form doesn’t.

Maybe this is the real reason for the project, or if not the driving reason a huge benefit. Literature enhances our lives. Sure, we need food and water more, at least phsyically, but keep going up Maslow’s hierarchy and you will find poetry (taking self actualisation as a proxy). There are huge personal and social advantages to these words lining our train carriages and tube tunnels. Not only are they inspiring and provocative, they make what is an unthrilling environment if not always enlightening, at least a little more tolerable. Art shouldn’t be aloof, and in a world where libraries and cultural centres are closing, the London Underground and its constant audience is a good space to engage to engage with literature. Chernaik describes it as ‘democratic, central to every society as folk myth, fable, a serious craft, natural to every child. It sits very well in a public place, open to all. Most interesting to me is the relation of the everyday to myth, ever since Wordsworth  insisted on common language and common experience as the ground of his vision.’

A vision of poetry interspersed with visions of adverts and visions of the blue and red roundel seems to be a good reflection of the combination of the practical and the profound, the everyday and the entrancing, literature and life. Keep the focus on the words, the value is self evident and significant.

by Francesca Baker