A ride where meter's always running Poetry is big hit on London subway

November 29, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It was a dark and stormy night . . . .

And it was worse down in the Tube: clammy, drafty, then suffocating. The rush-hour clack of heels rang down the dripping steps; bodies squeezed into the subway cars and crushed one against the other, unhappy faces all around in 180 degrees of misery.

The lucky few hung from straps. The rest were held up by the pressure of body against body, all swaying as the train pushed the stale subterranean air through the inky tunnel, lurching from station to station. The fumes of the day's decay hung about our heads.

But there in the densest crush a man was smiling. It was as if he had a light on him. Such is the power of a happy thought. It glowed from the poster just above his head:

Celia Celia

When I am sad and weary

When I think all hope has gone

When I walk along High Holborn

I think of you with nothing on

-- Adrian Mitchell

Thus another London commuter was rescued from the ennui at the end of the day by Poems on The Underground. What a stygian place to find a luminous thought, or a tender one. Or maybe a funny, self-deprecating one, like this, by Spike Milligan:

Teeth

English Teeth, English Teeth!

Shining in the sun

A part of British heritage

Aye, each and every one.

English Teeth, Happy Teeth!

Always having fun

Clamping down on bits of fish

And sausages half done.

English Teeth! HEROES' Teeth!

Hear them click! and clack!

Let's sing a song of praise to them --

Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.

Where else could it work so well? Who knows more about poetry than the British?

They know it brings human experience closer to reality than anything else can, enables people to convey what they feel -- what they really feel.

Judith Chernaik probably always thought that. Thus, some years back this transplanted New Yorker noticed the poems on the pavement along the Thames bank. She got her great idea.

As with all exceptional notions, it was simple enough: Put poetry in the Underground. Why? That was the question from the people in charge. Why not? Won't hurt. Might make people feel better.

All good answers.

The Underground didn't exactly seize the idea. But not wanting to appear a bunch of Philistines, it provided some unrented advertising spaces at a small fee, and some free. But she had to select the poetry, and get somebody to pay to print the posters, which she did.

The project was launched at the Aldwych station on The Strand on Jan. 29, 1986. It went up like a rocket. It's still up there, in orbit.

"The response was unbelieveable," Ms. Chernaik recalled. "It came from ordinary people, people who don't think of themselves as being especially interested in poetry. I think it was just the coming on to a poem, having it right there."

She remembered the letter from the women who had been on her way home from a funeral, who had found "one that was just right for her." Since then, she has received many more letters, and poems as well from poets who want nothing in life so much as to be published in the Underground.

But Ms. Chernaik chooses only published work. All the poems are in the English language, but not just from Britain. A few translations are included. Expectedly, most are short; some mere slivers, like this, also by Adrian Mitchell:

Goodbye

He breathed in air, he breathed out light.

Charlie Parker was my delight.

The number of spaces for Poems on the Underground has grown from the original 500 or so to 4,000. Every day, five or six poems rumble through the vast labyrinth of the London Tube, each poem repeated on 800 posters. The poems are changed every four months.

The New York Subway even started about a month ago. There, they've got four poems riding around in some 6,000 cars. They're called Poetry in Motion. It lacks the special hint of clandestineness Ms. Chernaik feels characterizes the London project. It also smacks of the sports writer's cliche.

The Underground was so impressed by the response from Londoners that about three years ago it began to pay for the whole project, about $20,000. And no wonder.

These days people have little good to say about the Underground.

It's dirty, the trains are old, many broken down. It's even a little dangerous here and there and at certain hours.

"Most people find the Underground, well, lacking in stimulation," said Underground spokesman Nick Lewis, with the euphemistic ease of the polished public relations agent. "The journey is boring. People try to make the time pass. They read; their eyes search for some kind of visual stimulation."

How are the poems selected?

Ms. Chernaik does it with the help of two collaborators, both poets, (she is not a poet, but a novelist), Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert.

"We look for poetry that will appeal to people in a direct way, that's understandable, that stays with you," she said.

The public's response has gone far beyond reassuring the people who run the Tube.

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