Review: Poems on the Underground – Judith Chernaik (ed)

Christmas Gifts for Readers no. 2. (a short series)

Anyone who travels on London Underground will be familiar with the poems which appear over the heads of passengers in the advertising frames.  The project began back in 1986 when Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert persuaded London Underground to post poems on their trains and then to double the number of spaces for which they obtained funding.

Since then countless passengers have founds solace and amusement by reading these short poems. The project has been so successful that it has inspired similar projects in Dublin, Adelaide, Melbourne, New York, Paris, Stuttgart, Sydney, Barcelona, Athens, Moscow, St Petersburg and Shanghai (source: Booktrust).

Today sees the publication of a completely new edition of Poems on the Underground: A New Edition (Penguin Hardback Classics) containing 230 poems, beautifully presented in a nice binding, the cover design being based on the moquette fabric used on the seats of tube trains.  The book is timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the London Underground on 9th January 2013.

The book is organised into sixteen sections with titles such as Love, London, Exile and Loss, Seasons, Families. Each one contains a dozen or so poems from poets ancient and modern.  Shakespeare and Donne feature, but so so poets I have barely heard of from lands far and wide.  Each poem occupies a whole page, occasionally two, giving lots of white space around each one, just as they are seen on the undergrounds posters.  The titles catch the eye –

  • If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper
  • Concerto for Double Bass
  • I am Becoming My Mother
  • Optimistic Little Poem

Generally they are short, typically 12 or 16 lines, some less while others managing to squeeze four verses onto the page – the idea being of course that if you got on a tube train at Earls Court you could get off at South Kensington with a few sparse thoughts ringing through your head.  This makes it an ideal book to dip into. Few people would sees this book lying around the house and not be tempted to quickly browse through and find a morsel of verse that meant something to them at that moment.

Everyone will find their own favourites in the book and I can’t resist quoting a couple of extracts –

From Nocturne by Léopold Sédar Sgnhor’s

And we shall bathe, my love, in the presence of Africa.
Furnishings from Guinea and the Congo, heavy and burnished, calm and dark,
Masks, pure and primeval, on the walls, distant but so present!
Ebony thrones for ancestral guests, the Princes of the hill country
Musky perfumes, thick grass-mats of silence

From W S Merwin’s Rain Travel

I wake in the dark and remember
It is the morning when I must start
by myself on the journey
I lie listening to the black hour
before dawn and you are
still asleep beside me . . .

Apparently poets themselves love their poems being selected to appear on the tube train – the people’s poet Roger McGough wrote in the online magazine The Browser, “My biggest thrill was having one of my poems up there. It went: ‘I want to be the leader. I want to be the leader’, and it’s been used by many politicians. It’s been hung in Downing Street. I remember sitting underneath it and hoping people would notice”.

The London Underground has a fascination all of its own.  Wikipedia has a whole article on The London Underground in Popular Culture covering tube train references in song, film, literature, video games and even legends.  I feel that even this is only scratching the surface for “the tube” has a life of its own, continually spawning new television documentaries books and songs.  If you’re interested in the London Underground then I highly recommend Annie Mole’s Going Underground Blog which she has been writing since 2003.  It even contains occasional entries recording her interaction with Underground Poems.

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