Poems on the Underground, by Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert (eds.)

poems under

Poems on the Underground, which has been running since 1986 – certainly a time when we needed cheering up – has proved a remarkably popular concept.  It relies on a simple fact: people travelling by tube don’t like to make eye contact.  If you have not brought something to read with you, all that is left is either to study the map of whichever line you are on, or look at the adverts.  Thus it is a golden opportunity to get people to read poems, short enough to finish between stops, large enough to be seen across the carriage.  However casually a poem is read, people are bound to exit a little more thoughtful, maybe in better humour, than when they entered.  Perhaps a few travellers who might have dismissed poems as esoteric or irrelevant, and never bothered to look at one, or perhaps have been turned off the subject at school, will be encouraged by this brief exposure to seek out more.

The problem with putting up poems in tube carriages though is the ephemeral nature of the activity.  Like all advertising, whether for tourism or literature, it’s here today and gone tomorrow.  So it makes sense to compile them into a book.  That though changes the nature of the beast.  A single poem read in a jostling crowd is now consumed in conjunction with others in a variety of contexts, possibly in public, but more likely in solitary tranquillity.  In effect it is just another anthology, but not compiled with the book as its primary aim.  There is the risk that interesting choices for the Underground might not work as well between the covers of a book, and the need for fairly immediate clarity on a journey might generate safe but unadventurous choices, when the reader of the book, with more time, would benefit from something more substantial.

With those caveats in mind, how does this selection, marking the first five years of the scheme, stand up?  Naturally they tend to be short, no epics here (the odd extract from a longer work notwithstanding), themes and tone are varied, and the compilers have avoided the ultra-obscure.  For the newcomer to poetry that makes it an excellent read.  The time-scale ranges from the Bible to living poets.  Most are writing in English, but a number of poems are in translation.  The well known ones, at least to poetry readers, are mixed with the unfamiliar, so there is something for everyone.  A few do not merit re-reading (though one needs to be careful writing off what seems trite; the fault may be in ourselves), while others are more demanding, and a few reach profundity, and astonishing beauty, within a small compass.

On its own terms the book does not stand out from the competition as a poetry anthology, but it is bound to encourage casual readers, familiar with the poems they see on their commute, to pick it up and think at greater leisure and with greater purpose than hurried workaday contact allows.  For that the compilers are to be thanked wholeheartedly, but the Illustrated Edition is not simply the tube poems collected together.  It has been attractively produced in hardback by Cassell, nicely bound with a ribbon bookmark, the typography clean and the layout elegant.  In addition to black and white images accompanying some of the poems, ranging from cartoons to reproductions of manuscripts, the editors have included a handsome selection of Underground posters dating from 1911 to 1944, most with a poetry theme.  The book concludes with notes on some of the poems and on the posters.  The latter show that the tube has long been associated with poetry, and the success of Poems on the Underground is an indication that it will continue to be.  Full credit to London Underground for donating the space for the poetry cards, thereby making its users’ lives a little more tolerable at the very least, at best enriching the spirit in what is, it has to be said, an unpromising environment.

First posted on Goodreads website 4 February 2013

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