Poetry Reads: Poems on the Underground

Underground Railway Trial Trip, 1863 

The London Underground aka the Tube, as they call the metro or the subway, is the world’s first underground railway. That said, when the Metropolitan line was started in 1863, it wasn’t exactly running underground. A trench was dug a few feet below the ground, tracks laid, roofs laid, and voila! Underground, they declared!

It was in 1890, the first real underground route, the Northern Line, was opened to the public. What revolutionary tunneling machine led to this is another story.

That introduction aside, let’s cut to year 1986. 

Persuasion, three friends and an experiment

Once upon a time in 1986, three friends gently ganged up to make an offer…anybody could refuse.

The three non-Mafia members, Judith Chernaik (writer 1), Cicely Herbert (poet 1) and Gerard Benson (poet 2) proposed an experiment. 

They prodded (not literally, but in a manner of speaking) the concerned London Underground personnel, in what is alleged to be, a non-threatening manner, to conduct an experiment. 

Lets put up some poems on them trains and see what happens, the trio murmured. The powers that be agreed.  

Thus began Poems on the Underground. Print editions of the featured poems followed. Free leaflets of the poems were distributed at stations. 

To this day, three times a year, a renewed set of poems, old, new, ancient, popular, obscure adorn the Underground trains. 

The Poems on the Underground blokes do recognize the support of The British Council, Transport for London (TfL) and Arts Council England. But they neither confirm nor deny that the Corleone family is in any way involved. 

Poems on the Underground: Highlights 

One of the funniest verse I read in a Poems on the Underground anthology is the mischevious, cheeky Edwin Morgan poem The Subway Piranhas

It so happened in the early eighties that Morgan was among the four poets commissioned to write poster poems. This was to mark the reopening of the Glasgow Subway – Argubly the world’s third-oldest underground system. 

The Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive (SPTE) rejected four of Morgan’s poems. SPTE, as Morgan said in response, took the poems literally. SPTE, as was reported, wanted to assure their passengers that (as far as they know) no piranhas infested the Underground.  

The Subway Piranhas later made it to the Underground display, and later to one of the Poems of the Underground anthologies. 

The Subway Piranhas by Edwin Morgan 

My utmost favourite is this wonderful Grace Nichols turn on homesickness, featured as the first poem in a Poems on the Underground anthology. 

Like a Beacon by Grace Nichols
Poetry and us
The transformative power of poetry is the essence of the Poems on the Underground initiative – a celebration of the human spirit, ode to shared experiences, that even in the depths of a bustling metropolis, art finds its way to the soul.
(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

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