The Tension and the Glory of Subway Poetry

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March 23rd, 2016 no comments
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Long before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was filling ad space with verse, Lawrence Ferlinghetti described the lasting impression of a subway poetry encounter. “Reading Yeats, I do not think of Ireland,” he wrote,

“but of midsummer New York
and of myself back then
reading that copy I found
on the Thirdavenue El

the El
with its flyhung fans
and its signs reading
SPITTING IS FORBIDDEN

the El
careening thru its thirdstory world

with its thirdstory people
in their thirdstory doors
looking as if they had never heard
of the ground”

It’s the kind of serendipitous encounter that the administrators of New York City’s Poetry in Motion program have dreamed of creating. Perhaps they already have, and someday, some New York émigré will not think of Ireland when she reads Seamus Heaney, but of the thousand crowded New York subway cars where she faced his poem “Scaffolding” — and of herself back then.

In the following piece — part reported feature, part history, part meditation on the urban experience — Fred Hill, the winner of our 2014 writing competition, describes the web of overlapping influences that shaped the transit poetry programs of New York and London. Poetry and the commute make a natural pair. But underground verse, she argues, plays a unique role in each city.

H.G. 

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, Charles Demuth, 1928 | Courtesy of the Met Museum

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, Charles Demuth, 1928 | Courtesy of the Met Museum

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough
—Ezra Pound, 1913

The typical subway commute is prosaic at best. Stand clear of the closing door, please: the commuter girds for a crush of elbows, odor, hard-luck stories. Sudden verse, Pound hemmed between the toothy grins of personal injury lawyers, seems a luminous glitch in the program. Yet New Yorkers have come to expect a dash of poetry in their commutes, thanks to Poetry in Motion.

The program’s official origin myth echoes this sense of shimmering accident. In 1991, Elise Paschen, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America, had been enchanted by the implausible poems posted on the London Underground. As it turned out, Alan Kiepper, president of the New York City Transit Authority, had been similarly attracted to the poems on a recent trip to London. The poet Milton Kessler, a former professor of Poetry Society president Molly Peacock, suggested that Kiepper contact the Society.

“Good ideas rarely have a single author,” Paschen notes, recalling the coincidence that put poetry in motion. The serendipitous convergence of minds was its impetus — and its intended result. Poems on the subway spark creative venture — onwards! Peacock describes encountering subway poetry as “felicity,” a “latching onto a moment.” But this emphasis on enchantment and, well, luck, ignores other motives wound into the Transit Authority’s unexpected cultural sponsorship. By the time Paschen and Peacock arrived at the long-sought meeting with Kiepper, bringing poets as advocates, the transit chief had already made up his mind. New York would have poems. The two women only convinced him that they should choose the lot.

Why was Kiepper so eager to get the poetry up? What was this felicitous moment that poetry clung to, and what forces propelled the cultural and civic momentum carrying poetry along the rails of New York? The idea came secondhand from London, but transit poetry quickly found local justification. New York rose from its brush with bankruptcy on the strength of a new economic model where a resident, white-collar, creative workforce was the key to revitalization. Winning back young professionals from the suburbs demanded a new aspiration for public space, as a cradle of social differences and catalyst for creativity. The subway, still heavily policed, gunked-up, fitful, was struggling to banish the public fear and resentment of the crisis years. Yet the subway was also the largest public system in town, both tool and symbol of the interconnectedness of city life.

The program’s premise inverted the broken windows theory: here, minor acts of attention to the environment could transform the attitudes and behavior of riders. As a subway art, it was in some ways the opposite of the dazzling chaos of graffiti. Poetry, said Peacock, was “a quiet art, a quieting art,” and acted as a “refuge, coming at the end of a rather volatile time in the subways.” Poetry in Motion was meant to reroute the subway in the public consciousness, helping clear the residue of urban decay.

Courtesy MTA Arts and Design

Courtesy MTA Arts and Design

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe
—Billy Collins, from “Grand Central,” 2013

Peacock and Paschen were teamed with Neil Neches, an MTA communications man (and subject of New York Times praise for his unusual correct use of the semi-colon in an advertising campaign). The trio was granted executive power, with minimal guidance from the Transit Authority, which suggested “upbeat” poems and discouraged only reference to destruction. One central question was whether to limit offerings to dead poets, to evoke a sense of history as well as avoid contemporary poets’ jostling, or to intentionally make space for living poets, especially women and minorities, alongside the canon. Here were two visions of what a public literary refuge should be: one, a canopy of living voices in open and relatable conversation, another built on aesthetic rigor rather than populist resonance, offering literary largesse to the masses.

It’d be easy to peg each vision to an institutional backer — the populist MTA and the elite Poetry Society — but in fact, each saw the program as a way to repair its reputation. In the late 20th century, the genre of poetry and the mode of travel suffered from opposite PR problems: subways filthy and dangerous; poetry, especially the canon, increasingly seen as elite, intellectualized unto aridity. The strange collaboration charged poems with the thrill of intimacy, while providing subway readers with elegant verse advertising nothing.

The first four poets: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, and Lucille Clifton. Poetry in Motion was kicked off with an event at the New York Transit Museum in October, 1992. Lucille Clifton read her own work and Dickinson’s, Allen Ginsberg stood for Whitman, and Galway Kinnell read Yeats — a dazzling line-up of poets past and present. Grateful letters and entreaties for half-caught lines flew in at once. In times of financial pressure, the transit poetry programs on both sides of the pond had only these letters to prove success. One rider-reader wrote: “Reading the poems while I am in transit helps me to realize and remember that there is so much more to life than just earning money.” In an article about the program, the MTA’s head of marketing, Alicia Martinez, commented that they had never surveyed passenger reactions, as the “idea of a poll about poetry seems incongruous.” Poetry’s cultural capital undermines, and perhaps transcends, market logic.

Though transit poetry came to London first, a New Yorker dreamed it up: expat novelist Judith Chernaik. When the first poems went up in 1986, the city’s Underground was in a slump, racked by transport strikes and resented for high fares. Two years earlier, control of London’s public transport had been taken from the Greater London Council and given to a newborn “statutory corporation” with new emphasis on metrics and the bottom line. This hybrid status was the latest stage of the Tube’s tangled history of public-private partnership.

In the early ’80s, despite dwindling ridership, the London Underground retained powerful symbolic weight. The world’s oldest underground transport system had sheltered people during the Blitz. Beginning in 1913, publicity manager Frank Pick had commissioned a roundel, map, and typography that revamped the Tube in a modernist aesthetic rooted in an ethos of public use. Frustration with Tube service mostly fed outrage against inadequate government support.

Ken Livingstone’s 1981 ‘Fares Fair’ campaign to slash the city’s public transport fares was swiftly censured and shut down by national government, but lingered in the imagination of the Left as a heroic moment in defense of public services. In the late ‘80s, in the wake of Thatcher’s railway and bus privatization, transport became a forum for debate on ideas of public benefit and privatization. Thatcher was itching to accomplish a similar coup, to break up and sell off the component parts of LUL. Chernaik wrote in 1992 that the program was a response to “the feeling that something terrible was happening to culture, to public services,” in the context of the Thatcher-era “shift from public to private in language and actuality.” There was neat symmetry here: Arts Council Grants went disproportionately to poetry institutions, guarding iconic British heritage against the buffeting of market forces. Who bought poetry, after all? The whole genre had become representative of the need to protect the public good against market forces.

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Transport for London

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Transport for London

In the introduction to the first Poems on the Underground anthology, Chernaik describes the poetry’s debut as a “scattering… reminiscent of the lovesick youth in the Forest of Arden, hanging odes upon hawthorns.” Again, the myth of spontaneous expression persists, despite years of dogged prodding and wheedling for sponsorship. It was not so much a scattering as a ploughed, prepped and planted field. Chernaik’s incongruous comparison — could anything be less pastoral than the Underground? — tweaks the English tradition of the commons, conventionally figured as green and open land.

Although Poems on the Underground included work from across the English-speaking world, it gained much of its sponsorship through its claim to display a distinctly British poetic heritage. It was a “modern Palgrave’s Golden Treasury,” Chernaik wrote in the Times of London. These paperback anthologies offered a new kind of cultural citizenship, their literary cosmopolitanism grounded in a city that was both the traditional seat of imperial power and the setting for postcolonial movement and immigration. Many of the first contemporary Commonwealth poets selected, like Grace Nichols and Fleur Adcock, are represented with poems that explicitly (and poignantly) grapple with the immigrant experience in London.

At the same time, anxiety about globalization eroding national characteristics and institutions bolstered support for Poems on the Underground as a rallying point for the national culture, which many saw as defined by its commitment to public service and civilizing good. To Paschen, the Poetry Society director, the London poems seemed to extend naturally from a national respect for well-designed public space, literary expertise, and truly ancient literary heritage.

Implausible even in the London Tube, subway poetry in New York seemed impossible.

···

During London’s era of stylistic unification, the New York subway was not a single entity, but a rough patchwork of two squabbling private transport companies. (The IND, the public line, entered the fray in 1932 and cut a unification deal in 1940.) The New York subway lacked the symbolic cachet of the Underground. It had never sheltered its riders from bombs or housed movements for equity. The planer of modernist design would not smooth its convoluted corporate history until the 1970s. By that point, the subway had fallen into riotous disrepair. The middle-class drove fearfully into town from the suburbs. As the city lurched towards recovery, subway cars sheathed in graffiti-proof material reminded riders of the frailty of the assembled order. New Yorkers still rode warily.

Peacock, the Poetry Society president, describes New York transit chief Alan Kiepper’s desire for poetry as one-upmanship: he wanted it because the boys in London had it. Yet even before Kiepper coveted poems, he sought the unity accomplished in London half a century earlier, hiring a New York design firm to smooth out the architectural discrepancies left by the interlacing of the three old subway providers. Stubborn traces of the past rankled Kiepper, who banned conductors and posters from using the IND, BMT, and IRT initials. Between 1982 and 1992, the MTA spent $12 billion on capital improvements with little impact on the subway’s reputation. It was time to overhaul the user’s imagination.

Poetry in Motion was run under the banner of the MTA’s new SubTalk campaign, a wave of PSAs that found a tone “cheerier and more literate than the usual,” wrote the New York Times. The intended audience of Subtalk was cheerier and more literate, too: young professionals then tentatively moving back from the suburban fringes. Previously, the subway’s literary products had been graffiti and pamphlets on public safety produced by disgruntled, striking cops.

In London, the poetry program was a defense of a public good beyond profit. In New York, subway executives struggled with customer anxiety and public image, rather than the threat of privatization. Accordingly, the New York transit authority used the poetry to rebrand rider experience. Sponsoring poetry strengthened the subway’s cultural authority, letting it suggest what could be gained — and who you could become — in the nascent “creative city” of the late 20th century.

Photo by Benedict Johnson, courtesy Transport for London

Comunicación/Communication

Comunicación

Yo te hablo de poesía
y vos me preguntás
a qué hora comemos.
Lo peor es que
yo también tengo hambre.

Communication

I am talking to you about poetry
and you say
when do we eat.
The worst of it is
I’m hungry too.
— Alicia Portnoy, 1992

In retrospect, Peacock confides, she believes her charm earned the Poetry Society of America creative control of the subway poems. Kiepper was, in fact, probably charmed by the two earnest young women brandishing sonnets: Paschen returned from a doctorate on Yeats at Oxford, where she had resuscitated the Oxford Poetry magazine and led a group of Native American women poets around the UK; Peacock teaching at Manhattan’s Friends Seminary school while publishing her first books of poetry with Random House.

Still, the charm of the two young arts administrators (and poets) emerged in part from the women’s ability to represent the creative workers needed to yank New York into life. The two women’s ferocious belief in the city’s need for poetry contrasted with the staid organizational culture of the “old boys” transit network of businessmen and managers. (Their Society, too, relied on creative workers’ passion, intellectual appetite, and sense of professional purpose. “We had to tell people to wait to cash their checks,” Peacock says, and her employees did, buoyed not by cash but by motivation.)

Courtesy MTA Arts and Design

As the idea of bringing the full self to work entered managerial parlance, traditional office forms shriveled away and leisure lost its triviality. Meaningful, substantial hobbies could nourish the self, hone creativity, and boost eventual productivity. Creative workers flocked to cities as places to pursue meaningful leisure. If the suburb-business district commute balanced the workplace grind with domestic relaxation, cities invigorated and amplified both work and play. As “creativity” emerged as the defining resource of new New York, poetry gained value as an index measure.

New ideas of how to motivate productive workers focused on self-actualization, and poetry suggested the role of self-understanding as well as creativity. Paschen, Peacock, and Neches sought “love poems… poems about human interactions, because those kinds of poems we felt people would identify with,” focusing on emotion, introspection, and desire, aspects of the human experience that spoke to everybody. Lyric poetry, built on self-expression and technical prowess, suited the age and the audience Kiepper hoped to win.

···

Hedgehog

He ambles along like a walking pin cushion,
Stops and curls up lie a chestnut burr.
He’s not worried because he’s so little.
Nobody is going to slap him around.
—Chu Chen Po, 9th century AD. Translated from the Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth.

Many New York old timers still used the term IMT, BRT, IND to show they were insiders, a habit that frustrated Kiepper. A city, after all, swiftly outpaces its old terms and names. Linguistic anchors will not hold. Cities are meant for the newcomers, and to belong to a city is not to name its parts but to embody its characteristics of change and dynamism. The provisional nature of urban belonging offers social mobility and personal freedom, but in turn requires the ability to switch course at a moment’s notice.

Kiepper recognized newcomers built a city. While the British program primarily celebrated the nation’s poetic heritage, New York’s drew from a global poetic tradition with dizzying scope. “We wanted to represent as many languages as we could that are spoken in New York, and if we could get a small poem and have a translation so much the better,” she said. “New York is a cosmopolitan city, and we felt immediately that we had to represent the population of New York, which is the population of the world.” If racial tensions spurred on the collapse into “fear city,” this poetic refuge obliquely attempt to spark hope, to present an image, however momentary, of harmonious diversity — and of human voices transcending the divisions of class, race, language, and time.

The program aimed to counteract the art’s reputation in America as elitist and obscure. Nothing was meant to require a dictionary. Poems were tested against the lexical range of a “typical New Yorker.” A lively debate about a snippet of Marianne Moore ended with Neil Neches handing out sections of the poem to straphangers and quizzing his Everyriders on meaning. Most stalled at the contested “katydid’s wing” — so the poem was nixed. If the range of poems were international, the content and vocabulary were pitched to New Yorkers. “We’d rather have a bagel than a cow,” said Peacock.

Untethered from conventional book form, released from the anxiety of correct interpretation, poetry could feel urgent and present. Even the grubby framing benefited the reading experience. The scanty plot of underground wall, typically reserved for ad space, offered a kind of urban-grit corollary to traditional formalist arguments for the delight of constraint.

Poems showed that changing the material presentation of poetry from portable, private book format could radically shape its impact. A passenger who caught a poem was enchanted not only by the poem, but the unconventional setting. Underground transport was not considered a real place but an experience of utiltarian freightage. Its maps coolly sliced away the rough, textured dimensionality of the city above, reducing trains to length of journey and time between stations. Alicia Martinez, the MTA’s head of marketing, said the poems aimed “to make the riding experience enriched beyond the getting of people from one place to another.” The magic of poems converted time back to place, emphasizing routes of circulation as the essence of urban life.

Courtesy MTA Arts and Design

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how
curious you are to me!
On the ferry boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross,
returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more
to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
—Walt Whitman, from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” 1856

Examining cruelty and obedience in his famous study on authority, Stanley Milgram wrote: “It is not so much who a person is as much as the situation he finds himself that determines how he acts.” People become what their environment cues them to be, undermining conventional ideas of character.

Writing on the psychology of urban living, Milgram suggests that the city’s “variety, eventfulness, possibility of choice” stress humans — we like to be told what to do. Pressing though static, the official conductor’s announcements mingle with bongo drums, candy sales, hip hop; a city offers no coherent legible set of behavioral cues. An overwhelmed psyche can suffer. But it can also strengthen. Cities activate the human capacity to resist, sort, discern.

Subway poetry was a test. Rather than the typical slippage of attention between promises of divorce, blemish removal, roach removal, subway riders found an easy choice: Poem or ad? By selecting correctly, a rider could prove their worth. The subway’s new skin enabled its riders to see themselves transformed into a public of readers, a city of poetry lovers.

As a commuter descends, he assumes a kind of protective inertness, trancelike withdrawal mingled with sharpened attention to risk: delays, pickpockets. Poetry in Motion cashed in on the mixed cognitive state of boredom and vigilance, resigned familiarity coupled with alertness, which suited reading and especially re-reading — the calling forth of new, deeper meaning from the same old form. The commute’s negotiation of pattern with change, routine with chance, mirrors the same tension within poetry.

The programs’ most important literacy act of transmission was not scattering the poetry to the public, it was making public the act of reading. A commuter spellbound by a glimpse of Yeats showcases an active engagement in his surroundings even as his internal response unfurls. Private experience is thus both framed and facilitated by public space. Kiepper came into New York determined to scrub the last traces of its economic and social collapse, a riotous age of fear, dumb, stink. He offered New Yorkers poetry as a guide to the new privileges and obligations of the creative city, where even the routine commute primed its riders for the workplace ahead. 

Fred Hill is a writer in New York City.

This post has been updated to clarify the origins of Poetry in Motion and its inaugural ceremony. 

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.



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