Friday, 10 July 2015

Ten Reasons Why… You Might Enjoy Poems on the Underground A personal view by Roger Stevens

If you’ve ever travelled on London’s Underground you will have noticed that, every now and then, between the adverts for mints and temps, there is a poem. It all began back in 1986 as an idea shared among a few friends, Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert. Wouldn’t it be a great idea, they thought, to fill the blank grey advertising slots with poems, for the public to read, think about and enjoy. London Underground liked the idea. And now, thirty years later, they have become a wonderful part of the tube journey. They provide a distraction from the crowded carriage. Sometimes they lift the spirits. They make the journey more bearable. There are several Poems on the Underground books – but here are the beginnings of ten poems showing why you might enjoy them, from the Penguin edition of 2012, published to mark London Underground’s 150th anniversary. And a little quiz – Can you name the authors of these poems? Answers below.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…
In London/ every now and then/ I get this craving/ for my mother’s food
I leave art galleries/ in search of plantains/ saltfish/ sweet potatoes…
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paperweight,
All the misery of manila folders…
Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon…
The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said
The recent buds relax and spread/ Their greenness is a kind of grief
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty…
English Teeth, English Teeth/ Shining in the sun
A part of British heritage/ Aye, each and every one
Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green…
The highway is full of big cars/ going nowhere fast
And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn
Some people wrap their lives around a cocktail glass
And you sit wondering/ where you’re going to turn
I got it./ Come. And be my baby…

1 Elizabeth Barrett Browning 2 Percy Bysshe Shelley 3 Grace Nichols 4 Theodore Roethke 5 Carol Ann Duffy
6 Philip Larkin 7 William Wordsworth 8 Spike Milligan 9 Adrienne Rich 10 Maya Angelou


masterymistery said...

Great idea about poems on the underground. Here's one I wrote on a train, during a particularly monotonous commute into corporateland:

The Secret of No Pain

Sitting on the train
smelling the rain
seeing the pain
on the faces in the train
burning my brain

Hearing the sound
of wheels going round
lost I am found
free I am bound
in that monotonous sound

Clickety clack
there and back
on a rusty iron track
feeling sleepy and slack
clickety clack

On the vinyl seat
in someone else’s heat
the warmth of living meat
left behind to greet
the next bum on the seat

Sitting on the train
here it comes again
burning my brain
the sound of the rain
the secret of no pain.

I dunno what it means, if anything, but it does rhyme!

Coral Rumble said...

I often think of Gerard, when I read the poems on the underground. Such a gentle man of huge talent.

Roger Stevens said...

Indeed he was.

Russell Duffy said...

Of course Spike's is the best!

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Yes it was a privilege to have met Gerard, such lovely memories, and when ever I look at a copy of POTU or any of his books on my shelves it all rushes back. At least we have videos of his wonderful voice. Somehow he could fill a room with delight. Good article Roger.

Russell Duffy said...

I have no idea who this Gerard is nor indeed the faintest notion of what POTU might be?

Russell Duffy said...

Poems on the Underground...DOH!

Celia Warren said...

Note to self: must read more Roethke.
And more Gerard B, where I hear his lovely voice.

Phil Waddell said...

Don't travel often on the underground these days but loved having a poem to read and think about when I did.