The World's 10 Best Transit Poems

A short list of our favorite verses from public transportation around the globe

Image
Flickr/zestbienbeautouza

There's a well-known poetry installation in the New York City subway system called "A Commuter's Lament, or a Close Shave," written by the late Norman Colp. The poem reveals itself on a series of ceiling beams in the high-traffic tunnel connecting the Port Authority and Times Square subway stops (here's a video tour). Depending on your outlook in life the poem is either a bleak "ode to futility and resignation," as the New York Times City Room blog has called it, or an honest reflection of the tireless and tiresome daily commute:

Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again

Early last week the poem got an unexpected line edit from a college student in the Bronx with a more upbeat perspective on things. "Overslept" became "Overexcited." “Why the pain” became “Much to gain.” And so on. The culprit just wanted to make the city "a little bit of a happier place," according to the Daily News. But Colp's widow wasn't too happy about the stunt - "why be optimistic?" she told the News - and neither was the city's transit authority, which quickly restored the original wording.

The incident got us thinking about transit poetry in general. There's actually quite a lot of it: carved into station walls, lining the ad panels of train cars, graffitied onto bus stand walls, and so on. In the United States much of it comes from courtesy of Poetry in Motion, a program launched in the early '90s by the Poetry Society of America that has placed work in the transit systems of more than 20 American cities, from Philadelphia to Fort Collins. Similar programs exist in cities around the world, with notable efforts including London's Poems on the Underground, Paris's Poemes dans le Metro, and, most recently, the Wiersze w Metrze campaign across Europe. Moscow recently started an international poetry exchange program for its transit lines. Glasgow's transport system has a Subway Poet-in-Residence. And this poem on a train window in Seoul suggests that Asian countries have also joined the underground poetry movement. 

In no particular order, and with a slight preference for works with a transportation theme, here are some of our favorite transit poems from around the globe.

New York
Walt Whitman
"To You"

Poetry in Motion graced cars of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for 18 years, from 1992 to 2008, before giving way to a related program, Train of Thought, which itself gave way to M.T.A. house ads in late 2010. In March there was talk of reviving Poetry in Motion — M.T.A. chief Jay Walder reportedly loves himself a good verse — but with Walder out now the program's future is uncertain. Still New York City subway cars have housed a great many poems in the past, including these fitting lines from Whitman's "Inscriptions," in the 1891 edition of Leaves of Grass, via Poetry in Motion:

STRANGER! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me,
why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

Chicago
Elise Paschen
"Taxi"

The Chicago section of Poetry in Motion ran a 1996 poem by Elise Paschen, from her work Infidelitiesabout the joys of sitting in a traffic jam in the Loop with a love interest. (Perhaps a subconscious reminder from the Chicago Transit Authority that sometimes public transportation is more efficient?) The work concludes:

I'm not immune
to your deft charm
in one stalled car
I'd like to take
you as you are

Philadelphia
Carl Sandburg
"Window"

One more work courtesy of Poetry in Motion — the site's excellent city-by-city search engine is highly recommended, if you have several hours to kill — this time one that appeared on Philadelphia's SEPTA system. It's from a Carl Sandburg compilation called Chicago Poems, oddly enough, but evokes a joy of train travel that's universal:

Night from a railroad car window
is a great, dark, soft thing
broken across with slashes of light

Los Angeles
Marisela Norte
"Out the Window" series

Via Streetsblog L.A. we learn about a brand new effort to flash poetry on the television boxes along certain bus routes in Los Angeles. The poems were written by regular rider Marisela Norte, and they appear on video screens at five intersections; the one below can be found at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax.  You need to hurry to catch them, though, as the system plans to run them only through December.

blue pencils
pomegranates
where did your dreams take you last night

San Francisco
Robert Frost
From "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

In July the blog Muni Diaries, which writes about travel along the "sometimes crappy, sometimes efficient" transit system in San Francisco, posted a photo of a few lines from a Robert Frost gem scrawled onto the inside wall of a city bus stand. The anonymous scribbler doesn't appear to have attributed the lines, and even messed up the first word (writing "And" for "But"), but as far as bus riders are concerned his or her heart was in the write place (see what we did there). Here is the poem's final stanza in its entirety:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Washington, D.C.
Walt Whitman
"The Wound Dresser"

A few years back the Washington Metro began to carve poems into the stone walls of certain stops with the theme of caring for others. Part of this Whitman poem from Leaves of Grass was written into the north entrance of the Dupont Circle station. The selection omits the final two lines of verse — hopefully from space limitation and not a fear that "it was too gay," as the DCist wrote when the installation was still in progress, back in 2007:

Thus in silence in dreams' projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all dark night - some are so young;
Some suffer so much - I recall the experience sweet and sad...

British Columbia
Sachiko Murakami
"Accounting"

British Columbia started its Poetry in Transit series in 1996, inspired by the success of Poetry in Motion. A three-person selection committee chooses 16 poems each year, some of which have had a considerable effect on the lives of travelers. One couple met on the bus while discussing the Catherine Greenwood poem "Exile," and later married. This poem by Murakami (from the 2009 book, The Invisibility Exhibit) was part of the 2010 series [PDF]. It describes another chance meeting of passengers, and concludes:

Before we reach Mt. Pleasant and the greener
ascension she reaches her page’s end,
packs up, steps down into the streets
and finds her place among them.

London
Isaiah 2.4

Poems of the Underground appears to be the longest-running transit-poetry program in existence. Each year six poems are chosen for display in the Tube. (A couple years back some conductors started announcing lines of poetry and other notable phrases to passengers, including snippets from Shakespeare, Yeats and the Sartre saying that needs no repeating to transit riders, "Hell is other people.") The fall 2011 series included these uplifting lines from Isaiah, complete with an image from the 1611 King James Bible:

And they shall beate their swords into plow-shares;
and their spears into pruning hooks:
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn warre any more.

Paris
Pierre Tilman
"J'ai Dit Parfois"

A passenger on the Paris Metro snapped a shot of this Tilman poem somewhere between Abbesses and Château de Vincennes, calling it "a very welcome diversion from all the H & M Jimmy Choo adverts." She even bothered to provide a rough translation of the poem; it begins, provocatively:

I said sometimes
I said yes
I said no ... 

Which, as it happens, could serve as the default responses to the following transit questions: Does the train arrive on time? Would you prefer that it did? Do you expect that it will?

Warsaw
Ernest Bryll

The Wiersze w Metrze program began in 2008 with a general focus on modern European poetry, but in 2011 it narrowed the lens to contemporary Polish poets. This work by the decorated poet Ernest Bryll — its title doesn't appear to be mentioned on the official program website — was translated into English by Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese. It begins:

Why do we wake up every morning so exhausted
As if each night we did not sleep a wink,
How come our faces so grey, and our eyes so old,
Why are we always in such a rush ...

Norman Colp would no doubt approve.

Any great poems in your subway station? Tell us about them in the comments section.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user zestbienbeautouza.

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