Walking though New York's second snowstorm in as many weeks Friday morning, past the lingering piles of trash, down into the gritty, wet and steamy subway tunnels, I could have used a little inspiration. But unlike last year, I wouldn't find it underground. The city's popular "Train of Thought" program (formerly "Poetry in Motion"), which sought to brighten the subway commute with a little poetry and poignant prose, has been replaced by ads promoting the MTA's own achievements. And so commuters learn that track work is progressing nicely at the Fulton Street Station, and a dreary January morning remains a dreary January morning.
Contrast this with the London Underground, which last week celebrated the 25th anniversary of "Poems on the Underground." Every season, the British Council Art Group selects six poems to make the Underground seem a little less underground. This season's selections address the value of the written word and include the well-known opening lines from John Keats' "Endymion." A good choice for the "gloomy days" of winter, readers will no doubt think of the tunnels they're coursing through when they consider the "o'er darkened ways made for our searching":
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health,
And quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.
"Lines to a Movement in Mozart's E-flat Symphony" is a rare, hopeful poem about spring and love from the usually dour Thomas Hardy:
Show me again the time
When in the Junetide's prime
We flew by meads and mountains northerly!--
Yea, to such freshness, fairness, fullness, fineness, freeness,
Love lures life on...
Show me again just this:
The moments of that kiss
Away from the prancing folk, by the strawberry-tree!--
Yea to such rashness, ratheness, rareness, ripeness, richness,
Love lures life on.
The Council also selected "For the Life of This Planet" by Grace Nichols, "Riddle" by Gerard Benson, a fourth-century translation of "Loving the Rituals" by Palladas, and a Seamus Heaney translation of lines written by Colmcille, a sixth-century Irish saint. Heaney and Nichols, notably, were also featured in the very first set of London Underground poems. You can take a look at all of the new poetry here.
Sadly, if you want to read a little poetry on your way into Manhattan, you'll have to bring your own. An archive of 25 years of Tube poetry is available here, and Orion Publishing has put together a few collections.