What are you looking at, wishing there was something else to look at?

A week of work has already come and gone for 2012. That means many of you are back taking transit in whatever form that might be: the subway/metro, bus, streetcar, train, etc. I was riding the SkyTrain from Surrey to Vancouver over the holidays and noticed the ads inside. Directly in my line of vision was a poster for the show New Girl, which, due to the unfortunate absence of other reading materials with me and nothing else to stare at, I repeatedly read and memorized the tagline of this show through no willful intention of my own: Boys will be boys. Jess will be Jess.

As much as I like Zooey Deschanel (who doesn’t?) and her show, I got thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to read something else when you’re in transit and have some time to kill? Something a bit more inspiring and thought-provoking?

In the 1980s, a group of Londoners were thinking the same thing. A few of them got together and mused, “How pleasant it would be, we thought, to read a few lines by one’s favourite poet on the Tube, instead of advertisements for mints or temps.” And so Poems on the Underground was launched on January 29, 1986. The first poems were installed on the Tube ride from Aldwych station.

Reading these poems collected in the above anthology, I imagined myself a Tube rider encountering them underground, in motion, instead of in a book. Is there something special about reading poetry on this unconventional medium and in the company of others similarly in transit?

London's Tube map

I think so. In comparison to novel-length prose, poetry is short. It offers a quick read while often making a long impression. In this sense, it’s an ideal text for people on-the-go, for commuters, for travellers, and for urban dwellers. And it confirms the idea that poetry should not be confined to books, but that it should also be integrated in daily life because poetry speaks to daily life.

Think of how appropriate this sonnet is for the early-morning commuter who feels that he or she is up before the city even wakes, and the solidarity he or she feels with other travellers sharing this experience:

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:

This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

(“Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” by William Wordsworth)

It’s hard to deny the suitability of the following Imagist poem for underground riders aptly entitled “In a Station of the Metro,” written by Ezra Pound in 1912:

The apparition of faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

While some of the poems featured on London’s Underground are lengthy and profound, some are very short, humorous, and witty (and often equally profound), making them easy to digest and remember, especially if you’re not staying on the Tube for too long.

I wanna be the leader

I wanna be the leader

Can I be the leader?

Can I? I can?

Promise? Promise?

Yipee, I’m the leader

I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

(“The Leader” by Roger McGough)

and this one:

When I am sad and weary

When I think all hope has gone

When I walk along High Holborn

I think of you with nothing on

(“Celia Celia” by Adrian Mitchell)

The tagline of my blog reads “not the kind of texting that comes to mind” to differentiate the kind of architectural and literary texts I discuss in distinction from text messaging, but, in many ways, this underground poetry functions like brief text messages, packing a punch in relatively few lines and few minutes. If one of the poems strikes your curiosity, you might make a mental note to remember the author and look it up later, or even stay on the Tube longer to finish it — and dare to miss your stop!

Vancouver SkyTrain

The editors of the anthology say that through this literary experiment on London’s Tube, they discovered that England is a nation of poetry-lovers. I’m sure England – and Londoners – aren’t the only ones who would enjoy this welcome change from ads on buses, subways, and (Sky)trains. What about Vancouverites? Could we embrace poetry – not underground in our case – but in the sky?

What about other cities? For those readers living elsewhere, do you have more interesting texts to stare at on your commute, or are you similarly looking at ads you wish you weren’t?