When you commute to work or make your way home, it is always such pleasure to spot and read, in your part of the train carriage, poems that crop up unexpectedly in the Underground. This year being the 150th anniversary of London Underground, new poems have been added to the existing, diverse range of verse displayed on the tube, ranging from Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, 1802’ to Jo Shapcott’s ‘Gherkin Music’. What’s there to admire is not just how these poems stand as self-contained works in their own right, but the way they have conversation with each other as responsive texts. By posting them in the same public space, we are invited to consider and compare their themes, imageries and contexts.
For example, John Agard’s ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture acknowledges Wordsworth’s Sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ ’ enters into dialogue with Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’. Highlighting the difference between Wordsworth’s daffodils in the Cumbrian landscape and the Haitian hills where the revolutionary leader L’Ouverture grows up, Agard imagines how L’Ouverture might respond to Wordsworth’s poem, and sees poetry as a tool to articulate liberty, regardless of one’s language, origin or location. In Derek Mahon’s poem, ‘J P Donleavy’s Dublin’, one is shown an anti-clockwise clock reflected in a bar’s mirror, which engages with Kamau Braithwaite’s ‘Naima’ where John Coltrane’s saxophone music fills the space of a jazz bar: ‘he leans against the bar / and pours his old unhappy longing in the saxophone.’
Reading these poems from the red-and-blue moquette seats in the carriage, as the train passes through one station after another, one is imbued with a strange feeling of self-awareness and geography. We are invited to enjoy and reflect on the poem anonymously, in the company of others. Sometimes, the commute is long enough to allow passengers to repeat and memorise the poem.
Evoking faraway lands, exotic cultures or tumultuous times, these poems address the importance of understanding, calling for more empathy and equality: in Lorna Goodison’s prose poem ‘Bam Chi Chi La La London, 1969’, the Jamaican charwoman in the West End who used to work as a teacher in her home country would sing ‘Jerusalem’ to herself and recite the Romantic poets while she cleans the hallways and toilets; in Lotte Kramer’s ‘Boy with Orange (Out of Kosovo)’, we are confronted with a lone child refugee who ‘crossed the border with uncertainty’; while Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare’s poem ‘I Sing of Change’ speaks out against an unfair regime, hoping for ‘the beauty of Athens / without its slaves’ in ‘a world reshaped’. The political realities in these poems prompt the reader to confront the impact of the city’s social issues on his or her world, especially the impact of economic policies, immigration restriction and a widening wealth divide.
A handful of the selected poems are translated from other languages. Reading Li Bai’s poem ‘Listening to a Monk from Shu Playing the Lute’ translated by Vikram Seth, I am surprised by what is gained in good translation: how the grandeur of Emei Shan (Emei Mountains) and the cleansing power of lute music are expressed fully even if (understandably) the 5-word verse form and rhyming structure cannot be preserved as a result of translation. The very act of inviting passengers to read these poems from diverse places represents the meaning of ‘travel’ itself, as the passenger-reader’s state of mind is transported from one place to another. It also reveals the power of poetry in evoking what lies beyond the reader’s immediate social and political experience.
If you find your tube ride’s too short to enjoy the full range of poems, why not get a copy of the anthology and finish the entire collection: Poems on the Underground: A New Edition by Judith Chernaik (Penguin Hardback Classics 2013).