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This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

Last Thoughts on Thirty-Five Years of Poems on the Underground Judith Chernaik

Poems on the Underground went live on London’s tube cars in 1986 – which means that we reached our thirty-fifth year in 2021. But what an age away it seems, with London barely recovering from lockdown, borders to Europe and the rest of the world in chaos, pundits and politicians alike baffled by the new reality. The folly of Brexit seems a minor hiccup in the larger global catastrophe.

Still, poetry survives, a witness to times past and present. It is a quiet pleasure to know that we’ve contributed to its wider circulation. The project has changed with the years. Gerard Benson died in 2014, and Cicely has stepped back. I’ve been joined as co-editors by Imtiaz Dharker and George Szirtes, who have added their own special passions to our choice of poems. We continue to enjoy the support of London Underground, as well as the general public, and, above all, the poets featured on the tube.

When we were paused on the tube, in the first London lockdown, we set up a website ( featuring our original posters in digitised form, with poems added each month. Over a year later, the website is turning into an archive of all our posters from the first set onward, reaching eventually a total of more than 600 poems.

As I’m cast back to our beginnings, I feel quite nostalgic about the origin of a simple project which has reached world fame. I was young then, in my 40s, as were my friends Gerard and Cicely. I was in love with London, with all its faults, a city in which novels by Dickens and Trollope were visible on the streets, in bodies curled in doorways, in second-hand bookshops and jumble sales. Not only Victorian novelists but the poets I loved, Milton, Blake, Shelley and many others, raged against conditions which had hardly changed, or so it seemed to me.

I am often asked if there was any wider purpose inspiring the project. Not really – it was more a natural extension of friendship, shared discoveries. Gerard and Cicely were trained actors and speakers of verse. They were members of the Barrow Poets – four readers and two musicians – equally at home performing in primary schools and pubs, at intimate theatre spaces and in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, sold out each Christmas for a week of their children’s concerts. We were friends and neighbours, and when Gerard started an informal play-reading group, meeting once a month, my husband and I were invited along. At a reading of As You Like It, with Cicely playing Rosalind, I was charmed by the love-sick Orlando, read by Gerard, posting amateurish love sonnets on trees in the Forest of Arden. It was a short step to the idea of posting poems on the advertising spaces in London tube cars.

The morning after the play-reading, I wrote to ‘The Manager, London Underground’ asking whether poems might be used to fill empty advertising spaces. To my surprise, I had a response within days, expressing interest, and referring me to the Advertising Manager, a Mr Joe Putnam. We met at his office in Camden Town, a short bus ride from my home. He proposed that if my friends and I could raise enough money to pay for some advertising spaces for poems, at £5 per space for two months, he would happily double the number. He suggested that we aim for about 500 spaces, thus £2500 – not an impossible sum.

How simple life was at that time! London Underground ran its own advertising, prices were reasonable, and Joe, it turned out, played the ‘Dame’ in Christmas pantomimes, enjoyed reading poetry, and was an altogether genial man. The Underground had a proud history of encouraging fine design in typography as well as architecture, and included lines by Shakespeare and Keats in its own early posters. We were just carrying on a tradition.

By chance, the New Statesman back page included a notice inviting applications to the Arts Council for a project ‘to promote the wider reading of poetry.’ I applied to the Betty Compton fund, set up for the purpose, for £3,000 to put poems on Tube trains, with an estimated potential readership in the millions. £2500 would pay for the spaces; £500 for design, printing and any extra expenses. Desmond Clarke, Marketing Director at Faber & Faber Publishers, was keen to carry on the legacy of their first Poetry Editor, T.S. Eliot. He offered to have Faber design and print the posters at no charge. As we waited for the Arts Council to consider our proposal, I had a confidential phone call from the writer Claire Tomalin, who told me that Philip Larkin, who was on the committee, feared that the project would be too left wing. Claire suggested that I write to him explaining that we had no political agenda. This was quite true, since Underground by-laws forbid the display on their property of any party-political material, or anything calculated to cause offence. We hoped to feature Milton, Blake and Shelley, of course, as well as Adrian Mitchell and other radical poets; it would be hard to find an ode to capitalism or the free market. But I wrote to Mr Larkin as directed.

We had a friendly exchange of letters, in which Larkin told me that he liked the project, which reminded him of the notice boards outside churches, which often featured Biblical words of wisdom or consolation. The grant was awarded, and we agreed a set of poems to start – the left wing poets Shelley and Robert Burns, the American populist William Carlos Williams, and two young poets who were later to become well known, the British/Guyanese poet Grace Nichols and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Press and TV turned up to the launch at Aldwych Station, on the Strand, used for films about the London Blitz, now permanently shut. Everyone loved the poems and also loved the project.

So it has remained, for the past 35 years. London, global financial centre, has suffered fire and flood; the world has changed almost beyond recognition. Poetry continues to flourish, perhaps more significantly in bad times than in good. In 2021, we marked the 200th anniversary of the death of London’s beloved poet, John Keats, who hoped that his poems would be ‘a balm and comfort’ to suffering humanity. In 2022 we’ll mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Shelley, who believed fervently that poetry could change the world. The works and ideas of young poets sit easily on the tube alongside the classics, apparently welcomed by a potential readership of four million daily travellers. We hope to carry on until the welcome wears out.

This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

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