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This report is taken from PN Review 95, Volume 20 Number 3, January - February 1994.

Underground Poems Judith Chernaik

The appearance of poetry on the public transport systems of a dozen major cities across the world could be read as a sign and a symptom - at the very least, as a gesture against taking 'value for money' as the sole measure of public service. These programmes are democratic, populist, and inherently subversive of prevailing government ideology. New York's 'Poetry in Motion' and 'Des rimes en vers et en bleu' on the Paris Metro were both launched with lines by Whitman celebrating the common man; and the great flawed poet of brotherly love has also featured on London's 'Poems on the Underground' and Dublin's 'Poems on the DART'.

The heart of London's 'Poems on the Underground' is the changing display of poems on a transport system that serves two million passengers a day. But the posters have also found their way to remote corners throughout the UK and abroad, appearing in rural schoolrooms and community centres, in university English departments in Kharkov, Budapest and Tokyo, in hospital waiting rooms in Barts and in the Transkei (though the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women vetoed a gift of the posters on the grounds that women patients would be upset equally by poems about life, death, love and nature). The poems are displayed in British Council libraries throughout the world, and they have been broadcast on the World Service in Russian, Japanese, Hungarian and a dozen other languages. Oddly enough, the qualities that make a poem pleasing on ...


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