“It’s a nice little poem—sort of soothing,” observes Michael Sabree from his seat on a Manhattan-bound L train. Sabree, a lifelong Brooklynite in his mid-30s, is riding the subway on a Sunday night in late May. “Even though some folks don’t like to think about everything dying, you know, it’s got something else there.”
I had boarded the train at Jefferson, sat down next to him, and asked if he had read “Sailing to Byzantium,” by William Butler Yeats. The first stanza of the poem is posted in a Plexiglas frame above the row of seats across from ours.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Closer to seven feet than six, Sabree wears an enormous black hooded sweatshirt, billowy black jeans, a Marvin Gaye T-shirt emblazoned with the line “Let’s get it on,” and pristine white sneakers. He takes the same route almost daily to his job filling orders for FreshDirect, a grocery delivery service in Queens, and has familiarized himself with this excerpt of the Yeats poem, which contemplates the possibility of art transcending mortality. After dipping his hand into a bag of Cheetos, he murmurs, “Yeah, I read 'em all,” referring to the numerous poems posted on subways and buses as part of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion program. “I like to keep it versatile,” he says, preferring the modern voice of contemporary black and Latino poets. “But I’m open-minded too,” appreciating a good classic stanza when he sees one.
Like most New Yorkers contemplating municipal services, Sabree weighs the importance of enriching the citizenry’s cultural life against the more pressing concerns of finances and convenience. “I’m all for more poetry, less junk,” he says, scoffing at a nearby poster advertising 1-800-DIVORCE and 1-800-INNOCENT. “But I mean, you do gotta wonder, where the hell’s my money going? They up the damn fares, the train don’t come on time. . . .” He trails off, hoisting himself up as the train stops at Lorimer Street, where he transfers to the G. “Still, though, I’m glad for the poetry.” Sabree exits the train before I can tell him that the Poetry in Motion program is underwritten by Barnes & Noble, run by the Poetry Society of America (PSA) along with the MTA, and should not be blamed for fare increases or erratic schedules.
The PSA headquarters in Manhattan feels as far away as you can get from the subway, although the 23rd Street station on the Lexington line is only a couple of blocks away. The office is tucked in a remote corner of the National Arts Club, which occupies the former Tilden Mansion, a particularly grand Victorian on Gramercy Park. The club’s halls are replete with period portraits and roped-off antique furniture, but in the PSA office, stacks of Poetry in Motion posters litter the floor and thousands of poetry volumes compete for space on shelves and cluttered desks.
The PSA’s executive director is Alice Quinn, a slight woman in her 50s with tousled gray hair who is also poetry editor at The New Yorker. She describes Poetry in Motion as “kind of a patchwork quilt,” a work always in progress and flux. The program debuted in 1992 with four poems, including one that seemed penned for it, Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” It has since featured poems or excerpts by Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Anna Akhmatova, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and about 200 others. Currently, there are 2,500 subway posters and 3,700 bus posters featuring two poems, which are changed every three months. Across the country, public transportation authorities in 12 additional cities have implemented similar programs, all under the auspices of the PSA, which collaborates with local groups to pick the poems and provides organizational support.
In New York, the poems are chosen by Quinn, Poetry in Motion director Anita Naegeli, managing director Brett Fletcher Lauer, and two MTA staffers. Representatives of the two groups used to meet face-to-face, Quinn says. “But sometimes life overtakes you,” she sighs, “and you resort to other forms of communication”—e-mail in this case. Naegeli, 33, and Lauer, 28, both poets, join Quinn at a worn wooden table. “We generally aim for something that speaks to everybody in some way,” says Naegeli. Adds Fletcher Lauer, “Still, the romantic ones are the most popular.”
“Taste comes into play in any editorial meeting,” Quinn says, but all parties charged with selecting the poetry tend to agree which poems are best fit for public transit. While tone, readability, and popular appeal are among the criteria, brevity is perhaps the most crucial. Poems can run up to fourteen lines—short enough to be read between stops. Otherwise, there are few restrictions. Poets are generally published and of some stature, and the poems range from free verse to iambic pentameter, contemporary to classical. Poems in other languages, accompanied by English translations, are regularly posted.
For Quinn, one of the program’s greatest rewards is the opportunity to disseminate the work of undersung poets. Such was the case with Lorine Niedecker, whose starkly beautiful “Wilderness” was posted through much of the last year. Niedecker, the daughter of a Wisconsin fisherman, endured penury and isolation; though she achieved some acclaim on the literary fringe, her work, published by small presses, reached only a limited audience before her death in 1970. “She had a hard life,” Quinn says softly before reciting the poem:
You are the man
You are my other country
and I find it hard going
You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm
the torrent to raise the river
to float the wounded doe
“She is—was—a marginalized poet,” Quinn says. “But having that poem on the subway system for three months helped change that. “There were all these calls [from riders] asking ‘Who is she?’” Quinn says. On one subway ride, she recalls, “I watched a woman reading and rereading that poem.” Quinn understood it as a religious experience, the poem a stand-in for divinity: “It really invoked the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel. It was that sort of direct communication.”
The PSA regularly receives letters from riders recounting their experiences with the poems. A parent at Williamsburg Prep in Brooklyn e-mailed to express his affinity for a poem about “the son who doesn’t understand the love his father shows by starting the fire and polishing his shoes.” He hoped to use the poem, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” as the theme for an upcoming father-son brunch and wondered if he could procure a poster or two. “We are struggling to keep fathers involved,” he noted with regret.
Of course, readers don’t always concur with the judgment of Quinn and her colleagues. In 2005, a verse from Shakespeare’s Macbeth was posted, which included the following lines:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
“We chose this excerpt for the drama and severity—the gravity of it,” Quinn says. But for many riders, drama, severity, and the morning commute make for odd bedfellows. One metro blogger asked, “Not the most inspirational way to start your day, is it?” Another blogger was more disturbed: “What insane MTA official thought that this was the perfect fragment of poetry to welcome people on their morning commute to a job that slowly kills them?”
Richard Kuczkowski takes umbrage at such remarks. The associate director of marketing for the MTA, he administers the Poetry in Motion program and chooses the poems along with his boss, Alicia Martinez, MTA director of marketing. Both hold PhDs in English from Columbia. “None of the poems are maudlin or morbid,” Kuczkowski says, sitting in his office near Grand Central Station. “They’re more affirmative than anything else. Macbeth is ennobling. It just talks about the more tragic aspects of life. Alicia tends to have a much sunnier disposition than I have. I think everyone has had tragedy and recognizes that sometimes, life seems ‘but a walking shadow.’”
The goal of the PSA, according to its mission statement, is “to place poetry at the crossroads of American life,” a place where it has not been for some time. “We know what poetry does,” Quinn says. “We know that it adds to life immeasurably.” A recent study by the Poetry Foundation and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago confirms this view, finding that 90 percent of American readers “highly value poetry and believe it enriches the lives of those who read it.” Seventy-nine percent of American commuters polled in the study reported seeing poetry on public transportation; of the respondents who had experienced “incidental exposure” to poetry, including these commuters, 81 percent claimed to have read what they saw.
Idalia Rodriguez, riding the A train south toward the Financial District on a Wednesday morning, tells me she has not read poems since high school—except those posted in the subway. “I used to read all the poems, but then my eyes became poor, so I have to be right in front of them to read.” Rodriguez is in her early 40s and works in the accounting department of a large financial firm. I ask if she will read “O Tell Me the Truth About Love,” a W.H. Auden poem posted across from us, and tell me what she thinks. It asks of love, “Will it knock on my door in the morning, / Or tread in the bus on my toes?” She picks up her purse and walks over to the poem, standing on her tiptoes and gripping a pole to steady herself. After a minute, she returns to her seat.
“It’s very beautiful, it’s about love,” she says, beaming. “When love comes to you for the first time, you don’t know how it will be.” I ask if it reminds her of a time in her own life. “Of course,” she answers, blushing.
Fletcher Lauer surmises that people who might never otherwise read poems appreciate the ones they see on the subway because the setting is so different from a classroom environment. “The poems are unobtrusive; they’re waiting for you.” And, unlike the 1-800-DIVORCE and 1-800-INNOCENT posters, “they’re not selling you anything,” he says. “They’re offering you a moment.”