Essay

Better Than Some Dumb Ad

A look at the Poetry in Motion program from the Poetry Society of America.
Introduction
For 15 years now, the Poetry Society of America has been sponsoring the Poetry in Motion program, placing poems on public transportation in New York. Do people really read the poems? Alexander Provan investigates.

“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,
Signifying nothing.

“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.”

Originally Published: August 1st, 2007

Alexander Provan is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is also an editor at Triple Canopy, Stop Smiling, and Bidoun.

  1. August 2, 2007
     Paula Cary

    Love this article, the idea of posting poems in such a public and accessible place is not just ideal, it is genius! I would love to see this throughout other towns and cities, it is a very clever way to get people interested in poetry again, or for the first time. Lovely!

  2. August 7, 2007
     jesse Juffer

    I couldn't agree more with Paula Cary.

  3. August 8, 2007
     Bert Molsom

    Having appreciated 'Poems on the Underground' since it started in 1986 it is a delight to know that poetry can be found now in so many public places. Let us hope it continues to spread and poetry returns to the centre of our lives where it belongs.

  4. August 9, 2007
     Holly

    I wish this program would be extended to the "el"trains in Chicago!

  5. August 12, 2007
     Mozart

    I wish this program would be extended to

    SEPTA in Philadelphia area. Great article!

  6. August 14, 2007
     Greg O'Connell

    Poetry


    Every day I climb aboard

    the train of words


    that connects us all

    wherever we get on and off


    going in the same direction

    on this subway of words.



    Greg O'Connell

  7. August 15, 2007
     Merle Bush

    Greetings,


    I am a published poet. I would like to have some of my poetry posted on the MTA's Poetry in Motion. You can view a couple poems on www.xlibris.com/anonymous. I hope that you like them and find them suitable for NYC riders to enjoy. Feel free to e-mail me a


    Sincerely,

    Merle

  8. August 15, 2007
     Majid Naficy

    come to Boardwalk, Venice Beach, California. Since 2000 you can read portions of poetry of 16 poets(including mine) engraved by the City on the outer walls of public bathrooms.

  9. September 3, 2007
     K. Christopher

    Allthough I can appreciate the vision of the program, it should also be an attempt to put our [poets] best foot out. The peaks of despair and sensations of futility are often felt on the way to work. Allthough sentiment is the last thing I want, that section from Macbeth might border on the realms of insensitive.

  10. September 30, 2007
     Penny Harter

    Has anyone thought about posting good haiku, which are usually no longer than three lines, and can be fewer lines. These poems, and senyru, their humorous cousins, can be very thought-provoking and entertaining, using just a handful of words. The North American haiku community is thriving. In Vancouver B.C., haiku are used in rapid transit. The web site of the Haiku Society of America will inform anyone interested in finding out more about the contemporary haiku scene. Here, for example, are three of mine, (all previously published) evoking quite different moods:


    evening rain / I braid my hair / into the dark


    closed bedroom door / her shadow darkens / the crack of light


    fruit flies / crowd the bitten peach--- / a lovers' quarrel

  11. October 23, 2007
     Sonya Bennett

    Do you have any free poetry meetings in NYC or group get togethers for someone who love to write poetry and share with others for advice that are free.Also I can be reached @ Faithwriters.com, under Authur-Sonya Bennett,Thank You and God Bless'''''''

  12. November 10, 2007
     Joseph Kadlec

    Having been practically introduced to poetry, at all, by the work of Lorine Niedecker as a teenager in 1973, I was of course happy to see her poem on the subways - as I had been imagining her work in the Poetry in Motion series. At first, I lamented subtly the selection of the admittedly beautiful "Wilderness" but then reconsidered in light of all the many female and then male eyes of the "significantly othered" riders who, some disenchanted morning rushhour, might find primal edification in it.

  13. January 24, 2008
     Peggy Keilus

    I especially liked the poem by Thomas Lux about a tooth. I can't find what volume of his that it is from. However, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate learning about him and his poetry and have just received a book I ordered, but the poem about the little tooth is not in it.

  14. March 12, 2008
     K Summers

    I recently read a poem in the Poetry in Motion series, in a New York City subway. It had something to do with the relationship between love (I think), regret, and remembrance. I think it was by a Russian author and translated to English. How can I find a copy of the poem? Please advise.


    PS I was disappointed that the MTA is not keeping their website on this program current. Also, the sign I saw was underwritten by Barnes & Noble, but I see no mention of it on their corporate website.

  15. April 7, 2008
     Leonel Thomas

    I like ur poems, I also write poems to like this one right here is my.



    I have a dream that one day people of all color and sex can sit down,

    And stop acting like a clown

    I will have a grant live,

    With my beautiful girl.

    I just wish she could be my future wife,

    To have a perfect world.

    I have a dream that people will respect me for who I am not what I am,

    I just have people that are happy in my dream.

    I’m really not a fool,

    I’m just to cool

    To drop out of a fine school,

  16. May 14, 2008
     Lesley A.M. Simmonds

    I am a school teacher and a great lover

    of poetry. I would like to know what

    happened to Poetry In Motion on the

    subways? Is there a way to enter

    students' work, or is that all over, has it

    gone the way of all flesh? Was it just a

    fad? I hope not because I'm constantly

    looking for ways to help the

    students realize the specialness of their

    poetry. Can you help?

  17. October 25, 2008
     Elizabeth Du Val

    I SOOOOOO miss the "Poetry in Motion"

    program. Poetry needs to be in the public eye in order to be familiar enough to survive.

    And it provides such a much juicier meal for the trip than the thought for the day currently offered. A good poem can be revisited again and again. A thought can be ingested without need for further ado.

  18. December 16, 2008
     C. D. Miller

    Hello. I think your Poetry In Motion is a wonderful idea and would like to see it spead like a virus to every area of the universe. I have submitted four poems to Poetry Foundation .org for consideration and would like to share one with you, if this is ok.


    Just Words

    By C. D. Miller


    Just words on paper

    no meaning to you

    Just another tired caper

    for you to view


    Just words on a line

    no meaning this time

    Just words on paper

    no meaning - just rhyme

  19. February 19, 2009
     Lois Safrani


    Hi:


    Scope Magazine is doing a 2 page

    feature on poetry in public places for its

    4/27/09 issue.


    I am trying to get images of the MTA’s

    Poetry in Motion for use in this article.

    Can you provide photos, or direct me

    another source.


    We will need Hi Res 300 dpi scans.


    (SCOPE Magazine is a language arts

    magazine for teens that is distributed

    by subscription to schools throughout

    the US. Circulation is 320,000).


    DEADLINE: ASAP


    We willneed Hi Res 300 dpi scans.


    PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF THERE IS A

    PROBLEM OR DELAY WITH HIS

    REQUEST.


    Thank you so much,




    Lois Safrani

    Photo Editor

    SCHOLASTIC, INC.

    555 Broadway

    New York, NY 10012

    212-343-4529


  20. February 24, 2009
     Sonya Bennett

    Check out my work it can be found @ Faith writers.com under author S Bennett perhaps you can use some of my work!