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Poetry on the Underground

March 12, 2015

London Underground is running a competition for members of the public to submit poetry on the themes of etiquette and safety on the tube. To judge by their own efforts in the field, the winning entries will be ones that bear very little resemblance to poetry at all. Like this one, for example:

We really don’t mean to chide

But try to move along inside

So fellow travellers won’t have to face

An invasion of their personal space.”

How could that possibly be scanned? There is no pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables; and if you try, unnaturally, to force the first two lines into a pattern – “We REALly don’t MEAN to CHIDE/ But TRY to move Along inSIDE” – then that pattern won’t fit the next two lines, which have too many syllables.

Or this:

If you spot someone ill or in pain

Please try to help them off the train

We can offer aid much more quickly

On the platform if they’re sickly.”

Even William McGonagall would have been abashed at that. What London Underground calls poetry is no such thing. It is simply prose (and rather stiff, awkward prose at that) with some rhymes thrown in at each line-end. There is no metre, no rhythm – and obviously no such fripperies as imagery or metaphor.

All right. Not everyone is good at poetry. But what puzzles me is, if London Underground wanted poetry on their posters, why didn’t they pick someone who knew a little bit about it to write the texts? (This is especially odd given the proud tradition of Poems on the Underground, when good poems by proper poets were displayed in the carriages, thanks to the noble efforts of Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert.) 

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  1. Judith Chernaik permalink

    Thanks for kind words about Poems on the Underground, which we are still curating. I was told that those ‘verses’ were composed by the MD of Saatchi & S who were given the commission. (I

    • Ah – that’s a mystery solved – thanks! It’s really nice to hear from you, Judith – those Poems on the Underground have given me a lot of pleasure over the years. By the way, I used to know Cicely (we both taught at the Camden Institute in Kentish Town back in the day) so do remember me to her.

      Best wishes

  2. Clearly the whole point of the safety rhymes is to be bad poetry, to go with the bad drawings. A whole different aesthetic.

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