Image by Ulleskelf (‘After the Lunch’ by Wendy Cope)
Young Poets Network chats to Judith Chernaik, founder of Poems on the Underground. Set up in 1986, the programme aims to bring poetry to a wider audience by displaying poems on posters in 3,000 advertising spaces inside London Underground carriages. There are generally six posters changed three times a year. The poems are selected by Judith Chernaik, together with poets Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson. The gorgeous posters are available to order from the Poetry Society shop.
Hi Judith! Thank you for talking to us. When did you start Poems on the Underground, and what was your inspiration?
We started Poems on the Underground after a play-reading of Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, in which the lovelorn Orlando wanders around the Forest of Arden placing sonnets to Rosalind on the trees. Rosalind later makes fun of these very sentimental outpourings, but of course in the end love conquers all. Suddenly it occurred to me that it would be fun to put short poems on to the empty spaces in London tube cars… I wrote to the Manager of London Underground with the idea, and to my amazement I had an encouraging reply… the rest is history.
How do you choose the themes for each set of Poems on the Underground?
We only have ‘themes’ now and then, mostly we just try to find six short poems that come from different periods, with at least two by living poets. Sometimes themes emerge almost by accident. We are the three friends who started the programme, and we meet at my house, usually, each of us bringing some suggestions, then we read all the poems and argue furiously about which ones to choose. Then we have lunch. I usually make apple crumble to have with tea, so we part on amiable terms.
What do you look for when you are choosing poems to use?
We look for poems that will appeal to a very wide range of readers, poems of highest artistic quality, but accessible in language and subject matter. We try for a range of poetic styles and themes, including comic, serious, emotional, tragic (not too many of these), pastoral, historical, historical-pastoral, etc.
What has been your favourite poem or poems?
I don’t have one favourite, or even several, though I love Elizabethan poetry, the Romantics (Shelley, Keats, Byron), Yeats, the early ‘Anon’, for instance ‘Westron wynde’, very evocative and mysterious. We always look for new voices, not only British but world wide, including translations. Polish, African, Chinese… we are always pleased when we ‘discover’ a poet who hasn’t yet received awards or great fame.
How do the poems get installed on the tube trains?
The poems are installed at random by the company that manages all the tube advertising, CBSO. Arrangements are managed by TfL (Transport for London), a team which deals directly with us and liaises with the printer. But we are closely involved in the design, and we always order artpaper copies of the posters for the Poetry Society, the British Council and other interested organisations. So the poems are distributed in many ways, on websites, etc, in addition to the tube displays.
Thanks Judith! If readers would like their own copies of the Poems on the Underground posters, they can order individual posters and full sets from our shop.
Published March, 2014