Originally Unexpected And Now Normal

New York subway cars have carried advertising since, I believe, the beginning. Since the early 1990s, some of the ad space has been used for the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” program, which reprints short poems and excepts of long ones. I’ve been reading them since they first appeared and my anecdotal view is that the mix has gradually shifted away from classics and famous poets and towards equally-worthy but lesser-known poems and poets.

The MTA program followed the example of other cities that had similar programs earlier. The history is described in some detail in “The Tension and the Glory of Subway Poetry” by Fred Hill, published in 2016, and “Where Poets Are on a Roll” by Mindy Aloff, published in 1994.

Aloff’s piece mentions in passing that Dante showed up early on in the program. I remember getting on a train one day and looking up and laughing out loud on seeing the start of the inferno on a wall. (The version below is Seamus Heaney’s translation from 1993, which I think was the one used, but I could easily be misremembering.)

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.

The illustration above, by Gustave Doré, reminds me of a number of stations, including specifically the J train portion of Chambers Street/Brooklyn Bridge. If you don’t see the resemblance, try this version by George Tooker.

When Poetry in Motion was new, people remarked on it a lot, and specifically the comparison of high culture with the anti-ambience of the subway. After more than 25 years – and keep in mind that the subway itself is only 115 years old – any perceived conflict goes unmentioned.

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