Poems on the Underground started life as a brief experiment by three friends, poets and writers, who persuaded London Underground to post a few poems in the empty advertising spaces of Tube trains. We still run the programme, with a modest grant from the Arts Council, and only one general rule: that we include at least two living poets in each display, with the remainder drawn from as wide a range as possible. It is hard to believe that we've reached our 25th year, longer than many marriages last - still good friends, still lovers of poetry ancient and modern, still keen to discover new voices.
Our very first set of poems, displayed in January 1986, featured the young Guyanese poet Grace Nichols and Seamus Heaney (not yet a Nobel laureate), as well as poems by Shelley, Burns, and William Carlos Williams. Since then we've displayed poems by most contemporary poets and the greatest poets of the past, along with odd discoveries along the way, limericks and nonsense poems travelling alongside poems by Shakespeare and Neruda, Wole Soyinka and Carol Ann Duffy, and, in our current set, Czeslaw Milosz, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carole Satyamurti and the Shetlandic poet Christine de Luca.
The simple idea of offering poetry to a mass audience, using public transport as a natural means of communication, has spread to cities across the globe. It's been hugely gratifying to find poems springing up on trains in Dublin and Stuttgart, Warsaw and St Petersburg, Barcelona and Sao Paolo, all acknowledging London's Poems on the Underground as a model. Our posters too travel widely, distributed by the Poetry Society and the British Council to schools throughout the UK and to British Council centres in Europe, Asia and Africa. We've had hospitable ‘exchanges' of poems with New York and Paris, Stockholm and Shanghai - including a 5-course lunch at the Brasserie du Nord in Paris and a joint poetry reading with Rita Dove and the late Thom Gunn at the long balcony overlooking New York's Grand Central Station.
Our anthology has been a bestseller in its various editions, updated each year, and most recently as a collection of 300 poems in Best Poems on the Underground (Phoenix, paperback, 2011). Like the programme itself, the anthology has inspired many similar collections of ‘Favourite Poems'. But we seem to have the only popular collection that combines old and new, poems in English and in translation, familiar and unfamiliar names drawn from every continent.
In the course of 25 years, our programme has evolved in new directions. We've commissioned translations and new poems, including poems for Carnival of the Animals, published by Walker Books with illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura and a CD of poems and music by the Apollo Chamber Players. We've offered live readings and concerts at least two or three times a year, often with specially commissioned works - a setting by Evelyn Ficarra of ‘London Cries', incorporating Gibbons and taped market cries; a setting of a poem by the Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao.
We seem to be a well-established feature of London's cultural life, thanks to generous support from London Underground, although we still have no office. We've learned that England is a nation of poetry lovers, many of whom write poetry themselves. Long may this happy state of affairs continue.
Judith Chernaik set up Poems on the Underground in 1986 with poets Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert and the triumvirate have been running it ever since. She is a New Yorker who has lived in London for many years and is the author of a book on Shelley's lyrics and four novels, including Mab's Daughters.