Travelling with culture Article icon


Following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last June, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan launched a campaign to say in no uncertain terms that the city of London is open to everyone and that discrimination against anyone of any race or nationality would not be tolerated.

The campaign was supported by a number of high profile individuals and businesses, including Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, banking giants Barclays and Wells Fargo, and the casts of 38 West End shows, who posted their messages of support simultaneously across Twitter.

Almost as iconic as London itself, and celebrating its 30th anniversary last year, Transport for London’s Poems on the Underground programme was not to be left out. Khan wrote to Poems on the Underground founder Judith Chernaik asking her if she would consider choosing poetry that would support the #LondonIsOpen theme.

All poems were set in London but celebrated the extensive range of voices and cultures that exist within the city, featuring poets such as Michael Rosen, whose Jewish grandparents came from Romania and Poland, and London-born Daljit Nagra, whose Sikh Punjabi parents came to Britain from India in the late 1950s.

‘For 30 years, Poems on the Underground has shown powerful, amusing and insightful poems on Tube trains, allowing small moments of reflection as we travel round the city. Responding to the call that London Is Open, this collection of poems celebrates the diversity and creativity that makes London unique – not just today but throughout our history,’ wrote Khan in a leaflet accompanying the poems.

Of course, it wasn’t a huge stretch for the programme to be involved in the campaign. Celebrating diversity has been at its heart from the very beginning.

‘When you look at the beautiful breadth of poetry that’s been featured over the years, it’s brought in different voices from around the world, different experiences, as well as the classic ‘dead white male’ poets you’d expect,’ says Eleanor Pinfield, head of art at Transport for London.

The programme launched when Chernaik, an American writer, had an idea to bring poetry to a wider audience. She was given 800 advertising spaces to fill for two months and a £3,000 grant from the British Arts Council for printing. To commemorate its 30th anniversary, six of those original poems were reprinted,including Guyana-born poet Grace Nichols’ Like A Beacon, in which she writes about being homesick in London, wishing for her mother’s cooking.

Chernaik is still heavily involved with the project and regularly meets with her team to choose future poems to be featured. Joining Chernaik and poet Cicely Herbert, who has also worked on the programme since 1986, are fellow poets George Szirtes and Imtiaz Dharker, who were added to the fold following founding member Gerard Benson’s death in 2014.

Both are active in the poetry community and aware of up and coming poets: Poems on the Underground has always sought to feature at least two poets that are alive.

‘It’s now a very established arts programme,’ says Chernaik. ‘The general principle has been the same from the start, to offer the public the best poetry we can find. We’ve had dialect poems, medieval poems... we choose poetry of the highest artistic quality and that will be meaningful to a mass audience. They should be appealing and meaningful. There’s room for humour and a whole range of poetry and poets.’

Really, the only thing that has changed about the programme is its scale. Posters for Poems on the Underground, which are designed by Tom Davidson, now fill 2,000 spaces across London, and the programme been replicated across the world in cities as diverse as Moscow, Helsinki and Shanghai.

The poetry featured is engaged with more and more by people online as well as in person and free booklets are even distributed to the public, available next to the Tube maps, including such themes as Young Poets on the Underground, Irish Poems on the Underground, and World Poems on the Underground.

An anthology of more than 200 poems that have featured in the programme, which was described as ‘the most democratic artistic intervention of my lifetime’ by Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent at The Guardian, is also available to buy. It has been reprinted more than ten times.

‘We’ve done well to remain popular with the travelling population,’ says Chernaik. ‘The anthology [of featured poems] does well. The free leaflets seem to go – 100,000 are published – you don’t get many poems published in those quantities.’

Digital media, often cited as a game-changer in projects as long-running as this, has had less of an impact. Chernaik notes that email has helped in selecting poems somewhat, as she and her team email their favourites to one another. Similarly Pinfield notes that the advent of social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter have added to the ways that people engage with the poetry on show, with travellers sharing it on their own sites. But at their heart, the reactions to the poems are still the same.

‘People are interested, they seek out the poems online, they post them on Twitter. Sometimes the station staff post them on message boards using calligraphy. These are natural, authentic responses inspired by poetry,’ says Pinfield. ‘Not to say it’s antidigital, it’s not, but it’s still such a powerful programme that cuts through the bustle of modern life. It hasn’t changed. It’s an incredible thing. People absolutely recognise it.’

Perhaps that is the secret to its success. ‘It could be boring in a world wherever we want everything to change all the time but I think it’s a phenomenal programme because it has stayed so steadfast. It still gives you that perfect moment of interaction with the written word. We shouldn’t mess with it,’ says Pinfield.

And while measuring the impact of the programme is hard due to its widespread and decidedly analogue nature, the fact remains that people love Poems on the Underground. Chernaik notes that people have written to her about poems that particularly strike them, whilst Pinfield explains that there has even been demand for poetry readings at stations such as Covent Garden. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, a poetry reading was held at the usually closed Aldwych Station, with readings from Nichols and Catherine Heaney, Seamus Heaney’s daughter, to name but a few.

‘It’s anecdotal but whenever I tell anybody what my job is, everyone always asks about Poems on the Underground. Awareness is high, love of it is so strong,’ says Pinfield. ‘We find articles all the time about it, it’s often held up [as a successful demonstration of arts in the public sphere]. People have a genuine passion for the poems.’

With 2017 shaping up to be even more eventful than its predecessor, the stability of Poems on the Underground is something to be cherished. Londoners will likely be more appreciative than ever of something to cut through the noise.