A poem from poems in the Underground

Poems on the Underground’s Judith Chernaik to keep “lighting up” tube with new poems

Poems on the Underground has captivated countless commuters for almost 40 years.

Poems on the Underground’s co-creator and editor Judith Chernaik recently supervised a new poem release with two colleagues, marking the tube’s 160th anniversary.

The American writer and author based in Camden recalled how she was “stunned” by the city’s tube when she moved to London and how she found it quite “civilised” compared to the New York subway.

She came up with the idea of posting poems in the empty advertising boards of the Underground with two other friends, poets Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson, back in 1986.

This month’s new additions include four poets to the tube for the first time – and one from a Kurdish poet who was held in a Turkish prison for 29 years.

“The idea of a prisoner’s work reaching the world outside his prison is a very moving one,” said Chernaik.

Poem by İlhan Sami Çomak - "What I know of the sea".
Poem from the new release “What I know of the sea” by İlhan Sami Çomak – credit: Poems on the underground/Transport for London.

Old and new poems

The Poems on the Underground project sought to make the tube about more than simply a functional service.

Recalling its launch, Chernaik said: “It was January at the time, the weather was awful and somehow these poems seemed to light up the place.”

Chernaik still meets regularly with two colleagues to launch three new sets of poems every year, including this week’s new release.

The project focused at the beginning on published poets like Shakespeare and Dickinson and now includes new poets. 

Chernaik said: “It seemed important to have poems that everybody could recognise since new poems are harder to grasp.”

Older posters have since been assembled in published books and in free special-themed leaflets.

The project has also inspired other cities in the world where similar posters are displayed in the transport.

It is now supported by Transport for London, the Arts Council England and the British Council.

Chernaik added: “When you’ve got a whole population using public transport, it’s obvious to try to give a kind of lift to the public sphere.”

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