“Poetry makes nothing happen,” WH Auden wrote in his elegy to William Butler Yeats.
Whatever that means.
As of this spring, poetry is no longer making nothing happen in New York’s subways, buses and rail lines.
Poetry in Motion, the public project that provided lyric respite from ads for bunion cures, acne doctors and personal-injury lawyers, came to a quiet end last month, more than 15 years after its first placards appeared in the subways.
By giving nearly 9 million daily riders a chance to glimpse a poem, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority could claim to be the most successful publisher of poetry in history.
The spaces once occupied by the poems will now be filled with a series called Train of Thought, selections of prose from great thinkers in history, philosophy, science and literature.
“Over time, people will begin to appreciate the thoughts in Train of Thought and the one poem a year that comes with it,” said Alicia Martinez, the transportation authority executive who made the change.
Surely it will be easy to find admirers of EB White and Galileo — the first of these thinkers in the new displays — but the poems, ambushing people in the blank trance of their commutes, had special glories.
“A couple of years ago, I visited my friend in New York,” Sabine Bartlet wrote last year to the Poetry Society of America, which helped the agency pick the poems and get permission for their display. “While in the subway I read a poem that I cannot fully remember but it sticks in my head all these years.”
The poem, she said, contained the word “always” in nearly every line. It turned out that “Always,” by Irving Berlin, had appeared in the transit system eight years earlier. (“Days may not be fair, always,” he wrote. “That’s when I’ll be there, always.”)
A teenager who rode the subway on a visit to New York from San Francisco went back home, head ringing with an excerpt from Macbeth that begins: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,” and concludes with the king’s despairing rage at Lady Macbeth’s death, proof that life is but “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Two years later, the young woman wrote to the Poetry Society to ask for the Macbeth subway placard so that she and her English class could present it to a teacher who had memorably led them through the play.
“People will remember a first line,” said Brett Lauer, the managing director of the Poetry Society. “They remember where they were going when they first read a poem.”
“Poetry in Motion was a great gift to the city that the MTA and Transit gave and it was very deeply appreciated,” said Alice Quinn, the executive director of the Poetry Society. “There’s nothing that compares to the sustained exposure to an art.”
The transportation agency gave the space; Barnes & Noble paid for the printing of the posters. Quinn and others from the Poetry Society would meet with transit officials to pick out the poems, at least one classic and one modern poet every three months. Over the years, the amount of space had shrunk, but it was only in April that Quinn learned that just a single poem would appear every year.
Martinez of the authority says the shift can be traced to the resistance she felt over using a selection from Hamlet, in which the prince, resigned to the possibility that he could be killed in a duel, says: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” A colleague argued that it was prose.
“I thought, ‘Why not prose?’” said Martinez, a former college English professor.
The Poetry Society will try to raise funds to buy space on city buses, Quinn said, but to replace the ads in the subway cars would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Quinn, who was the poetry editor of The New Yorker for 20 years, recalled the thrill of introducing transit riders to “Wilderness,” a poem by Lorine Niedecker, who lived in solitude on an island in Wisconsin and had an intense but troubled relationship with a poet in New York.
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