By: Rivka Krause  | 

Arts & Culture: The Poems That Travel With Us

The NYC subway system seems like an unlikely place for art — smelly and incredibly overcrowded, with no room for beauty. Yet anyone who has ridden the subway knows that despite this landscape, it is a space teeming with musicians, performers, missionaries and more. All those art mediums require interaction with another person — something that most of us try to avoid on the subway. But there is one medium of art in the subway system that is accessible and solitary: poetry. 

You have seen one of them before, I promise. Or if you haven’t, start looking. Usually over the two-seater right by the door, courtesy of the MTA, rests a poem. Each fiscal quarter, two poems are paired with artwork and displayed throughout the transit system. 

Poetry first appeared on the overhead boards of the subway in 1992. In collaboration with the Poetry Society of America, the MTA launched the “Poetry in Motion” project. The goal of the program was to bring poetry into the lives of the millions of daily subway users. After a brief hiatus from 2008-2012, the program returned and was under the auspices of the MTA Arts & Design department.  The new design of the posters imposes the text of the poem over artworks installed elsewhere in MTA-governed public transit. 

I first noticed the subway poetry this past summer. It was August and everything felt heavy and foreboding. The heat, the end of summer and the start of a new year all loomed over me. Stuffing myself into a crowded car, overwhelmed by the swampy air and my inability to move, I spotted a poem called “Uncertainty Principle by Dawn” by Catherine Barnett on the wall of the car. Reading the poem offered me a minor reprieve from my current environment, but it also caused all the sadness that I was feeling to surface. 

Minutes before entering the subway, a summer fling had come to an end, and the eleven-line poem felt emblematic of the entire experience. The poem's speaker is grappling with whether they can replace the person they have lost with new obsessions. I, having just lost something, felt like the poem was speaking to me. The power of poetry is to evoke and name some of the feelings swirling around inside us. It wasn’t only the language of the poem that spoke to me, but the uncanny environment in which we met. As Amy Hausmann, the Transit Museum’s senior curator and deputy director, said: “Poetry that is discovered in unexpected places like a crowded subway car or a city bus can provide a window into another way of thinking and feeling about the world we inhabit.” 

Poetry in an unexpected place can make us feel things that we otherwise would not, Hausmann argues. However, this does not answer the most fundamental question, which is why should we interact with art while taking the subway? Does reading a ten-to-twelve-line poem lessen the drudgery and mundanity of the experience of commuting? If anything, the presence of poetry on the subway lends itself to an overly romanticized and constructed experience. You almost feel like a character in a movie who reads the right poem at the right time. 

But maybe that's the point. We should indulge in a little romanticism to enhance experiences that would otherwise make us miserable. I believe that we are required to do so that we do not turn calloused and closed off. In his iconic commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace outlines his simple life philosophy. Wallace argues that it is crucial to remind ourselves that we are living our lives and that the current moment is not a dress rehearsal for something grander. Wallace emphasizes that we have power in how we react to the mundane things around us. Subway poetry forces us into the now and reminds us of the beauty in the current moment. Even if that moment is smelly and sweaty, you have the choice to experience it however you want. Choose wisely. 


Photo Caption: Subway poetry forces us into the now and reminds us of the beauty in the current moment. 

Photo Credit: Linda Fletcher / Wikimedia Commons