June 2021

Celebrating 35 years of Poems on the Underground

This summer we’re marking 35 years of Poems on the Underground with posters stretching from our first two years–a distinctive design provided by Faber & Faber – to thirty years of posters designed by the master typographer Tom Davidson.

Over the years we’ve featured the widest possible range of poets, past and present, writing on themes of love and London, the natural world, songs and riddles, and the perennial subjects of war and peace, with glimpses of sense and nonsense to leaven the darker side of life.

We end the month with an Iraqi poet’s tribute to poetry, as it reflects and heals a broken world.

The First Year of Poems on the Underground, 1986

The Railway Children, Seamus Heaney ' When we climbed the slopes of the cutting We were eye-level with the white cups Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.' '
Like A Beacon, Grace Nichols 'In London every now and then I get this craving for my mother’s food I leave art galleries in search of plantains saltfish/sweet potatoes I need this link I need this touch of home swinging my bag like a beacon against the cold'
Benediction, James Berry 'Thanks to the ear that someone may hear Thanks to seeing that someone may see Thanks to feeling that someone may feel Thanks to touch that one may be touched Thanks to flowering of white moon and spreading shawl of black night holding villages and cities together'
William Blake, The Sick Rose 'Oh Rose thou art sick. The invisible worm That flies in the night In the howling storm , Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy.'
Encounter at St. Martin's, Ken Smith 'I tell a wanderer's tale, the same I began long ago, a boy in a barn, I am always lost in it. The place is always strange to me. In my pocket the wrong money or none, the wrong paper maps of another town, the phrase book for yesterday's language, just a ticket to the next station, and my instructions. In the lobby of the Banco Bilbao a dark woman will slip me a key, a package, the name of a hotel, a numbered account, the first letters of an unknown alphabet.'
Living, Denise Levertov ' The fire in leaf and grass so green it seems each summer the last summer. The wind blowing, the leaves shivering in the sun, each day the last day.'

The Second Year of Poems on the Underground, 1987

Trail All Your Pikes, Anne Finch 'Trail all your pikes, dispirit every drum, March in a slow procession from afar, Ye silent, ye dejected men of war! Be still the hautboys, and the flute be dumb! Display no more, in vain, the lofty banner. For see! where on the bier before ye lies The pale, the fall`n th`untimely sacrifice To your mistaken shrine, to your false idol Honour!'
Tagus Farewell, Sir Thomas Wyatt 'Tagus, farewell, that westward with thy streams Turns up the grains of gold already tried: With spur and sail for I go seek the Thames, Gainward the sun that showeth her wealthy pride, And to the town which Brutus sought by dreams Like bended moon doth lend her lusty side. My King, my Country, alone for whom I live, Of mighty love the wings for this me give.'
Ragwort, Anne Stevenson 'They won't let railways alone, those yellow flowers. They're that remorseless joy of dereliction
There was an Old Man with a Beard , Edward Lear 'There was an Old Man with a beard, Who said, "It is just as I feared!— Two Owls and a Hen, Four Larks and a Wren, Have all built their nests in my beard." '
Dog Days, Derek Mahon 'When you stop to consider The days spent dreaming of a future And say then, that was my life.' For the days are long - From the first milk van To the last shout in the night, An eternity. But the weeks go by Like birds; and the years, the years Fly past anti-clockwise Like clock hands in a bar mirror.'
The Visitor, Carolyn Forché ' In Spanish he whispers there is no time left. It is the sound of scythes arcing in wheat, the ache of some field song in Salvador. The wind along the prison, cautious as Francisco's hands on the inside, touching the walls as he walks, it is his wife's breath slipping into his cell each night while he imagines his hand to be hers. It is a small country. There is nothing one man will not do to another'

Music Poems on the Underground 1986-2019

The Loch Ness Monster's Song, Edwin Morgan 'Sssnnnwhuffffll? Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnflhfl? Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl'
Western Wind, Anon, ' Western wind when wilt thou blow the small rain down can rain Christ If my love were in my arms and I in my bed again'
If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper, Charles Tomlinson ' If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper he would have heard all those notes suspended above one another in the air of his ear as the undifferentiated swarm returning to the exact hive to place in the hive, topping up the cells with the honey of C major, food for the listening generations, key to their comfort and solace of their distress as they return and return to those counterpointed levels of hovering wings where movement is dance and the air itself a scented garden'
Lines to a Movement in Mozart’s E-flat Symphony, Thomas Hardy ‘Show me again the time When in the Junetide’s prime We flew by meads and mountains northerly! – Yea, to such freshness, fairness, fullness, fineness, freeness, Love lures life on….’
Charles Causley, I am the Song ' I am the song that sings the bird. I am the leaf that grows the land. I am the tide that moves the moon. I am the stream that halts the sand.'

Riddles on the Underground 1987- 2011

Riddle –Me-Ree, Liz Lochead 'My first is in life (not contained within heart) My second's in whole but never in part. My third's in forever but also in vain. My last's in ending, why not in pain?'
Old English Riddle, Anon, Tr. Gerard Benson 'A moth, I thought, munching a word. How marvellously weird! a worm Digesting a man's sayings - A sneakthief nibbling in the shadows At the shape of a poet`s thunderous phrases - How unutterably strange! And the pilfering parasite none the wiser For the words he has swallowed.'
I saw a Peacock with a fiery tail, Anon ' I saw a Peacock with a fiery tail I saw a blazing comet drop down hail I saw a Cloud with Ivy circled round I saw a sturdy Oak creep on the ground I saw a Pismire swallow up a whale I saw a raging Sea brim full of Ale I saw a Venice Glass sixteen foot deep I saw a Well full of men`s tears that weep I saw their eyes all in a flame of fire I saw a House as big as the Moon and higher I saw the sun even in the midst of night I saw the Man that saw this wonderous sight.'
I Gave My Love a Cherry, Anon 'I have a young sister, far beyond the sea; Many be the love-gifts that she sent me. She sent me the cherry, without any stone; And so she did the dove, without any bone. She sent me the briar, without any rind ; She bade me love my sweetheart, without longing. How should any cherry be without stone? And how should any dove be without a bone? How should any briar be without rind? How should I love my sweetheart without longing? When the cherry was a flower, then it had no stone; When the dove was an egg, then it had no bone. When the briar was unbred, Then it had no rind: When the maiden hath that she loveth, she is without longing.'
Riddle, Gerard Benson ‘ I was the cause of great troubles, yet, resting among leaves, I did nothing wrong.’

Love poems on the Underground 1987-2005

Celia Celia and Goodbye, Adrian Mitchell ' When I am sad and weary, When I think all hope has gone, When I walk along High Holborn I think of you with nothing on'
First Fig, Edna St. Vincent Millay 'My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah! my foes, and oh, my friends - It gives a lovely light!'
Sea Love, Charlotte Mew 'Tide be runnin' the great world over: T'was only last June month I mind that we Was thinkin' the toss and the call in the breast of the lover So everlastin' as the sea. Heer's the same little fishes that sputter and swim, Wi' the moon's old glim on the grey, wet sand; An' him no more to me nor me to him Than the wind goin' over my hand.'
Personal Column, Basil Bunting '...As to my heart, that may as well be forgotten or labelled: Owner will dispose of same to a good home, refs. exchgd., h.&c., previous experience desired but not essential or let on a short lease to suit convenience.'
To Althea, from Prison Richard Lovelace 'When Love with unconfinèd wings Hovers within my Gates, And my divine Althea brings To whisper at the Grates; When I lie tangled in her hair, And fettered to her eye, The Gods that wanton in the Air, Know no such Liberty.'

Poems of Place, Time and Memory 1987-2003

Immigrant, Fleur Adcock 'November '63: eight months in London. I pause on the low bridge to watch the pelicans:'
Arrival 1946, Moniza Alvi, 'The boat docked in at Liverpool. From the train Tariq stared at an unbroken line of washing from the North West to Euston. These are strange people, he thought - an Empire, and all this washing, the underwear, the Englishman's garden. It was Monday, and very sharp.'
Kathleen Raine, Dream ' I am becoming a stranger to my dreams, Their places unknown, A bridge there was Over the lovely waters of the Tyne, my mother Was with me, we were almost there, It seemed, but in that almost opened up a valley extending and expanding, wind-sculptured sand; Dry its paths, a beautiful waterless waste Without one green leaf, sand-coloured behind closed eyes. That film shifts, but the arid place remains When day returns Yet we were still going towards the Tyne, That green river-side where childhood's flowers were growing still, my mother and I, she dead, With me forever in that dream'
Poetry , Saadi Youssef tr. Khaled Mattawa Who broke these mirrors and tossed them shard by shard among the branches? And now... shall we ask L'Akhdar to come and see? Colours are all muddled up and the image is entangled with the thing and the eyes burn. L'Akhdar must gather these mirrors on his palm and match the pieces together any way he likes and preserve the memory of the branch. '