Poetic Experiment

New Yorkers know that their subway cars are peppered not only with advertisements for chemical skin peels and trade schools, but also with sponsored snippets of poetry. It would be noble, perhaps, to enjoy these bits of verse as an artsy escape from the maelstrom of the trains, the screeching of their brakes, the scurrying of rats on tracks, and the other, more generalized difficulties of the commute–but I am not noble in this respect. The choices are often insipid, and the poems seem to me so out of place, uncomfortable, artificial, on their little slanted panes. It seems too desperate, kind of sad, like raising a golden retriever in a New York studio. Poem, run free!

In response, therefore: this. I composed it on my way home tonight. It is the first (and maybe last, depending on feedback) of a series of poems in which lines of “Subway Verse” are interspersed with lines from other ads and posters in the specific subway car. Here goes:

Music, when soft voices die,
must be made available to people with disabilities,
vibrates in the memory–
Map it!
Odors, when sweet violets sicken
on the subway,
live within the sense they quicken;
please be aware that not all disabilities are visible.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead–
(you’ll be seeing this a lot)
are heaped for the beloved’s bed:
This is the symbol of our commitment.

And so thy thoughts
must be in one of the first five cars.
When thou art gone,
Become a dental assistant!
Love itself shall slumber on:
This could be the last ride of his life.

In case you didn’t enjoy this, in the words of another subway poster: “It’s a work in progress.”

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  1. anya
    Posted May 5, 2005 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Jeremy–thanks for the belly laugh this morning! Works even better than coffee.

  2. Lynn S
    Posted May 5, 2005 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    That is interesting. I hope you will continue the experiment. I sort of think that poetry on the subway is a nice idea but it seems like there might be too many distractions to enjoy it properly. On the other hand, I’ve seen people on the subway (I was in NY in the early 80s) reading a book or something who seemed to be in their own little world, far away from all the distractions. Maybe for some people the poetry could work.

  3. Erin
    Posted May 5, 2005 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I always want to put dictionary definitions in those little card-holders. Evict the poetry! Put in the prosiest of all possible prose! But then again, I always want to put dictionary definitions everywhere …

  4. Jeremy Denk
    Posted May 5, 2005 at 4:22 pm | Permalink


    Thanks so much for your post. Apropos your comment,

    “… on 18 April 1783, ‘Mr. Walker, the celebrated master of elocution,’ asked Dr. Johnson the lexicographer, whether there were any perfect synonyms in any language, which is to say, any wholly superfluous words, and was told, ‘Originally there were not; but by using words negligently, or in poetry, one word comes to be confounded with another.'”

    against which Mallarme, a century later, defining the poet’s role:

    Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu
    (To give a purer sense to tribal words)

    and what’s more from Mallarme:

    “The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields place to the words, immobilized by the shock of their inequality; they take light from mutual reflection, like an actual train of fire over precious stones, replacing the old lyrical afflatus or the enthusiastic personal direction of the phrase.”



  5. Anonymous
    Posted May 5, 2005 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Erin sent me over here–we met at her gathering on Saturday, altho’ we didn’t get to chat. You make me wish I liked classical music. Your poetry post, however, I find completely comprehensible. Lovely.


  6. Anonymous
    Posted May 8, 2005 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    This should be submitted to the NY Times NY Diary section.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted May 9, 2005 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Submitted in the NY Times NY diary section? Oh dear, New York discoveres Dada(esque) poetry….

  8. asmira
    Posted May 17, 2005 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Love the poem!
    I was waiting for some Dr. Zizmor interspertion…

    For your amusement:



  9. rb
    Posted June 4, 2005 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    trains and poetry

    perfect combination

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