…………………………………………..Among the various events to mark the centenary of World War One, there are a new series of War Poems on display across London Underground. The selected poems include work by three British poets, Ivor Gurney, Siegfried Sassoon and one of my favourite poets Edward Thomas, alongside works by Guillaume Appollinaire, Georg Trakl and Guiseppe Ungaretti. Excerpts from poetry on our underground trains is nothing new but there are some variations this time from the usual approach. The excerpts from Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire are in their original language with an English translation alongside, and as well as being displayed on Tube trains they are now being displayed in stations and on overground trains. The excerpts from the six selected poems are all on the theme of reconciliation and brotherhood.
As I commute into and across London, I like to look out for the works. Strangely I’ve only come across the poems of Ungaretti, Trakl and Appollinaire but I guess as I mainly use the Central, District, Northern and Victoria lines, the work of the British poets must be elsewhere in the network. It’s surprising I haven’t come across the others though given I’m here EVERY day and given the fact that London Underground produced around 500 posters of each poem! Of the three I have seen, I found the excerpt from Ungaretti’s poem ‘Brothers’ particularly moving. In a few lines it creates such a feel of tension and fear, and it conveys the precariousness of life for soldiers at the front line.
What regiment are you from
Word trembling in the night
A leaf just opening
In the racked air
Of man face to face
With his own
The War Poems on the Underground series is part of a long tradition of publishing poetry on the Tube, having started way back in 1986. The original idea was largely to bring it to a wider audience, celebrate great poetry and of course allow people to reflect on the poetry they had read. Whether it does or doesn’t achieve all these aims is I guess open to debate. I always look for it, and I do like to read it and reflect on what I’ve read for however long my journey lasts -and usually beyond. But I’m not sure how many of my fellow commuters take an interest in the poems – I like to think the vast majority at least notice them but I’m not so sure what proportion read them, consider them, or even enjoy them. But I always think it works on a similar principle to World Book Day – realistically not everyone who is given a book will actively engage with it, but even if only a tiny proportion do get into the book, or in this case, the poem, then I think it’s been worth it.
To accompany the six poems published on Tube trains, London Underground also published a larger booklet of war poetry which was distributed at stations. If you either don’t live in London or weren’t fortunate enough to pick one up you can still access the collection, which includes poems by Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Laurie Lee here. All of the poems in the larger collection have all been published on the Tube at some point in recent years, as the Tube usually publish at least one war poem each November as part of its ongoing commemoration.
The publication of the collection also marks the special connection of the Underground to the First World War. At the time the poems were announced and published in October of this year, London Undergrounds’ press release noted that in 1914-18 almost half of all the staff on the Underground enlisted and by the end of the war over 1000 of them had been killed. It’s again a chilling reminder of the devastating loss of life in the Great War.
So if you’re a London Underground user like me, have you spotted the poetry on our Tube trains and stations? And if you have, what did you think? ( And crucially where the hell are the poems by Sassoon, Gurney and Thomas?!) And if you’re not fortunate enough to have the daily joy of commuting into London(!) do they ever have public displays of poetry where you live?