reflections on public art
For thirty years, riders on the MTA have experienced “Poetry in Motion”, an arts project that aims to beautify New York’s buses and subway cars, which, to be fair, manage to seem dilapidated even when new. Among the poets chosen for the first series were Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. But these days, if anyone bothers to look up from their glowing rectangles to take in a poem, they’ll find nothing but dreck.
Why did the subway poetry become so terrible?
I won’t name names - that would be needlessly cruel - but a short poem called “The Lovers”, which I seem to encounter most often on the F train, comes immediately to mind. The narrator, watching a psychic do a tarot reading with trepidation, asks forgiveness from their lover “for not knowing / how we were / every card in the deck”.
The set-up is intriguing: the lovers crammed in the psychic’s booth, perhaps as a late-night lark, each musing about their future. The punchline, however, offers the equivalent of ex-Governor Cuomo’s widely-mocked declaration that “as a New Yorker” he was “a Muslim, […] Jewish, […] a refugee” and so on. “We’re the Devil, we’re the Chariot, we’re the Fool, we’re the Hermit”.
What does it really mean? Nothing at all.
I suspect that’s the point. There has always been a blandness to “Poetry in Motion” that suits its civic function. Whitman and Dickinson are the most classic of American poets, and they were joined, in the first edition, by William Butler Yeats (Irish) and the then-living Lucille Clifton, whose contribution “Let there be new flowering” was more hopeful and more universal than much of her oeuvre, that is to say, less recognizably tied to her experiences of Blackness and womanhood. (Contrast the conclusion of “Let there be new flowering” - ‘let love be / at the end’ - to the remarkable closing moment of Clifton’s “Black Women”: ‘America made us heroines / not wives / we hid our ladyness / to save our lives’.)
Universal poetry can still, can often, be good poetry. What we find now on the subway is instead insipid, drained of significance, private or public. That is what I mean to investigate here.
One poet now featured by the MTA informs us that “I wouldn’t have thought without travelling out / how huge that dipper was, / how small that tree”. There is at least a pleasing rhythm and movement here, but the thought is as small as the ash tree; it is surely more remarkable that we are smaller than both tree and sky.
Another poet, begging for correspondence, mysteriously states that “The night is your cottage industry now, / the day is your brisk emporium” before adding that “The world is full of paper.” The evocation of industry suggests a desire for nothing so much as a properly formatted business letter, the intimacy of a handwritten note swallowed up by this chasm of emotionlessness.
One might think that the source of my difficulty is that there is these days very little decent poetry in a small compass. I have a tendency toward this form of pessimism, but am seldom disappointed by the work of, say, August Kleinzahler, who as the most distinguished belletrist hailing from Jersey City really ought to be featured on the PATH trains, if not borrowed for the MTA, too.
An excerpt from Kleinzahler’s “The Strange Hours Travelers Keep” might be especially fitting, with its rendering of the rhythms of the city and theme of transit:
Garbage scows move slowly down the estuary
The lights of the airport pulse in morning darkness
Food trucks, propane, tortured hearts
The reticent epistemologist parks
Gets out, checks the curb, reparks
Thunder of jets
Peristalsis of great capitals
Kleinzahler’s register is, however, insufficiently demotic; no one at the Poetry Society of America wants straphangers to look up what a ‘peristalsis’ is or to try to Google what disease an ‘epistemologist’ specializes in.
Leaving aside the question of register, we may surmise, from its typical subject matter and style, that the deeper aim of “Poetry in Motion” is to bring us to think, while trapped in hurtling stainless steel cocoons, of pastoral idylls and not cityscapes.
Take this numbingly straightforward and not-even-charmingly-childish example: “The path was purple in the dusk. / I saw an owl, perched, / on a branch.” (Give me propane and tortured hearts, please!) Despite the recent exploits of Flaco in Central Park, this bird - and the entire dim and peaceful scene - evidently belongs to a pastoral imagination that exists in opposition to the whirl of city life. One function of such poetry, when it is empty of further significance, is to soothe and to distract.
More broadly, it is a delicate matter to draw on so-called high culture for public art. At the Port Authority Bus Terminal, hardly the pleasantest place in the city, European classical music has been piped in over the public address system since 1992, the same year “Poetry in Motion” began. The selections lean toward Baroque serenity - Bach, Vivaldi, and the like - but, despite official denials, the suspicion that crowd control is its ultimate purpose comes readily to mind.
Even if this happens to be true, this and other efforts to beautify public space may well be worthwhile for the respite they offer. Just as public architecture shapes not only our experience of moving through a shared civic space but also the very possibilities we have for relating to our fellow citizens, so too does public art have both a political role and a political significance.
In any case, the Port Authority’s consultants at Muzak seem to have chosen from among acknowledged masterworks. By contrast, whatever the principles of choice adopted by “Poetry in Motion”, the results suggest that neither poetry nor taste in verse are flourishing. All the same, we can and should ask more of public art.
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Let me now venture some broader claims about poetry in our time, in part to address the worry that I am simply longing for a return to an older type of verse that is more to my antiquarian taste.
Sound and sense are the essence of poetry, whether Homer’s hexameters or the most avant-garde works of modernism. In their stead, in a great deal of verse nowadays, we find mere imagery and sentiment. The conviction that the poet must have an Idea - the sort of Idea that prose cannot contain - has been lost, perhaps because Ideas are seen more broadly to be oppressive.
So we end up instead with prose
enjambed and formatted with
periodic line breaks to signify
when we are done with one thing
and are going on to the next.
I am not, not saying that good poetry needs rhyme or meter or even assonance and consonance, but these are tools that discipline sound to sense and sense to sound, and it would behoove many to return to these tools for reflection on their purpose.
When Eliot and Pound and their kith broke English poetry, they did so for the sake of particular Ideas that demanded new expression, not because they thought it would be cool, though it was very cool indeed.
They did not want (merely) to share a vibe or a mood or a feeling. They did not want (merely) to acquaint us with unexpected juxtapositions, images of novelty. Always, always there was sound and sense, disciplined to one another even in the apparent indiscipline of their new manner of verse.
Consider, briefly, these lines of Eliot’s, chosen pretty much at random from the Four Quartets (from “Little Gidding”, in particular), which I was delighted to discuss with readers of Comment in recent weeks as part of a Lenten online lecture series:
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The poetic Idea, which is not simply Heidegger’s thought that each of us enters life in a cultural world not of our own making (Geworfenheit), is grounded in particular images, the execution-block and the fire of martyrdom alongside the sea-death or graveyard anonymity that is our likelier fate, and also in the network of associations developed earlier in the poem, ranging from the everyday holiness of Nicholas Ferrar’s community at Little Gidding, where King Charles I sought refuge in 1646, to the fires that consumed London in the Blitz, described so vividly earlier in “Little Gidding”. Yet these lines bear their sense - a sense borne as if on a ceaseless tide (“See, they depart … See, they return”) - even without these further associations.
This act of discipline-without-form is difficult to sustain, and even Eliot and Pound produced duds. It is difficult to say now that a poem is a dud, because many poems now are confessions and it is rude to say of someone’s confession that it is a dud. More broadly, imagery and sentiment cannot provoke dissent or even critique; they merely are.
I may seem to be saying, once more, that the subway poetry is now terrible because poetry in general is now terrible, but there are too many exceptions for it to win my mind entirely. (Bless Anne Carson!) The issue is rather that we have forgotten what poetry is and what it is for, so it is difficult for anyone to tell what poetry is good, let alone people whose job it is to select poems for the public spaces of a massive and extraordinarily diverse city.
Note to our readers: Tara’s next essay will, like this one, be free-standing, but our next symposium - a series of interrelated essays published over the course of several weeks - will be on animals. Look out for a message with details of how to pitch us a guest essay as a contribution to that symposium.