Bring Poetry to the Metro

Ten years ago, a woman called Judith Chernaik had a wonderfully simple idea. She and her friends were fed up with strap-hanging on the subway and having nothing much to look at.So they suggested to the authorities that they put up some poetry here and there on the carriage walls. To their infinite credit, the authorities said yes. So what is fast becoming a worldwide movement -- a little poetry crusade -- was born.

It was born small -- as is usually the case with such projects -- with just 1,000 card spaces. But suddenly passengers began paying attention, even smiling, at some point on their long, often grim way home.

Some of the poems related to the city the birth took place in; others were just short familiar poems that could be read between stations. But Judith Chernaik's idea had clearly struck a major chord.

Letters began to pour in saying "Thank you, whoever you are." Anthologies of the poems were published which have, to date, sold 200,000 copies.

And this year, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the scheme, the subway carriages have been opened up to members of the public.

A competition -- which attracted 3,000 entries at roughly $8 a throw -- produced a short-list of 16, half of them complete unknowns; and of the three announced winners, only one is a previously published poet. So the other two have now been published for the first time in some of the 5,000 spaces, roughly one for every single subway carriage, that the authorities have today reserved for the nation's poetry.

For those of you who've never heard of this scheme, then I should perhaps say now that Judith Chernaik is a resident of London, and that's where the scheme started -- with Shelley and Marvell and every kind of poet, from W.B. Yeats to the comic writer Spike Milligan -- in the London Underground. But it certainly hasn't stopped there.

No, Judith Chernaik's idea has little by little spread all over the world: to Paris and Dublin, to New York, to Sydney and Stockholm. There are even poems (in English), as I write these words, on the trams of Oslo and Helsinki.

The point of all this is that I can't think of any other idea which has spread so much simple joy -- and so much goodwill -- so cheaply.

And it's high time the idea was taken up in Russia. In what other country, after all, has poetry been so much loved and poets so revered? ("In no other place is poetry so important," said Osip Mandelstam bleakly, presaging his own fate. "Here they kill you for it.")

Just think for a minute. Wouldn't it be easy to do? All you would need, after all, is a couple of deep-pocketed sponsors and the agreement of the authorities; and there you would have it: Russian poets brought publicly back into community with the living in the subways of Moscow and St. Petersburg -- a little national pride, if you like, bleeding (in a small way) from the carriage walls.

Anna Akhmatova's "Echo" or "Muse," for example. Or Boris Pasternak's "The Wind" ("My end has come, but you are living./ And the wind complaining and crying/ Rocks the forest and the dacha ...").

Brodsky's "October Tune" ("A stuffed quail on the mantelpiece/minds its tail"); Mandelstam's "When the earth sleeps"; Voznesenky's "Epitaph for Vysotsky" ("You lived, you played, you sang with a bitter grin;/ Russia's love you were and heartbreak for us all ..."). Daniil Kharms, Pushkin, Lermontov, Yesenin, Mayakovsky -- the list could go on and on.

And why shouldn't the sponsors of all this be Western firms, while we're at it?

It's not as if there's a whole lot else you can point to in either of the two cities as a legacy of the West -- except ... well, now's not the right time.

So why doesn't someone reading this -- if such there be -- suggest it to his or her bosses as a cause that will harm no one and, to the contrary, please hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Russian riders of mass transportation.

You can't have a corporate logo on the cards, of course -- that would be cheating. ("Poetry exists in the valley of its saying/ Where executives would never want to tamper," wrote W.H. Auden.)

But you certainly can spread a lot of joy.