Reflections on the Literary Decline of the Subway

Poetry and prose on the subway may be going the way of the dodo. As The Times reported Tuesday morning, the Train of Thought series, which placed literary quotations from the likes of Kafka and Schopenhauer in the unlikely locale of a packed New York City subway car, is being removed to make way for a promotional campaign by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The series is unlikely to return, according to officials at the transit agency, although the door for a comeback has been left slightly ajar. Officials said that they could envision a place in the future for a similar series, but that the discussions had not yet occurred.

A few readers have already contributed reflections on previous encounters with the literary program. Ashraf Ali, a college student who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, wrote about seeing poetry on the No. 7 line:

It would be sandwiched between the frivolous ads that no one seemed to care about. A short insight into humanity, a small window into our own minds already cluttered by noise pollution and the loud lady talking on her cellphone. … The campaign served a brighter deed for the thousands of people who enter and exit the trains in a quick hustle and bustle. But maybe, for the iPod generation caught with earbuds in ears and cellphones in hand, the quotes were just another random factoid to search on their smartphones.

It’s a shame because it’s this type of quirky, unconventional medium for prose and poetry that served as refuge for well-formulated thought. Back to my daily dose of ambient noise and train delay.

From Lucía Di Poi, a Staten Island native who now lives in Berkeley, Calif.:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

— Emily Dickinson

I first read this excerpt on the 4 train while I was riding to high school in the Bronx and it made a lasting impression on me throughout my formative years. I had never been exposed to Emily Dickinson’s poetry before and this quote inspired me to learn about her. In effect, it is a somewhat cynical message considering our current state of affairs, and certainly the circumstances at the time as well, but for my innocent adolescent self it was one of those rare occasions when your mind could be quiet on a crowded subway, in contemplation of something that was perhaps affecting someone in the same way in the same car at the same time. I no longer live in New York but am sad that that this program is ending, and that all that is left is how to learn English, get rid of bunions, and get an online business degree. And of course a new P.R. campaign for the M.T.A., as if New Yorkers have any choice but to ride the subway anyway. Leaving the poetry that makes people happy while on the train, is better than replacing it with something explaining why they should be happy to be on that train. I seriously hope they reconsider the contract.

Some prominent poets and critics have long hoped for a return of Poetry in Motion, the verse-only precursor to Train of Thought that was phased out in 2008. Alice Quinn, the executive director of the Poetry Society of America, has helped raise money to continue the campaign in a series of advertisements around the country.

“I am absolutely fervent in my desire to retrieve this program on behalf of the citizens of our city!” Ms. Quinn wrote in an e-mail on Monday. “New York embraced Poetry in Motion passionately from the first.”

In a follow-up message, Ms. Quinn, who spent two decades as the poetry editor of The New Yorker, suggested a poem that could run as the first installment of a revived poetry program. Ms. Quinn encountered the poem, a sonnet, on a recent lunch break, and its subject matter is certainly subway-appropriate. The piece follows, and feel free to weigh in on the plight of the literary underground in the comments below.

“If I Should Learn” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
  That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
  Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
  And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
  At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
  Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
  With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

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