Central lines;Poetry;Books

1st May 1998 at 01:00
POEMS ON THE UNDERGROUND. Edited by Gerard Benson, Cicely Herber and Judith Chernaik. Cassell 7th edition pound;4.99 pbk.

Everyone loves the Poems on the Underground scheme, and quite right too. Like all the best initiatives, it now seems obvious and natural, but this was a bold and unlikely venture in 1986. And even its three intrepid prime movers must be startled by the way it's taken off: a best-selling anthology, and grateful imitations in New York, Dublin, Paris, Stuttgart, Stockholm, Helsinki, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Rotterdam, Barce-lona and Moscow - so far.

Inevitably it's on the Internet too. On a beautiful day last summer, I was among a happy band who celebrated this development. We were on the revolving floor of the BT Tower. High over London we remarked how far the scheme had risen.

So why is that? Partly because of design. The London Transport advertising frame is chequebook-shaped; this, for some reason is sympathetic to a poem, much more so than, for instance, the long dimensions of a poster. And the type-faces, serif, sans-serif; the beautiful colours, grey, red and black; and the absence of hype have all helped shape the enterprise. How does it stand up on the page? Very well. The erudite and judicious editors, with an eye for life, an ear for fun and a reverence for genius, have omitted only one class of poem: the indigestible kind that differs from prose only in having less rhythm and no point.

Otherwise, they're voracious of the past and the present. I can whet your appetite by mentioning just two, both, as it happens, hanging in our downstairs loo: John Masefield's "Cargoes" and Peter Porter's "Waiting for Rain in Devon". The first will be familiar to older poetry-lovers, but chestnuts are always worth re-roasting for the large numbers who've never tasted them. Also, like pop classics, they've generally achieved that status by being particularly good. Masefield is an unfashionable poet today, and I hope new readers will be thrilled by the extraordinary technical and lyrical feat this poem is.

Porter's piece is also a beautiful deployment of imagery and music including: Come back, perennial rain, stand your soft sculpture in our gardens for the barefoot frogs to leap.

Angry satires, historical curiosities, jokes and benedictions, there's something for everyone here. The notes are informative and entertaining. I wish only that the book was not "perfect bound", the most imperfect method known to man, with the pages stuck to the spine. So love it, but not as you'd love a teddy bear.

Kit Wright

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