Review - Get poetry on track

11th January 2013 at 00:00
Transport pupils with poetry from the London Underground

On a winter's day in 1863, history was made in London. It was 9 January and the world's first underground railway - the Metropolitan line - officially opened. Now a new edition of Poems on the Underground (Penguin) celebrates the 150th anniversary.

The beautiful hardback volume contains 230 poems that have decorated Tube carriages over the years, entertaining commuters and tourists as they journey across the capital.

The poems are split into different topics: there are verses on love, the seasons and the natural world alongside poems about London, war, exile and loss. With poems including those of Sappho, Seamus Heaney, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Shelley, the book could inspire hundreds of topics in class. Perhaps you're teaching pre-1914 poetry or prose? Or exploring literature from around the world? What better place to start your journey to another country or time than here?

The chapter of 20 war poems reveals the vital role Underground stations played during the Blitz, when more than 170,000 Londoners took shelter there. Bunk beds and washrooms were installed and trains supplied food and tea to the temporary refugees.

Lotte Kramer's Exodus reminds us that journeys can be enforced, yet sometimes save lives. She writes, from experience, of the Kindertransport - trains organised by the British to take Jewish children from Nazi Germany to safety on our shores.

On a lighter note, Sumer Is Icumen In (author unknown) offers a great opportunity for some silliness in class. With its repetition of "Cuckoo, cuckoo!" why not get pupils to perform a dance to the poem? They will surely love pretending to be the noisy early-rising bird.

Poems on the Underground was the idea of three friends - Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert - who in 1986 persuaded London Underground to post a few poems on the walls of its trains. Since then, public transport poetry has spread beyond Britain's borders as far as Beijing in China and Melbourne in Australia.

Three million passenger journeys are made every day on the Tube. Reading the collection, while thinking of the thousands of travellers who will have read the same words, is a captivating notion. These are poems we can all relate to, which deal with the great diversity of human life. The book is also a reminder of the power that poetry has to connect people.

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