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Underground poetry: Celebrating the 116th round of tube train verses

Poems on the Underground was initially conceived by writers Judith Chernaik, Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert.

A London Underground train arrives at a station. — Image © Tim Sandle.
A London Underground train arrives at a station. — Image © Tim Sandle.

For many commuters squeezed onto a London Underground train the monotony of the journey between stations is often alleviated, albeit momentarily, by the appearance of a new poem placed where advertising posters are normally positioned.

These poems come with an official Transport for London logo and they have been added by the transport bosses, seeking to culturally enrich commuters as well as helping to pass away the time. Poems have been appearing through the underground network for 38 years (with the fortieth anniversary occurring in 2026). One of the first poem’s to appear was Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang.

This week the 116th set of poems has appeared throughout the underground transport network.

The archive of this public arts project – Poems on the Underground – has recently been donated to Cambridge University Library.

Poems on the Underground was initially conceived by writers Judith Chernaik, Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert. Today the project is co-directed by Chernaik, Imtiaz Dharker and George Szirtes.

In addition to the posters depicting the poems, the archive contains correspondence from Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners including Seamus Heaney and Louise Gluck, together with a wide range of ephemera from the literary scheme.

Iconic image for London’s Underground tube network. Image (C) Tim Sandle

Heaney’s poem The Railway Children was included in the very first set of Poems on the Underground posters, in January 1986. So far, eight poems and translations by Heaney have appeared on posters across the London Underground.

In a card to Judith Chernaik dated May 8, 1999, Heaney wrote: “I admire you for keeping the underground poems a priority: it is worth doing and has made a difference, I am sure, to the life-worth of poetry for many people. Blessings on the work.”

One such gem from the archive is a letter from the renowned poet Philip Larkin, penned in 1985. Approaching the last few months of his life, Larkin expresses a regrettably unfulfilled wish to see Poems on the Underground posters in situ on trains (Larkin died in December 1985, before his own poem The Trees was posted in carriages in 1986, during the project’s launch year).

For those seeking to embark on the London ‘Tube’ network, the 116th set of poems, featuring works by Lord Byron, Emily Bronte and contemporary British and Irish poets.

Commenting on the archive being deposited at the University, Judith Chernaik told BBC News: “It is hugely gratifying to know that our archive is now housed and catalogued at one of the greatest libraries of the world, fully available to readers and researchers, to everyone interested in public space for the arts and in poets past and present – the most eloquent and enduring witnesses to their times.”

The Poems on the Underground collection has been catalogued and is available for consultation at the Library by anyone interested in seeing it.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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