Arts and Entertainment

Poetry in Motion NYC

This article describes the Poetry in Motion NYC project, the impact it's had, and what I think of it.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“My words to you are the stitches on a scarf / I don’t want to finish / Maybe it will come to be a blanket / To hold you here / Love not gone anywhere.”

Sound familiar? Chances are you’ve read this poem more than once. “My Words To You” by Jean Valentine, as well as countless other poems, is part of the Poetry in Motion project, originally founded in New York City (NYC) for the MTA subway system. The program was launched in 1992 by the Poetry Society (founded in 1910) and features poems by all sorts of poets, aimed to make NYC commutes more interesting and enjoyable. The idea was taken from a British program founded in 1986 called Poems on the Underground, which is essentially the same as the Poetry in Motion project, but on the London Underground system. The poems are not in every subway car, but if you get lucky, you’ll probably find one or two. The first four poems to be featured in 1992 were "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Walt Whitman, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" by Emily Dickinson, "When You Are Old" by William Butler Yeats, and "Let There Be New Flowering" by Lucille Clifton.

Ten years after the founding of Poetry in Motion, over 150 poems have already been featured in the MTA subway system, ranging all the way from Chinese poet Lao Tzu (born in 604 BC) to modern poets that are still alive today. However, until 2010, the poems were not featured on the subway cars like they are today, and instead were part of murals located at some stations. In 2008, the program paused for a while to give way to a new program called Train of Thought, which expanded the movement to include not just poems, but scientific quotes, historical facts, and philosophy. Some works used for this project were quotes from the brilliant scientist Galileo Galilei.

However, according to the New York Post, this program was not as enticing as the poems, which better captured the attention of the audience. The MTA brought Poetry in Motion back in 2012, and its poems have become more noticeable than ever due to new visual aspects. All of the poems have a flowery logo and are paired with a piece of art from MTA’s vast art collection of over 230 pieces. For example, in the 71st Street station on the D line, a poem is paired with laminated glass pieces of flowers. Today, the poems are featured two at a time for three months, adding up to eight poems a year. I personally wish that they would include more poems because to me, they are interesting. They’re short, sweet, and beautiful, oftentimes talking about themes like love or nature. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I’m on the train and I’ve already seen the poem before, so a future change should be to include more.

Since the first poems appeared in 1992, nothing much has changed. The poems are still short snippets of a larger collection. Some authors are still alive; some are not. The impact that they had on society, though, was huge. The program has reached over 30 cities across the U.S. with the same goal: to make transportation more entertaining and interesting. Some of the cities included are Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Washington D.C.. Poetry in Motion also has won several awards for its work and has received a proclamation from the Council of the City of New York that honored the program for their impact.

Altogether, the poems continue to impact society, but there is no similarity between each of the poems, except for their length, which can range from five to 10 lines. It doesn’t matter if the poet is living or dead, but one can submit their own poem for consideration if they have written two or more poetry collections. These rules were enforced because the program was so popular. Now, submissions are a little reduced, but the program is still extremely popular.

Personally, I’m really glad Poetry in Motion exists in NYC (and it started here too so we get bragging rights!). As mentioned earlier, I do wish there was more variety, but it’s still nice to read a poem over again, even if I’ve read it 10 times! Maybe it’s because they’re so short and take so little time to read, or maybe because they actually make me visualize the imagery and make my day a little more peaceful. It’s cool to have some real writing composed by real people on the trains as opposed to all of the ads. My friends and I usually read them out loud to each other for fun when we go home, and though we never really acknowledge them on our commute, the poems do have an affect on us. I hope this program continues running for as long as I live in NYC, because I don’t want to miss out on any of the poems!