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Poems on the Underground: copycats and controversies


Poems on the Underground's Judith Chernaik relives her battles with Polo Mints and Greenpeace

I have had to handle quite a few crises during my 25 or so years at the helm of Poems on the Underground. Censorship raised its head when we featured a medieval carol, I Have a Gentil Cock, alongside its 15th-century manuscript. A tube manager queried this ancient double entendre, but dropped his objection when a newspaper decided to run it full-page, double entendre and all. Years later, Jo Shapcott's amusing verse Quark was threatened with the chop because of the word bollocks. ("'Bollocks,' said the quark, from its aluminium/ nacelle"), but common sense triumphed and Quark resumed its journey round the Circle Line.

One of the most distressing episodes came when Polo Mints ran an ad campaign with short verses displayed in a similar style to the type and layout of our poems. We complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but were turned down because our poems, unlike the Polo verses, were not a form of advertising. I thought that was the whole point. I was reduced to phoning Polo to complain to anyone who would listen: the managing director, the vice-president, the switchboard operator. I was assured that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. What could I, one woman taking on the Nestlé corporation, do? Eventually, the campaign ended – and poetry survived.

Next came a campaign by Greenpeace, an organisation I have always admired for taking on the whaling ships. They had similar layouts with short verses of amazing banality arguing their worthy cause. I protested to the director, and the posters were removed – not because of the bad verses, but because Greenpeace hadn't paid for the advertising space.

What I find pleasing is that people seem to have their favourite poems, often going back to the earliest displays: William Carlos Williams's note of thanks to his hosts, This Is Just to Say ("I have eaten/ the plums/ that were in/ the icebox"); Adrian Mitchell's To Celia ("When I am sad and weary/ When I think all hope has gone/ When I walk along High Holborn/ I think of you with nothing on").

My own favourite goes back several centuries: "Western wind when wilt thou blow/ the small rain down can rain?/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ and I in my bed again." I've always thought that this 16th-century song perfectly combines the weather, the sea, love and longing for home – the best subjects for poetry. When it appeared on the New York subway, it caused accusations of blasphemy and a near riot. We couldn't help being pleased to be based in London, where poetry is an accepted and familiar part of life – even if it may have lost its power to shock.

But perhaps the strangest thing about our poetic travels on the tube is the almost universal delight with which Poems on the Underground have been received. They are famous worldwide, capital cities have adopted similar schemes, and we enjoy happy relations with every poet and poetry publisher in the UK. The poem-posters now appear regularly on YouTube, Flickr and thousands of websites. I like to think of tube travellers today stepping on to a train, reading a poem and then aiming their phone cameras at it – allowing these words to reach an even wider circle of family and friends, long after the journey's end.

• What are your favourite Poems on the Underground? Tell us below

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