Poetry is supposed to be dangerous. Just ask a poet. "In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent," says Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz.
"Poetry is an act of mischief ," writes Theodore Roethke.
So what the hell is it doing on our transit system? How is it that TTC riders have spent the past six years being subjected to these subversive missives strategically placed amongst the bum-wad and talk-jock ads. What's next, paintings?
After all these years of elbowing my way through crowded buses and trains to find the latest writing on the wall, I can finally declare transit poetry an engaging though imperfect success.
To see how it's viewed by its initiator, I head into the Spaha restaurant on Spadina to meet Denis Deneau, former editor of the Literary Review of Canada, one-time publisher and the motivating force behind Poetry On The Way.
He knows we've all had a brush with poetry already. It was one of the crueller inflictions of the school system. Teachers always seemed to choose the least age-appropriate and most inert verses, kind of like a dead virus meant to inoculate against any future infection of the poetic sort.
Deneau set out to rectify the situation by convincing the Canada Council and the TTC to donate the funds and services required to place poems in your face. The program has recently been renewed for another year and a half.
"The poems are kind of like content in a magazine" he tells me when I ask how he managed to convince media giant Viacom to donate the space. "People will look up more often if there's something there that's not trying to sell them something. Then your advertising becomes more valuable because you're getting more readership."
An elegant sandy-voiced gent with the air of an off-duty Ottawa mandarin, he also has his own revisionary take on the common spaces of our transit system. "The TTC tends to view itself as primarily a transportation system," he chuckles "but I see it more as a community, and therefore a potential cultural venue." His point is well taken. Over a million and a half riders encounter the poems, which he and the other four volunteers on his committee choose.
"That makes us the biggest publisher of poetry in Canada," he laughs.
Not necessarily the best, though. Seminal Canadian dub poet Lillian Allen is happy to see poems in the subway, but she wants poetry that's more challenging and engaging. "It doesn't deal with issues that matter. It doesn't feel immediate enough to me."
Still, taste in poetry is very relative. Two poets whom I interviewed separately at Hugh's Room for the launch of CBC's Wordbeat seized upon the same TTC poem - the one about lightning by Paulette Jiles. One of them thought it was detestable. The other thought it the best of the lot. Both agreed it was better than a coke ad but not as good as one of their own poems.
For me it was all worth it the moment I first encountered Louis Dudek's poem about dogs. A brief, beautiful meditation on the nature of freedom, the poem kept going off inside me all day with bursts of joy. But not all of them make me smile.
At some I wince and cringe. I mean, doesn't even the most bare-bones koan or quip of a poem have to have more going on than "Sometimes poetry is not enough," which is the entire text of one of the pieces? But disliking a poem is OK by me. A good poem is a rare find. I'll gladly read 60 to like three .
In fact, those are great odds. "We receive lots of letters," says Deneau. In general, people love the poems. Of course, Poetry On The Way has been smart enough to choose diplomatically. This is, after all, public art, and in any case the committee is bound by the advertisers' code. So there's no danger here.
Don't look for any lyrical fist-fucking poems to show up too soon. There'll be no out-front calls to mass insurrection, nor even anything so rude as the current ad that uses a spotted banana to represent a diseased penis. So if the selection seems a little narrow, perhaps it's the thin edge of a wedge that will widen over time.
New York's Poetry In Motion series has been running since 1992. London, England, began a series in 1986, and in Paris, Deneau tells me, eight full-time employees oversee the cultural offerings of its famed Metro.
Poetry is good for tourism. And once in place, it spreads like some kind of disease. The same poems that appear on our system are shipped to Halifax, St. John, Fredericton, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo.
There are transit poems in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, a city tasteful enough to publish one of my own poems. They only paid me 75 bucks, but Poetry On The Way offers more. Four hundred. Wow! Enough to keep a poet in either weed or groceries for about a month.
"All the money goes either to the poets or into the production of the posters," Deneau says when I ask about the $55,000 Millennium grants that funded the first two series. "That's one of the main motives in doing this - to get some money to the poets."
But this is still not enough for the ambitious Denis Deneau. He's got another idea to spread the word. Plaques. He wants to put up one honouring Toronto poet laureate Dennis Lee's poem Summerhill Fair at Sunnyside Beach. Another would be mounted at Sherbourne and Bloor, reprinting a poem by Gwendolyn MacEwen.
The latter had her own ideas about poetry. In her poem You Can Study It If You Want, she writes, "Poetry has got nothing to do with poetry. / Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder, / is the sound you make when you come, and / why you live and how you bleed, and / The sound you make or don't make when you die." Sadly, MacEwan herself died in 1987, but her words, thanks in part to the efforts of Deneau and his colleagues, live on.
So do those of Canada's great poet Irving Layton. While he shrinks and ages like the immortal Sibyl in a home for the elderly in Montreal, his words whiz around the subway system and through the minds of a million and a half passengers every year. A good poem is in itself a kind of transportation system. If the train doesn't move you, maybe the poem will.
You can hear Robert Priest as Dr. Poetry Monday nights at 8:30 pm on CBC Radio 1's Wordbeat.