When looking for inspiration for a piece of writing, I often take time to ponder what specific occurrences inspired the verse of the greatest poets. Of course there are those significant, overwhelming things that none of us can get away from; ever flowing reservoirs that can be dipped into time and time again and still provide something to get the ink flowing – the ‘big’ issues such as life, death, love, loss. Then there are the altogether simpler things, the tiny fragments of beauty and wonder that can be magnified by a selection of words; the first ray of sun after rainfall, a flower bursting into bloom…all perfectly poetic. Though in theory nothing should be strictly out of bounds – or at least, almost nothing – there are some things that it’s hard to muster much excitement for, scribble about enthusiastically or give an air of elegance to. One such subject is surely public transport; as practical and undoubtedly necessary as it is, even the most accomplished of bards would struggle when faced with points of inspiration such as delays, jams and replacement services.
Yet the very topic is gearing up a range of writers, with the most famous network of public transport in the country – the London Underground – at the centre of a major poetic project which aims to collect 270 odes, each correlating to an individual station in the network. It does sound like an interesting idea, and I’m thinking that The Tube is an exception to the rule; there is something about it that sparks the senses, be it the sheer variety of stations and passengers; bright-eyed and bushy tailed tourists alongside suited and booted (and slightly bored) businessmen and women. The zigzagging of lines meaning if you so wish, you could embark on a mini adventure into the unknown. And also the very fact that actually being underground gives a slight eerie edge to proceedings. The few times I’ve joined the hoards while in the capital have certainly been eventful, thanks to train doors literally closing on me with the rush to get on board and a fellow passenger deciding to use my shoulder as an alternative to a pillow. Back home, as I’m a slave to bus timetables (which are seldom correct) the predominant emotions evoked are frustration, annoyance and impatience, prone to far too many near misses, drivers who seem to be more interested in skipping as many stops as possible and revving engines that seem to taunt as you watch hope ride away into the distance… (that’s more ridiculously exaggerated drama than the makings of a poetic masterpiece).
A different, perhaps more conventionally poetic train journey is detailed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, taken from his A Child’s Garden of Verses – not, funnily enough, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, even though it would be fitting there. The connection to childhood is evoked as it is reminiscent of ‘old-fashioned’ over-ground train journeys complete with all their numerous sights glimpsed as you go chugging by, the verse’s rhythm echoing the pace of the vehicle along with the scenes jostling for the passenger’s attention. It has been suggested that there is something about trains that appeals to poets above all other modes of transport. Whether this is true, who can say? They’re certain more rhythmic than a bumpy old bus.
From A Railway Carriage
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)