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Poetry As Public Private Performance Art

If you have spent any real time on the New York City subway over the past quarter century, you have seen them, interspersed between the toothy grins of dermatologists, dentists, and personal injury attorneys. There, in between the ads for mattresses and the latest, greatest food delivery services. An island of calm. An economical stair-step of stanzas. A poem, for you.

This institution, called Poetry in Motion, began in the early Nineties, at a time when the city was still crime-ridden and ridership was about half of what it is today. Back then, a surprise visit from Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, some of the first poets featured in the campaign, was an oasis for beleaguered commuters searching for a way to look up rather than around.

But if you have found yourself underground in New York recently, as jobs are at a record high and subway service at a historic low, you may have seen something else.

“Poetry is Hard,” sighs the poem’s title, from a space that has long been reserved for verse. Each few words of the three-sentence ad for New York–based insurance agency PolicyGenius is broken into a separate line, in a quintessentially poem-like fashion. Until you get to the punchline:

Thankfully comparing
life insurance online is easy.
Maybe do that instead.

It is a straightforward send-up, but the conceit seems twice as subversive, somehow, with so many commuters’ eyes and minds given over to a smartphone. Eventually, a straphanger will gaze up, and odds are, when they get to the end of the poem, they are annoyed. I, too, felt a little peeved, the first time my heart got sucker-punched by the sales pitch.

Space is at a premium on the subway. Ads are a reality. So why are we all so bent out of shape?

New York City’s Poetry in Motion was inspired, in part, by London’s Poems on the Underground, which began in the Eighties. The goal of both programs was as simple as it seems: “You hook into the rhythm and the image and the thoughts, and they are rich enough to carry you,” says co-founder Molly Peacock, an American-Canadian poet who helped conceive of Poetry in Motion during her tenure as president of the Poetry Society of America.

But again, as pure as the idea may be, few of us are so precious as to believe that art and money exist on separate tracks. Without the ads to bring the transit authority revenue, these poems would never have appeared in the first place. Likewise, writers with day jobs rattle around the biggest cities in such numbers that we are walking—or subway-riding—clichés. I financed my MFA in creative writing with fact-checking gigs and student loans; I edited most of my first book during my daily commute to a magazine office.

Peacock, whose first job out of college was writing ads for a television station, cites Wallace Stevens, “our very own poet-businessman,” who worked for an insurance company himself. Dana Gioia, California’s Poet Laureate, was vice president of marketing for General Foods Corporation, handling accounts like Kool-Aid and Jell-O, before leaping full-time into a writing career and eventually serving as chair for the National Endowment of the Arts.

Peacock and I wondered together: Who is writing the PolicyGenius ads? She asks: “Is there a poet manqué, or is there a poet who is trying to make a living who is working at that ad agency?”

When I reached out to the PolicyGenius team, hoping to answer that question, I received an email response that stressed they were fans of the medium, “and Poetry and Motion, especially. It always brightens our commutes and we wanted to nod to it—and our fellow New Yorkers—through our campaign.”

I then sent the campaign to poet-marketer Adam Collins, who is the editorial director at Bonfire Marketing, in Portland, Oregon. Collins said that when he heard about the ads, he wondered whether his literary sensibilities might be insulted by the parody. Instead, he said, “when he read the ‘blackberries and fresh milk’ poem, I thought immediately of William Carlos Williams.”

At their core, poetry and marketing share quite similar goals, he says: “To create an immersive experience in a short time frame.”

Peacock had a similar reaction to the campaign. “Financial advertising has to lock you on to an abstract concept that is linked to an image,” she says. “That is what happens in poetry too.”

She is flattered by the imitation of Poetry in Motion, saying that it cements its status a cultural institution.

“I love the fact that people think it is sacred,” she says, “but I also have a soft spot for the mockers.”

This awkward coexistence has been a part of both city’s programs from the start, according to New York City-based writer Fred Hill, who plumbed the archives of both the London and the New York initiatives for a 2016 Urban Omnibus essay called The Tension and Poetry of Subway Poetry.

Hill found in the archives a heated exchanged between Poems on the Underground founder Judith Chernaik and a creative director for Nestle’s Polo Mints, whose ads spoofed the public poems, down to the typeface. (Cherniak reflected on this and other spoofs for a 2013 essay for The Guardian).

“[Cherniak’s] idealism was on a collision course with the fact that the people wanted ad revenue,” says Hill of the exchange. “The ad director’s response was: ‘This is a great campaign. If you sue, you could sour us on the program!’ ”

Peacock does want to honor the outrage over the PolicyGenius ads, which she thinks comes from a place “that feels that poetry is at the heart of what it means to be human,” she says. “Somehow or other, the poetry in the ads feels like it is written by a cyborg.”

Perhaps that’s what raises my ire even higher, in this time when advertising seems to be invading every conceivable sight line, to look up to a trusted poem and to see a nod and a wink from an app.

That, too, was true in in the days of the original London program, which was justified as a way of preserving a sense of public good while debate raged about the privatization of many public services—including transit.

At once ubiquitous and perpetually dying, poetry has for many generations existed outside most traditional economic conventions. Maybe its very-real value is best measured by the outrage we feel when it eludes us.

In 1991, not long before Poetry in Motion made its maiden voyage and Gioia quit his day job, he penned a now classic essay for the Atlantic asking Can Poetry Matter? In it he wrestled with the question that we are still asking now: How is poetry a part of a modern mainstream?

“It is time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture,” he concluded. The way to do it? To mix it up, he says. To push it outside the “intellectual ghetto.” To admit what we like, and what we hate.

So maybe it is not going too far to say that, at times, we can sell it in order to survive. Or, to be more prosaic, maybe we have traveled far enough to embrace the time-honored literary tradition of selling insurance as a sincere form of poetry.

→ For more poetry, spend some time with the world’s best transit poems

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