By Ben Joravsky
It wasn’t front-page news when they came down, but after a six-month absence it’s worth noting that the poems are back.
To be specific, placards featuring the works of 12 poets, including 10 from in and around Chicago, are again crammed among ads for hemorrhoid remedies and divorce lawyers on almost all the CTA’s buses and train cars, giving readers a chance to mull the meaning of such wonderful lines as Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”
At a time of harsh service cuts in poor and working-class neighborhoods, the poems are the one thing almost everyone agrees the CTA’s doing right. “A good poem will reach out and grab you,” says Olga Domchenko, a CTA publicist who is herself an accomplished poet. “It will touch you with its rhythm–there’s a beauty in repeating it and reading it silently. The poems are well received with riders.”
The poetry’s popularity is sort of surprising, for not everyone shares Domchenko’s passion. As one poet put it, “There are far more poets than poetry readers–that’s why they stick our stuff in the tiny corners of big bookstores.”
Yet as Domchenko points out, a love for poetry can blossom in the most unlikely places. “It’s true, at City Hall I didn’t meet too many poets, but your life takes you to different places and it just may be that the people I knew did poetry away from work in their secret lives,” says Domchenko, who was a publicist in the Planning Department before she moved to the CTA. “In my case, I’m not sure exactly when or how I fell in love with poetry. My parents were refugees from the Ukraine. My mother was a nursing assistant on the night shift. My father worked as a journalist [back in Europe] but had to work in factories over here. I wrote my first poem when I was 15 or 16 for the student magazine [at Tuley High School]. And in my early 20s I used to hang out at the Blue Store, a poetry club Terry Jacobus and Al Simmons ran out of a storefront in Lakeview.”
An important influence on Domchenko was Molly Ramanujan, her creative writing teacher at the University of Chicago. “Molly always told us there’s a story in everybody and sometimes you’ll find it where you least expect it,” says Domchenko. “I went back to the Ukraine with my mother and we met an old friend of hers, a thin, wiry woman who looked like a billy goat and lived in a simple hut without water or electricity. Yet she had a poet’s soul and could create beautiful and vivid images in words. ‘Poetry in Motion’ is like that woman–a sign that there’s poetry everywhere, even on a train.”
In the early 1990s, New York City began putting poems in buses and trains as part of a national effort sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, a not-for-profit organization based in Manhattan. Sometimes the Poetry Society baffled riders with perplexing poems such as Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca” (unfathomable if you’re not familiar with a similarly titled 19th-century poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and hard to understand even if you are). But some of the poems hit riders head-on, such as “Luck” by Langston Hughes: “Sometimes a crumb falls / From the tables of joy, / Sometimes a bone / Is flung / To some people / Love is given, / To others / Only heaven.”
“We don’t necessarily want to leave people feeling baffled,” says Timothy Donnelly, an assistant director with the Poetry Society. “But if they are baffled, I hope it’s in a delightful or entertaining way.”
The placards known as Streetfare Journal were first to offer poems on the CTA. Then in February of 1996 the Poetry Society and the CTA hooked up to bring a year’s worth of poetry to Chicago. They received a few pleasant write-ups in the dailies and ran out of cash after a year.
This time the program’s sponsored by Barnes and Noble. For the next six months the CTA will feature a passage from Romeo and Juliet, Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” and poems by local writers Ana Castillo, Elizabeth Alexander, Li-Young Lee, Luis Rodriguez, Maureen Seaton, Richard Jones, Michael Anania, Susan Hahn, and John Frederick Nims. (In six months the CTA will replace those poems with other works.)
According to Donnelly, the Poetry Society’s selection panel stayed away from partisan political themes and sensational subjects, while looking for pieces short enough to fit on a placard but deep enough to give readers pause for reflection. “Our selection committee gathered a lot of selections and then narrowed them down,” says Donnelly. “We wanted to spotlight Chicago talent, and we wanted a broad range of subject, style, and theme.”
They wound up with an impressive cross section of Chicago poetry. Luis Rodriguez’s “Heavy Tells a Story” takes place in “the millwright shanty under the blast furnaces,” where Heavy’s “fingers lace like so many sausages.” He sits in “a creaky grease-stained metal chair” and prepares to speak his mind. Elizabeth Alexander’s “Blues” is a mournful rumination on the city at night (“Tonight, all Chicago / is singing the blues”). Ana Castillo’s “El Chicle” imagines a piece of gum that falls from a friend’s mouth “and into my hair which, after I clipped it, / flew in the air, on the back of a dragonfly / that dipped in the creek and was snapped fast / by a turtle that reached high and swam deep.” And in “Hysteria,” Susan Hahn, tormented by guilt and temptation (“I know I know / I took in too much”), concludes “it’s all considerably more than I can handle.”
Domchenko is particularly attracted to “White Towels” by Richard Jones: “I have been studying the difference / between solitude and loneliness, / telling the story of my life / to the clean white towels taken warm from the dryer. / I carry them through the house / as though they were my children / asleep in my arms.”
“I love the image of the lonely man trying to get a little warmth from the warm towels he takes from the dryer,” says Domchenko. “It’s such a simple poem, but it says volumes about the emotional state of mind.”
Jones, a professor of writing at DePaul, wrote “Warm Towels” when he was far from Chicago. “I was living like a hermit, writing my poems in a farmhouse in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia,” says Jones. “I found the gorgeous view of those mountains so distracting that I made myself face inside, staring at the washer and dryer for my daily meditation. The poem came kind of quick.
“It was one of several poems I sent in. I’m not surprised the others weren’t selected–they were really bleak and desperate and I thought, ‘Oh God, people coming home will read it and jump into the path of a train.'”
Jones says he’s delighted to have his work featured on public transportation. “I still remember the first poem I ever saw on a subway,” says Jones. “It was in New York in about 1978. It was by Greg Orr–‘All morning the dream lingers / I am like thick grass in the meadows still soaked with dew at noon.’ I thought, ‘That’s cool–that’s really cool.'”
The CTA’s program has not been universally praised. A few weeks ago there was a lively E-mail debate as to whether it was hypocritical for the CTA to sponsor poetry while cutting service and outlawing subway musicians and vendors. “I feel funny criticizing a program that gives exposure to poets,” says one critic. “But I think it’s interesting that they have dead pieces of writing on the wall as opposed to the real, live voices of people on the street.”
One of the program’s backers suggests critics “lighten up a bit and stop drinking so much coffee.” For its part, the Poetry Society might accept poetry more radical in theme, such as Robert Burns’s rousing “It’s comin yet for a’ that, / That man to man the world o’er / Shall brothers be for a’ that.” Or more strident in voice, such as “America,” Allen Ginsberg’s cold war masterpiece, which begins, “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. / America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956. / I can’t stand my own mind. / America when will we end the human war? / Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”
“‘America’ is a very important poem,” says Jones. “It ought to be read. Put it up for people to read.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Olga Domchenko photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.