Word for Word: Trains and poems go far together


The news this month that Amtrak, the US rail operator, is to introduce writers-in-residence on its 15 long-distance routes reminds us of the link between poetry and trains.

A new anthology from Faber & Faber ,Train Songs , edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson, includes much-loved poems by Edward Thomas, William Wordsworth (laureate of the locomotive), Ruth Stone, Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Larkin and, closer to home, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Thomas McCarthy (who features on page 10).

What makes the connection between poetry – both its writing and reading – and train journeys so potent? Ian McMillan found that there is something about the rhythm of a train that helps him to write. Suggesting the poet is a perpetual passenger, he ventures that Keats would not have had a four-by-four.

While O’Brien and Paterson offer that the car seems “poetically negligible”, Heaney did write some brilliant poems about driving. He once said that he beat out iambic pentameter on the steering wheel and found driving “a wonderful time for drifting into composition or revision”. No surprise, then, to consider his outstanding driving poems: The Peninsula , Ballynahinch Lake and Postscript .

But in the world of poetry the train has featured far more prominently than the car. Tube travellers in London can currently enjoy Theo Dorgan’s Bread Dipped in Olive Oil and Salt , running as part of its Greek series, alongside poems by Keats, Cavafy and Sappho.

And next month, as part of Dublin City Library’s One City, One Book programme, the poet Gerald Dawe and others will read Dublin train poems in the company of the saxophonist Keith Donald on two specially commissioned Dart carriages.

Extracts from some of these train poems (included in this year’s One City, One Book choice, If Ever You Go ) will soon be on temporary display at Dart stations and at Heuston Station, in Dublin.

Paterson and O’Brien quote the late historian Tony Judt, who suggested that trains show us “how to live a confident and shared civic life”. Adding poetry to the mix will surely only civilise and humanise us further.

Truly, this feels like the right time for Irish Rail to reinstate the much missed Poetry in Motion.

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