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TTC riders again can see space devoted to poetry

Between the bump and bustle of the subway stops, they can offer pause - a chance for the mind to linger a little on something more elevating than the passing tunnel.

Poetry on the Way, a cultural program placing short snatches of verse on every TTC subway car, bus and streetcar in the city, is back for a second showing.

First appearing to positive reviews in 1998, the moving exhibit is being reintroduced today with a series of some 35 new poems that will be rotated through the system over the coming year or so.

“The idea behind it is that people on the subway, riding to work in the morning, have 20 minutes which would be better spent entertaining and transporting themselves, if I can use the pun,” says magazine publisher Denis Deneau, who co-ordinated the first project two years ago.

“We believe it’s better for people to read some pleasant and evocative poetry than occupy themselves with all the stressful things they have to do during the day.”

The poems, one per car, will appear along the interior strip of advertising space above vehicle windows, tossing a bit of culture out from between the candy bar, department store and tech school pitches.

The project mimics earlier poetry-in-motion programs in Paris, London, New York and Dublin. The Toronto version is largely a showcase for Canadian talent, past and present.

“All of the poems are published, they’re mostly Canadian and while most of them are contemporary, they go back as far as Confederation,” says Deneau, who publishes the Literary Review of Canada.

“This time, for example, we’re publishing Archibald Lampman, who was perhaps the greatest of the late 19th-century poets in Canada.”

The Lampman offering has a hauntingly contemporary theme, describing the aching beauty of one of Ontario’s recently threatened lake and forest regions:

Far in the grim Northwest beyond the lines
That turn the rivers eastward to the sea,
Set with a thousand islands, crowned with pines,
Lies the deep water, wild Temagami… .

Lampman’s poem is one of six that will start the new series, to be introduced today by TTC chair Howard Moscoe at the Bloor/Yonge subway station.

Other authors include award-winning poet Dan Domanski and Tara S., a Toronto high school student whose humorous tract on making a mess as a toddler with her father’s paints was published in a recent collection by the Toronto District School Board.

Each poem must be 15 lines or less in length to allow the words to be printed large enough to be seen from the passengers’ seats.

And while there is no set theme or style, many reflect familiar Canadian motifs of prairie loneliness, winter angst or natural beauty.

The program is administered by a volunteer group from the city’s arts and publishing communities and is being funded by a $90,000 grant from the Canada Council’s Millennium Arts Fund.

The grant is about $30,000 more than the program received from the council the last time and will allow it to be transported to other Canadian transit agencies in Halifax, Fredericton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and Windsor.

The poets each receive about $400 for the use of their work.

In Toronto, space for the poems is being donated by TDI Canada, which holds advertising rights on the TTC.

“Every two to three months, we will select five or six new pieces of poetry and change the selections,” Deneau says.

“And if the (passenger) reaction is the same as it has been, which was quite fantastic and exhilarating, we’ll be very happy.”

With the exception of the Spadina line, Toronto’s subway system was built in a grudging utilitarian style that has been described as the world’s longest public washroom.

With the Poetry on the Way program, members of the city’s cultural community have brought some thoughtful artistry into one of Toronto’s most important public spaces.

We can only hope it encourages more of the same.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at