You could say that London’s Underground, its railway and subway system, carries a bit of the city’s soul, along with its millions of passengers. One way it does this, in a very understated London way, is through the poems, known as the “Poems on the Underground” that are slipped into its carriages in between adverts.
As I’m writing about the Underground at the moment, I’ve spent some time this week reading through a selection of these published in book form a few years ago. And I was pleased to discover some poems here that made me think of New Orleans.
First, there was William Dunbar’s “To the City of London”. Yes, this poem is primarily about London. But its praise of the city includes its “merchants full of substance and might” who sail their ships down the “beryl streams” of the Thames. The first voyages to the “New World” took place during Dunbar’s lifetime, setting in train the colonial process that would lead to the founding of New Orleans, also a powerful trading city, and one that would eventually send ships to London.
Of course, colonisation was and is a hugely problematic process involving significant injustices. Large among these is the fact that the mercantile wealth both London and New Orleans enjoyed was founded on slave labour. I found allusions to slavery, and its legacies, in Poems on the Underground.
These include Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. “I’ve known rivers,” Langston writes, speaking of the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and then saying, “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen/ its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”
In Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, Dan Baum’s book about nine citizens from various ethnic and social groups in the city, he describes the effect that hearing this poem as a schoolboy had on one of his subjects, Mardi Gras Indian chief and House of Dance & Feathers’ museum founder Ronald Lewis. “He’d seen the Mississippi just that way, all golden in the sunset. Abraham Lincoln, the pyramids, the motherland beside the Congo, and, right up with them, the Lower Ninth Ward. It was all one, a Negro life beside the rivers. And he was part of that.”
I also found a poem that powerfully asserted the capacity of poetry to help to right wrongs and bring cities on different sides of the world together, both of which I’d like to think were in the mind of those behind Poems on the Underground.
John Agard’s “Toussaint L’Ouverture Acknowledges Wordsworth’s Sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’” imagines what the leader of the Haitian revolution, which saw a significant number of Haitians emigrate to New Orleans, might have said in response to Wordsworth’s sonnet praising him and celebrating his achievements. He says the following, and it’s surely the best last word.
“I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or speak, like you, with Cumbrian accent.
My tongue bridges Europe to Dahomey.
Yet how sweet is the smell of liberty
when human beings share a common garment.
So, thanks brother, for your sonnet’s tribute.
May it resound when the Thames’ text stays mute.
And what better ground than a city’s bridge
for my unchained ghost to trumpet love’s decree.”