Tag Archives: poetry

Workin’ for MTA

14 Sep

Somebody else seems to be as intrigued by New York subway signs as this blog is:

It does make a good poem, probably entitled “Z”:

To Jamaica Center

Weekday afternoons.

Express to Myrtle Avenue,

PM rush,



Other times,

All stops

But for a public information notice, it is, as we have had occasion to discuss before, a bit short of words. And this time we’re dealing with the kind of comprehension-bending complexity that only the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can produce. If you find the semi-fast service to Amersham a bit confusing, get a load of this, and imagine trying to put it on a sign:

“The J operates at all times while the Z, operating internally as its rush-hour variant, runs with six trips in each peak direction on weekdays; both services run through the entirety of the BMT Archer Avenue and Jamaica lines, via the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Nassau Street Line between Jamaica Center–Parsons/Archer in Jamaica, Queens, and Broad Street in Lower Manhattan. When the Z operates, the two services form a skip-stop pair between Sutphin Boulevard–JFK and Myrtle Avenue-Broadway. In addition during rush hours and middays in the peak direction, they run express in Brooklyn between Myrtle Avenue-Broadway and Marcy Avenue, bypassing three stations. At all other times, only the J operates, serving every station on its entire route. (per Wikipedia)

So, what we have is:

• a platform from which two services run along the same line, the Z train and the J train


• the Z train is an express that misses out stops, and the J train is a “local” that stops at all stations. Fine.


• The Z train only runs in rush hour, on weekdays, and it only runs in the peak flow direction (ie into Manhattan in the mornings, out of Manhattan in the evenings)


• When the Z train is running, it affects the J train’s schedule: the J train then misses out some (but not all) of the stations that the Z train stops at, and ceases to be a true “local”. They become a “skip-stop pair” (try saying that three times quickly).


• There are three stations that neither the J or the Z stop at, but only during weekday rush hour, and only in the peak direction. At other times the J train will stop there.

So, to return to the sign: this is Essex Street station in lower Manhattan, and trains from this platform are heading to Jamaica Center in Queens, ie, out of Manhattan. This platform is therefore not affected by the Z train in the mornings, but is affected by it in the evenings (the “PM rush”), when the skip-stop comes into operation. Essex Street station also comes just before the three stations that get missed out altogether in rush hour, so trains from here are “express” (ie almost non-stop) as far as Myrtle Avenue station in Brooklyn on weekday afternoons (but only afternoons).

So after an hour’s research, you can start to see what they mean. I still think there’s a problem with the sign, though: for one thing, the Z bullet at the start makes you think that everything that follows applies only to the Z train. In fact, crucially, the J train becomes a skip-stop train too. But the second sentence gives the impression that you can always rely on the good old J to stop everywhere (which you can’t), or maybe that Z trains run in the peak and J trains in the off-peak (which isn’t the whole story either).

Can we do any better with the wording? Last time, we had some success in inserting a few existential clauses, but that won’t cut it this time. Get me rewrite.

Judging by the length of the longest line, I reckon you could get 125 or so characters on the sign if you fill all three decks. Maybe it could say something like this?

Z J to Jamaica Center. Both trains express to Myrtle Ave wkday afternoons and skip stops in PM rush. J all stops other times

At least I think that’s what it means. Input and commentary from people who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about would be very welcome.

And with that bit of wish-fulfilment out of the way – no New York for me this year, what with the global emergency and all – TMPD is off for its late summer break. See you when the leaves are falling faster.

East-west relations

16 Mar

On the Tube a few months ago, I saw this:

I was familiar with the poem, an ecological updating of Brecht’s Alles Wandelt Sich, but I had only ever seen it printed in book format, with one verse below the other. When you read it like that, understanding comes slowly: you only grasp the parallelism of the construction bit by bit as you progress down the page. But here, your eye is tracking from left to right naturally: as it overruns slightly at the end of the line, it can’t help but glimpse what is to come. As you see in your peripheral vision the same words as you’ve just read, you start to understand what’s going to happen before it happens, and the genius of Brecht’s original conception becomes clear sooner: all the same phrases, but arranged in two different orders to create two contrasting emotions.

And that same design strategy – of using the eye’s movement from east to west as well as from north to south – is one of the few remaining areas where print holds an advantage over digital. The problem with web news articles, as my boss the production editor is fond of saying, is that once you’ve clicked through to them from the homepage, they all look the same: the most explosive splash and the most routine weather story are identically formatted, with the same size of headline, same size of standfirst, same shape of picture at the top and same livery colours (unless you’re really pushing the boat out for a campaign, in which case the last of these might change).

More importantly, the experience of reading them is an isolated and purely vertical one – once you have left the homepage, you are simply scrolling down through a column of text, with nothing to catch the eye on either side: no larger headline to the left, no smaller text box to the right to draw you across or place what you’re reading in the context of other developments.

And even the homepage itself – cluttered as it is with dozens of unrelated stories – can’t hope to achieve the same depth of visual rhetoric as a good double-page spread can. Take this example from the New York Times’s travel section:

The front page hints at what is to come, by starting two separate stories in adjacent columns and turning them both to the spread, but it is the side-by-side display of the spread itself, as with Herbert’s poem, that really tells the story. The photos may vary but the layouts are, essentially, identical: same size main picture, identically formatted smaller picture grouping, headlines that mirror each other. As you look from left to right, the message seems clear before you’ve read a word of the text – that Vegas on $1,000 a day and Vegas on $250 a day are different, but also essentially the same.

At the Tribune, where the sub-editor formats articles for web as well as print, I would have no idea how to reproduce that effect for the online reader – they would either have to be two individual stories, separate from each other as web articles always are, or attached to each other in a fundamentally vertical way, with the second story following the first. It would take a special web design project to get them to sit side by side like this, and even an interactive presentation of some kind would still encounter the problem that faces all online publishing: that the space north to south is infinite, but the space east to west is severely constrained by the size of the reader’s screen.

The east-west effect is so powerful, in fact, that it can operate even when the designer doesn’t want it to, and lead to unintended consequences, like this:

As @jcodfishpie, who tweeted the clipping out almost 10 years ago, observes, Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself.

The most wonderful rhyme of the year

22 Dec

I know it’s the season of goodwill, but seriously, what’s going on with the scansion here?

The queue at the Post Office was so long that there was plenty of time to critique the Christmas cards in the display. This one begins crisply, with a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of iambic trimeter: dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM/dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM. The pattern then repeats, to create one of poetry’s classic forms: the ballad stanza. Four lines of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, with the second and the fourth lines rhyming (an ABCB rhyme scheme, as we English students like to say). That’s the way the Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written. A strong start.

But no sooner have we got going than the form is subverted in the second verse: we switch to trochaic tetrameter and trimeter (DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum/DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum.) Or at least we do for two lines, before, disconcertingly, slamming back into ballad meter for the next two in a way that really throws you if you’re reading aloud.

Inside the card, the next two stanzas hold the rhythm, give or take the odd syllable. But then you get to the conclusion:

“Amongst” should be on the first line, not the second, to make the tetrameter (you could then insert “of” before “men” to make the trimeter). The third line is fine, but the last line … I mean, it’s great to see a bracchius (dum-DEE-DEE) in the wild, but how would you deliver this in performance? Perhaps it would be best to just break the fourth wall, catch your beloved’s eye and speak it as prose.

This card costs a solid £4.59 and is very high-end – heavily embossed, pretend gold leaf, two appliqué hearts floating on the front. There’s attractive decoration on the inside faces and an illuminated four-page insert. But, alas, the prosody doesn’t come up to the standard of the printing. Even given the amount that foil blocking costs, you’d think there would have been enough margin to bring in an editor for 10 minutes.

But anyway, no matter. Enough of the textualist Scrooging: it’s the thought at the end that counts. To everyone, wife or no, the blog wishes you a very happy Christmas.

Let it be

7 Jan

© Jane Draycott, 2016

There are times when one longs not to be an editor – such as, for example, when reading this poem in Jane Draycott’s wonderful recent collection The Occupant. “It Won’t Be Long” is a mesmerising meditation on the fact (of which I was unaware) that With The Beatles, the Beatles’ second album, came out on the same day that John F Kennedy was assassinated: 22 November 1963.

Named after the first song on the album, the poem is set in Draycott’s childhood home on the day in question, where father is struggling to make dinner for the family because mother is ill, and rapidly the political, cultural and domestic all get swirled together. The title of the poem simultaneously refers to the record, the progress in the kitchen and the events soon to occur in Dallas, six hours behind. Mention of the Vesta instant curry brings to mind Vesta, Roman goddess of hearth and home, who then seems to appear, flickeringly, in the outfit Jacqueline Kennedy wore that day (“navy trim and matching pillbox hat“). And because it’s 1963, no one (in the Beatles, presumably) has “even thought of going to India” – at least, not yet.

© EMI Records

But if it is 1963, that brings me to the thing I trip over in the first line, that brings the editor in me to alert and stops me being captivated straightaway (although I end up being captivated in the end). If you are an editor or a Beatles fan, you probably noticed it too. “Here Comes The Sun” isn’t on With The Beatles. It’s on Abbey Road. On 22 November 1963, it was still five years away from being written.

It’s a wonderful first line. And of course the purpose of the sun in the poem is not just to be a Beatles reference but to provide the light source that creates the shadow over America’s future, the globe in black and white, and perhaps even the half-moon faces of the Fab Four on the album’s famous cover. The poem would go dark without it.

Maybe if it wasn’t in italics, I wouldn’t trip over it so hard. Certainly elsewhere in the poem there are anachronistic echoes of lyrics from Come Together and I Am The Walrus (“come together now”, “we are all together”) that intrude less. But the fact that “Here comes the sun” is emphasised, and the fact that it comes directly after the citation “With The Beatles (Parlophone)”, makes it impossible for my literalistic, fact-checking soul to overlook. A lifetime on the desk leaves you mentally Googling everything. There are times when one longs not to be an editor.

Lines below the line

2 Jun

They always tell journalists never read to read the comments, but sometimes it’s worth it. In between all the routine messages that get posted under news articles on the web – the rude, the facetious, the rambling, the diatribe on a different subject posted to the wrong piece by mistake – occasionally you find something fascinating.

Like this. It’s posted in the comments of a fine poem on climate change, “Doggerland”, written in the Guardian by Jo Bell. It’s from the author herself, and it’s not really a comment at all: in fact, apparently as the result of an oversight, it’s a very slightly different version of the same poem.

The published poem itself reads as follows:

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 18.07.28

Bell’s message, posted quite soon after publication, is sent simply to address a technical problem. “Thanks for publishing my poem but the line breaks are wrong – it should look like this. Perhaps it does in print!”, she writes, and posts the poem again underneath as a guide.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 18.07.49

A Guardian editor responds quickly: “Sorry about that Jo. It’s been restored to the correct format now.” But neither of them appears to have noticed that the poem that Bell reposted was not quite the same one.

The first two verses are identical. But whereas the third verse in the published version begins:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading uplands sixty fathoms back; saw nettled deer tracks
pooling, inch by sodden inch, into a whaler’s channel

Bell’s posted version reads:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading high ground sixty fathoms down. He sickened for
the nettled deer track, brimmed into a whaler’s channel

They make for an interesting comparison. It seems a good choice to leave out ‘sickened’ in the published version. It’s an emotional word that tips the hand of the poem too early: the published version saves the surprise of Pilgrim’s conversion to the last verse. ‘Pooling, inch by inch’ is a good addition, providing a sense of the geological slowness of the sea’s rise, the sense that ‘time is water’. On the other hand, ‘sixty fathoms down’ in the posted version is much easier to understand that ‘sixty fathoms back’, which is an odd adverb to use for a measure of depth.

There are changes in the next verse too. The published version reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shift and shiver; saw the caverns filled, the railways rivered
and the Pennine mackerel flashing through lead mines

Whereas the one posted in the comments reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shiver; saw the caverns full and railways rivered
Pennine mackerel flashing through the lead mines

Here the rhythm of the posted version emphasises the internal rhyme, shiver/rivered, better than in the published one: the shorter 12- and 11-syllable lines in the former are 14 and 12 syllables in the latter.

It’s hard to pick a favourite between them: I’d almost prefer a hybrid version of the two. And the posted poem isn’t a perfect guide to the line breaks for the editor, of course, because some of them aren’t even the same lines.

On the assumption that no one at the newspaper would have dared to rewrite a poem, the question then becomes which one is the earlier version and which one the later – or, to put it another way: which is the work in progress and which is the poem?