Among the Battling Subway Poets | HumorOutcasts

Among the Battling Subway Poets

November 10, 2017

A program called “Poetry on the T” places poems on Red, Green and Orange line subway trains in Boston.

“I think that I shall never see–hey, watch it pal, that’s my knee!”


I’ve been a member of the Green Line Symbolists since I was a kid, busting out my first blank verse rhymes: Roses are red, violets are blue, I like chocolate and you can’t skate.  They say gangs fill the void left in the empty lives of fatherless youth, but in my case that’s not the case, in case you were wondering.  My fathers were Yeats, Delmore Schwartz and Coleridge, a good mix, sorta like a Kellogg’s Snack-Pack of versifiers.  You got a druggie (Coleridge), an alcoholic (Schwartz), and an Irishman (Yeats).  Sounds like a joke if only they’d walk into a bar together.

As the old saying goes, failure is an orphan while success has many fathers, so those are my dads.  The other guys in the gang, well, let’s just say it’s a wise child that knows his own father.  Some of their influences are good (Burma-Shave, Cole Porter), some are bad (Robert Service, rap), but all go into that great Crock Pot of language and what comes out of the slow-cooker of tortured composition is a pungent goulash of the American tongue.

Delmore Schwartz


We don’t go lookin’ for trouble, but if trouble finds us, we don’t back down.  And the principal source of trouble in the Park Street Station–the oldest subway stop in the country!–are the Red Line Romantics, a lousier bunch of stinkin’ poetasters than which you never met.

See, Park Street is where the Red and Green lines meet–there’s bound to be trouble.  My guys will come streamin’ in from the leafy green suburbs to the West, home of poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, while they come cruisin’ in from Cambridge.  Well, Robert Lowell and T.S. Eliot went to college at Harvard, but aside from e.e. cummings, who was a local, they haven’t produced that many native bards.  I say advantage us, but then I may have a teensy-tiny bias.

e.e. cummings:  “The other kids beat me up and took my capital letters.”


I see a couple of my homies get on at Copley Square where, as every schoolboy knows, there is no inbound-outbound transfer.  All of a sudden poetry breaks out in the train, like spontaneous combustion:

We’ll stand for something,
we subway poets,
there are no open seats–
wouldn’t ya know it!

We get a few hairy eyeballs from commuters who just want peace and quiet, but it comes with the territory:  you ride in a car with subsidized poets, you’re gonna hear some fresh, imaginative poetic language, unlike the prosaic prose you gotta listen to for the rest of the day.  We’re trying to open up their eyes, the windows to their souls, and let a little sunshine and fresh air in, and the foul air out.  Or in the case of a Fugitive Poet like Robert Penn Warren, maybe the reverse.

Warren: “It’s stuffy in here–I like it.”


We roll through Boylston, then Arlington, taking things in backwards alphabetical order to keep our minds sharp after so many years of a-b-a-b rhyme schemes.  We’re up for anything we may find in Park (pronounced “pahk”) Street, and we let the world know it:

We’ll crush those Romantics like late-fall stinkbugs
and sweep their remains under our Oriental rugs.

The car slows to a halt.  Thanks to multi-million dollar upgrades paid for mainly by people who don’t ride the T, both here and across this great land of ours, we can exit on either side, and so we spread out, hoping to do more extensive damage than if we all huddle together like a rhymed couplet.

Our stratagem’s weakness is exposed immediately, as the Boo-Hoo Boys of the Red Line Romantics pounce on us as we go down the aging concrete stairs.

You guys think you’re poets?
Please–give me a break!
We’re from across the river
and have the poetic chops it takes.

We circle each other warily, like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story.  There is a squabble, a scuffle, a skirmish–once the Romantics latch onto a poetic tic they work it until all the life is squeezed out of it.  They’re not particularly good fighters, as they frequently have to sit down with the backs of their hands on their foreheads, like they’re some sob sister sitting one out on her fainting couch.  That’s when we attack; after all, we’re the only school of poetry that has a National Football League team named after a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, one of our precursors–the Baltimore Ravens.

“Now in at slotback–Edgar . . . Allan . . . Poe.”


We’re pretty much havin’ our way with ’em when somebody yells “Cheez it–it’s the Canon Police!”  We thought we were good because they’d all be off at the Modern Language Association plenary session at the Convention Center, but I guess they got out early.  Musta run out of footnotes or somethin’.

So all of a sudden we have to make common cause with each other, runnin’ from the guys who will nab you for the pathetic fallacy, or operatin’ a sonnet without a poetic license.  I’m just about to escape up the stairs into the cool fall air when I feel a hand on my collar and hear the thick Irish brogue of one of Boston’s Finest, the Poetry Bunco Squad, as he thoughtfully applies his nightstick to my cranium.

“Ow!” I scream.

“You got the right to remain silent,” he says.  “And after hearin’ you at last Saturday night’s Porter Square Poetry Slam–I wish you’d use it.”


Con Chapman

I'm a Boston-area writer, author of two novels (most recently "Making Partner"), a baseball book about the Red Sox and the Yankees ("The Year of the Gerbil"), ten published plays and 45 books of humor available in print and Kindle formats on My latest book "Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!" was released by HumorOutcasts Press last year. My humor has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe and Barron's, and I am working on a biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington's long-time alto sax player for Oxford University Press .

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