Newest Poetry in Motion Card is an Ode to the Subway

It's hard to think of New York City as the horse and buggy town it once was 200 years ago, but can you imagine what getting around the city was like before subways existed a little over 100 years ago? It took thousands of workers digging tunnels and stations, feats of engineering and lots of urban planning before the subway system became the 24-hour, around-the-clock system that now moves millions of people a day throughout the city, and Billy Collins wants everyone to remember that.

The former U.S. Poet Laureate and former New York State Poet wrote "Subway," an ode to those workers and all that work, as part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's celebration of Second Avenue Subway's opening this year, and now the poem is the latest addition to MTA Arts & Design's popular Poetry in Motion program. MTA Arts & Design works with the Poetry Society of America to select poems for the program, which are then paired with graphic images from MTA's permanent art collection for square cards that are installed in subway cars and buses through MTA's network. 

"We invited Billy Collins to write a poem to celebrate the completion of Second Avenue Subway since his way with words speaks to all New Yorkers, with a purity of thought that gets to the meaning in a way we all understand, and he does it with a lyrical brilliance," said Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA Arts & Design. 

Collins' "Subway" pays homage to those who took on the monumental task of building the underground public transportation system that moves millions of New Yorkers every day. The poem also is a reminder that this work is not in the distant past and it remains a presence in the city: digging for the first phase of Second Avenue Subway took place just a few years ago, and more work is planned to extend the line north on Second Avenue to Harlem in Phase 2 of the project. 

“When I was asked by MTA Arts & Design to write a short poem for the occasion of the opening of the Second Avenue Subway, my first thought was the Herculean construction effort of digging the tunnel and the many workers whose dedicated labor went into its making. I grew up in Queens, so I had long heard about the ‘sandhogs,’ those who burrowed while others went about their business on the surface. And I had read Mary Beth Keane’s ‘The Walking People,’ a fictional tribute to them. I wanted the little poem to remind riders of the nearly unimaginable physical effort that went into the making of the tunnel they were speeding through—the years of blasting and underground drilling, and the dangers involved. I hoped the poem would create a moment of reflection in the rush of city life, a moment of gratitude for the men and women who created this engineering wonder,” Collins said. 

The artwork paired with “Subway” is a detail from Sarah Sze’s immersive installation at the 96 St station on the Second Avenue q line, and graphically links the poem to this new chapter of a century-old subway system.  

“Coupling my piece at 96 St with Billy Collins’ poem is a beautiful marrying of language and visuals — both capturing a fleeting moment of reflection. I love finding a Poetry in Motion moment on my subway ride. The velocity of moments described in my installation at the 96 St station now extends through the discovery of a trail of Billy Collins’ work in posters of blue and paper dispersed throughout the subway system,” Sze said. 

"Pairing his verses with Sarah’s expansive artwork was a great match of creative spirits, as together they were thinking of those who built the new subway and those who use it today and for generations to come,” Bloodworth added.

“Subway” by Billy Collins. Artwork by Sarah Sze.
“Subway” by Billy Collins. Artwork by Sarah Sze.