Think of English poetry with a railway theme and before long you will probably think of WH Auden’s ‘Night Mail’. Written to soundtrack a classic documentary film commissioned by the General Post Office, which Auden was working on as assistant director, its cinematic scope and rattling onomatopoeia have helped to make it one of the UK’s best loved railway poems.
In 2016 the BBC marked the 80th anniversary of ‘Night Mail’ with a one-off TV programme called Railway Nation: A Journey in Verse. In it five leading contemporary poets rode sections of the west coast mainline and composed work on the go. It’s easy to see why the idea was taken up. You don’t even need to be a scribbler of verse to recognise the distinctively ‘poetic’ sensation of sitting by a train window and watching sections of landscape slide evocatively into and out of view. The programme proved an engaging watch and the poets came across very well.
But at times they seemed a little frustrated and somehow, in the end, the work didn’t quite live up to either the programme’s excellent concept or the poets’ reputations. Perhaps this was inevitable given the limited time available and the contrived spontaneity. I wonder, though, if it’s just not as straightforward as you might think to take the railways as material for poetry, because the railways are poetry.
What I mean is that poetry and rail travel both make you see things differently. They both disrupt your perception. Poetry does this by playing with language. The railways do it by playing with visual perspective.
Looking out through the window of a train is compelling because it offers views which are otherwise unattainable. A vista afforded by the railway can’t be physically accessed in any other way. And when that vista offers an unfamiliar angle on a familiar location, it fascinates all the more. Walking or driving along a road every day, you might barely register a single detail about it; but when glimpsed from a railway bridge running above it, the same road becomes irresistible to your eye. You’re jolted from your jadedness. You see things differently.
The difference between prose and poetry is the difference between those two perspectives on that road.
And I wonder if that’s where there’s an issue with writing poetry inspired by the railways. If the motion of a train causes a perceptual jolt before the poet arrives on the scene, then by the time you’ve taken your window seat and whipped out your notebook, your job has already been done. Poetry is pre-empted.1
Another way in
Of course, there is no absolute scarcity of railway poetry. Anthologies are devoted to it. But relatively little of it succeeds the age of steam. If railway poetry is problematic in the way I’ve suggested – in that the poet’s work of defamiliarisation means they are essentially duplicating an effect already wrought by the very act of train travel – then perhaps it becomes so in the modern or the postmodern era. Perhaps the difficulties begin when disrupting or ‘making strange’ with the straight lines of perception and thought becomes less an option for poets than an expectation.2
So if you’re going to write interesting poetry depicting the railways, then maybe you need another way in; a closer or a deeper look.
Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ gives one early example of how. This captures a moment of transcendent connectedness between the tiny enclosed world of the railway carriage and the surrounding natural landscape, extending almost mystically to “all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire”.
Louis MacNeice’s ‘Corner Seat’ takes another approach. This, too, finds an instant of altered perception, but through a focus that shifts inward rather than out, and towards an abrupt sense of disconnection rather than unity – between the self-assured aspect of the passenger’s reflection in the window and their internal unease, self-doubt and isolation:
Windows between you and the world
Keep out the cold, keep out the fright;
Then why does your reflection seem
So lonely in the moving night?
Moving on through the 20th century, you can find a third notable example in ‘Getting There’, where Sylvia Plath goes further still, drawing the railway into the unholy maelstrom of mechanised conflict.
‘Night Mail’, meanwhile, works so well partly because of Auden’s ear for the music of the locomotive but also because his position with the GPO Film Unit gives him an insider’s angle on the workings of his subject.
It’s unusual for a railway poem in that its narration is not from a passenger’s viewpoint: here the wagons carry post, not people. Its perspective is not that of the train window: it is omniscient and shifting. While the rhythm of the poem famously renders the clatter of wagons on track, its gaze zooms in from the surrounding “cotton-grass and moorland boulder” landscape to the “Letters of thanks, letters from banks” carried within the train, then peels away to the eventual recipients of the mail – “Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,/Asleep in granite Aberdeen”.
Earlier this year I was offered another way in to railway poetry. As part of a group invited to the National Railway Museum (NRM) for a visit conducted by its in-house historian Oliver Betts, I was privy to his expert commentary on the public exhibits and the great breadth and depth of his insight on items from the museum’s private archive. Given a room to work in, with Oliver on hand to answer further questions, the group then set about writing poetry in response to aspects of the tour.
Among the many curiosities of railway history that we explored that day, what intrigued me most was how the conjoining of distant towns and cities by the rail network demanded that, for the first time, they synchronise watches.
Before the publication of railway timetables, there was no pressing reason for, say, York or Edinburgh to adopt London time and relinquish their own variations. Across the settlements of Great Britain local times could diverge by up to 20 minutes. The social psychologies of the developed world have internalised the measurement of time deeply, but railway time is a rare reminder that, while days and years are units given to us by the motion of the Earth, hours and minutes are very much a human contrivance.3
Nor is there anything ‘natural’ about the full-time, five-day working week, which is a form of debris from the Industrial Revolution, no longer relevant or useful but continuing to dominate our lives; unproductive but still casting a shadow, like a derelict factory.4
Earlier we touched upon the power of poetry to defamiliarise, to make you look at something differently. Widespread but eminently questionable assumptions like those underlying time and work are, I think, a very apt target for that power. So at the NRM that day I started to write a thing called ‘Railway Time’, which brings together concepts like standardisation, commodification, marketisation and state control. I don’t expect it to liberate all humankind from the tyranny of the nine-to-five – at least not this side of Christmas – but it was fun to write, and the dactylic rhythm it borrows from ‘Night Mail’ makes it enjoyable to perform as well.
The museum trip was an element of Railway Cultures, a multi-faceted collaboration between the museum and the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities. Aspects of the project included stunning railway photography by Laura Page, a conference on museums and regeneration, a collection of essays and a public display at Sheffield station.
Poems inspired by the visit to the NRM were published in the first ever themed edition of the university’s long-running creative writing journal Route 57. I’m loath to pick out an example because there’s nothing there that isn’t wonderful, but I can’t finish without quoting Jenny Donnison’s ‘Workshop Jargon’. In this the poet juxtaposes a glossary of loco engineers’ phraseology with imagined analogous definitions from the natural world. There’s a quiet but palpable joy about the whole thing which is irresistible:
Grinding the horns
Preparing axlebox guides to the exact
tolerance to take the axlebox
In autumn stags battle for does,
Metalling the crowns
Putting the white metal core into an axlebox
The sun rises,
treetops are gilded with light
As with all museum visits, we will now exit through the shop. The six pounds it will cost you to buy the ‘Loco-Motion’ issue of Route 57 will secure you an item of beauty and joy (not just by virtue of the writing but thanks also to stunning graphic design by Abi Goodman, risograph printing by La Biblioteka, and Dan Eltringham’s editorship). By shelling out this modest sum you will also help to ensure that the next edition can be printed. If you’ve already got a copy, please check out the amazing posters. All are available at the Girasol Press website.
The remarkable writing generated by the Route 57 visit to the NRM confirms the value of having another way in to railway poetry (and probably, by extension, another way in more generally). The work clearly benefits from an insider perspective – just as Auden did in 1936.
1. Coming from the same place is a theory that the lack of decent films about football is because there’s no need for films about football. Filmmakers have never really figured out how to approach the game because it already has an abundance of compelling narratives stitched into its forms – in a single move, through a match, across a season, spanning a career. Football is inherently dramatic before cinema gets anywhere near it. Other such mismatches may exist between form and subject matter. Poems about paintings and artists are plentiful; poems about music and musicians far less. I’ll leave that one with you.
2. If there’s a notable exception in John Betjeman, then perhaps his anachronistic, pre-modern approach proves the rule.
3. Another thing that illustrates the arbitrariness of clock time, or the disjunction between clock time and Earth time, is its annual adjustment in many countries for ‘daylight saving’.
4. The extent to which the current working week is taken as some sort of immutable law of the universe can be gauged from the routinely hysterical response from reactionary sections of society to even the most modest proposals for reducing working hours. If this thick-headedness had not been surmounted in the past, of course, we’d all still be working a six-day week with no paid leave. Indeed, the very notion of ‘having a job’ (like that of having to have a job) is a relatively recent one in human history.