Inspired by a similar program in London, Poetry in Motion was launched by MTA New York City Transit in 1992. From the beginning, works for series were selected by representatives from the MTA and the Poetry Society of America. The first four poems to appear were, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Walt Whitman, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" by Emily Dickinson, "When You Are Old" by William Butler Yeats, and "Let There Be New Flowering" by Lucille Clifton.
For the first nine years of the program's existence, the poems appeared on overhead "car cards" under a specially designed masthead featuring mosaic tile art from a number of subway stations. To celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2002, the program introduced a new masthead with elements from "Una Raza, Un Mundo, Universo" (One Race, One World, One Universe), an MTA-commissioned mosaic mural by the artist Jose Ortega at the 149th Street subway station on the 2 and 5 lines.
By the time of its tenth anniversary, Poetry in Motion had displayed more than 150 poems or excerpts by writers from around the world spanning 25 centuries, from the Chinese sage Lao Tzu to the contemporary Russian Vera Pavlova. The program was retired in 2008, to be replaced temporarily by Train of Thought prose excerpts. By then it had circulated more than 2000 poems nonstop across the MTA's 5000-square-mile travel region.
In that time, Poetry in Motion also sponsored many events and readings by noted poets, including Rita Dove, Galway Kinnell, Stanley Kunitz, and Sonia Sanchez, and was cited for several awards, including The New York Press Club's "Heart of New York Award" (1994), The Municipal Art Society's Certificate of Merit (1994), and a special proclamation from the Council of the City of New York for its "invaluable contribution to the people of New York City" (2000).
After a four-year absence, Poetry in Motion was reborn in March 2012 under the auspices of Arts for Transit, once again in collaboration with the Poetry Society of America. The revived program appears on larger "premium square" car cards under a new logo. Each poem is matched with art elements from permanent works in the Arts for Transit program.
The inaugural poster in the new series, which rolled out across the transit system on May 27, 2010, combined art from "The Flora of Bensonhurst," by Joan Linder, installed at the 71st subway station in Brooklyn, with the poem "Graduation," by Dorothea Tanning, an American poet, writer, and visual artist who died at the age of 101, on January 2012, at her home in Manhattan. The program selects and displays two poems each quarter, eight per year, on New York City Transit subways.
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