I was saddened to hear of the death of Gerard Benson last week.
A poet and anthologist, he was probably best known for starting the Poems on the Underground scheme with Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert.
I met him once. He was one of those rare people from Planet Poetry who seemed completely comfortable in his own skin. When he spoke to you, he spoke to you and nobody else. He didn’t spend time gazing over your shoulder at the party behind you.
He also wrote brilliant poetry for children. His anthologies for children This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme and Does W Trouble You?: A Book of Rhyming Poems are for my money some of the best you will find. As Poems on the Underground testifies, he was a genius at placing well-known classics alongside poets you have never heard of. In the best sense he was a truly democratic practitioner.
Because of his vital work there are teachers, commuters and schoolchildren up and down the country who can say with Elizabeth Bishop: ‘Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!’ Each of us owes him a debt of gratitude. He has left behind a legacy, not just a body of work, as his Introduction to Poems on the Underground shows:
“When we began to scatter poems about in public, we had no idea how people would respond; it was all a bit reminiscent of the lovesick youth in the Forest of Arden, hanging “odes upon hawthorns and elegies on brambles”. Not that the London Underground is anything like the Forest of Arden; on the contrary, it is the ultimate expression of the modern urban working world. But poetry thrives on paradox, and the poems seemed to take on new and surprising life when they were removed from books and set amongst the adverts. Commuters enjoyed the idea of reading Keats’ “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold” on a crowded Central Line train, or trying to memorise a sonnet between Leicester Square and Hammersmith. Just as we had hoped, the poems provided relief, caused smiles, offered refreshment to the soul – and all in a place where one would least expect to find anything remotely poetic.”
Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik, Cicely Herbert : from Introduction to Poems on the Underground