Reading Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero on Line 15

What would Roland Barthes have said about the snippets of poetry published among the ad displays, public service announcements, and caution notes headlining the interior of local bus Line 15?


The poetry placards please riders through a program called, somewhat fancifully, Poetry in Motion, though the poems move relative only to someone off the bus. For the rider/reader, the poems move at the same speed as everything else on the bus, with the exception of the rider just boarding, stumbling down the aisle in the opposite direction of the bus lurching forward. It’s a good idea to wait until seated before trying to read the poetry. In any case, why not call the poems, simply, “Bus Poems”?   


But what’s remarkable is the number of riders and therefore potential readers of the poetry, “reaching an estimated 15 million daily [countrywide],” according to the Tri-Met site. Poetry never had it so good.


Readers may be reminded of Johnny Tillotson’s 1961 hit song “Poetry in Motion.” The refrain of Tillotson’s song seems particularly apt to the riders on Line 15: “…For all the world to see.

a-woe woe woe woe woe woe.” Find out more about Poetry in Motion at the Poetry Society, or at the Tri-Met site: Selections for 2007, or check out the British original Poems on the Underground, including Autumn/Winter 2008 selections, which celebrate the 1918 Armistice.


A random search adds to the randomness of the entire enterprise with this from Charles Bukowski, the bard of beer, on poetry and motion– locomotively, as Bukowski is seen displaying his full critical license (not for the poetically squeamish). We’ve not seen any Bukowski poems on the bus – though there are times on the bus when we feel we are in his company.


Which brings us back to Barthes, who found deconstructing poetry difficult, since the pieces already cover the floor in various stages of disassembly: “…what is attempted [in modern poetry] is to eliminate the intention to establish relationships and to produce instead an explosion of words…since…modern poetry…destroys the spontaneously functional nature of language, and leaves standing only its lexical basis” (p. 46). This sounds like a bus ride. “The Hunger of the Word, common to the whole of modern poetry, makes poetic speech terrible and inhuman. It initiates a discourse full of gaps and full of lights, filled with absences and over-nourishing signs, without foresight or stability of intention, and thereby so opposed to the social function of language…” (p. 48). “…modern poetry destroyed relationships in language and reduced discourse to words as static things” (p. 49). Maybe that’s why they decided to put some on the buses.


The audience on the Line 15 bus shifts slightly at every stop, and every bus ride is already a poem in motion, riders hopping on, hopping off, each a word, or a line, some a full verse, the bus curtsying occasionally, its caution bell bleeping, as it leans down to pick up a rider unable to hop, poems and riders waiting patiently motionless, the big scurrilous bus a measure of notes transpiring.

"On the Road," a Bus Poem by Ted Kooser on Line 15
“On the Road,” a Bus Poem by Ted Kooser on Line 15


  1. Joe Linker says:

    I was back on Line-15 a couple of weeks ago. Alas, the poems have all been taken down.


  2. la2mtl2pdx says:

    I ride line 12 and occasionally partake in consuming some “Poetry in Motion.” One of my favorites includes the line “you taste the water flowing underground in your breath” or something like that. Thanks for posting on this, I wondered if anyone was reading the bus poetry.


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