If you're walking or biking around New York City this weekend you might look up at a busy intersection and see signs like these:
Traffic warning street signs written as haiku are appearing on poles around the five boroughs, posted by the New York City Department of Transportation. The poems and accompanying artwork were created by artist John Morse. There are 12 designs in all, 10 in English and two in Spanish.
"Poetry has a lot of power," Morse tells NPR's Scott Simon. "If you say to people: 'Walk.' 'Don't walk.' Or, 'Look both ways.' If you can tweak it just a bit — and poetry does that — the device gives these simple words power."
Take, for example, these signs that urge pedestrians, drivers and bikers to walk, drive and ride responsibly:
Accidents aren't funny, but Morse's artful treatment gets a serious message across in a powerful way. "It's fun because it's dreadfully serious — the subject," Morse says. "And yet, you don't have to bang people over the head."
The bold colors and clever words take signs that would otherwise fade into the background into the forefront.
"There's a lot of visual clutter ... all around us," Morse says. "So the idea is to bring something to the streetscape that might catch someone's eye."
Morse says one delightful and unexpected consequence of the project is that it has brought some haiku poets out of the woodwork. "One of the joys of doing this sort of thing is how many people have responded to it with their own haiku," Morse says. "There's just a plethora of haiku coming out. It's so exciting."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Starting this week, in New York City, you might look up from a busy intersection and see...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Says aggressive driver, aggressive pedestrian, two crash test dummies.
SIMON: Traffic warning haiku street signs are appearing on poles around the five boroughs. They're posted by the New York City Transportation Department. The poems and accompanying artwork were created by John Morse, who joins us now from our studios in New York.
Thanks for being with us.
JOHN MORSE: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: I guess there are 12 designs in all, right, 10 in English and two in Spanish?
MORSE: That's right.
SIMON: And why haiku, as opposed to something that just says look both ways before crossing?
MORSE: Poetry has a lot of power. If you say to people: Walk, Don't Walk or Look Both Ways - if you can tweak it just a bit, and poetry does that, the device gives these simple words power.
SIMON: Could you share a couple of your favorites with us?
MORSE: Cyclist writes screenplay. Plot features bike lane drama. How pedestrian.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORSE: If you like.
SIMON: I like that one a lot, yeah.
MORSE: You know, it's like its fun because it's dreadfully serious, the subject. And yet, you don't have to bang people over the head.
SIMON: And the theory goes that people might pay attention to the haiku in a way they may not to traditional signs because they're just use to that as background?
MORSE: Yes, there are a lot of visual clutter, of course, all around us. So the idea is to bring something to the streetscape that might catch someone's eye in that one moment that they pause, perhaps will cause them to think twice about stepping into traffic or jaywalking, you know. One of the haiku is: Oncoming cars rush, each one a three ton bullet. And, you flesh and bone.
Because I think a lot of people, they - and all of us - but, you know, particularly teenagers, for instance. You feel invulnerable.
SIMON: Can I try one on you?
MORSE: Oh yes, please.
SIMON: Holland Tunnel traffic is backed up to Grant's Tomb. Honks are exhausted.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORSE: It's great.
SIMON: Thank you.
MORSE: Yeah, you know, one of the joys of doing this sort of thing is how many people have responded to it with their own haiku, that there's just a plethora of haiku coming out. And it's so exciting.
SIMON: Well, smooth sailing through the streets to you, Mr. Morse.
MORSE: Thank you, kindly.
SIMON: Traffic haiku artist and a whole lot more, John Morse.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Imagine a world where your every move matters. Welcome to that world.
SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.