Haiku Traffic Signs Bring Poetry To NYC Streets

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:

NYC Traffic Haiku
John Morse/NYC DOT

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:

NYC Traffic Haiku
John Morse/NYC DOT

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."

NYC Traffic haiku
John Morse/NYC DOT

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."

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