Treasure Trove Discovered – Poetry News November 16th

We begin the week with a look at a remarkable collection of paperwork which delves into the friendship between two poets and an artist.

Previously Hidden Trove of Poetry Treasures Acquired

Pembroke College, Cambridge has recently taken ownership of a newly discovered archive of drawings, poems, and letters by two of the post-war greats. The work which will be put on display to the public is that of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

Several years ago, a lecturer from Cambridge University was visiting the elderly artist, Barrie Coke in his assisted living facility in Ireland. Cooke who was born in Cheshire had been living in County Kilkenny since the mid-1950s. This was not their first meeting, but previously Cooke had been in better health and not struggling with dementia which had robbed him of his sharpness of mind. Mark Wormald, the lecturer in question, had previously come across Cooke’s name in an archive in the British Library when he was taking a look at the fishing diaries of Ted Hughes, curiosity got the better of him and he decided to investigate.

The pair were friends for decades and shared a long history that linked them together in a common passion for fishing and poetry.

Cooke confirmed that the two had indeed been long-standing friends, and in fact had a shelf full of books written by Hughes. What Wormald noticed, however, was the shelf below on the same bookcase was full of poetry books by Seamus Heaney. It came as a huge surprise to discover that Cooke was also an old friend of Heaney’ as well – and the pair had been friends for almost as long as Hughes and Cooke. The three men shared a common love of Ireland, its lakes, rivers, bogs and of course fishing. In fact, Cooke was the one who introduced Heaney to fishing.

Many of the tales about the three men that Wormald learned were garnered during his first visit, during the second it was clear that he would be unlikely to find out much more. Reading aloud from a transcription of one of Hughes old fishing diaries he was surprised when Cooke responded and then asked him if he would like to see some letters.

Cooke had an old wooden box filled with photographs, notebooks, drawings, and papers, together with letters from both poets, and a number of other poets.

The treasure trove in the box was certainly not what Wormald had been hoping for. There were lines of poetry from both men that he had never seen before. The trove included multiple drafts of poems that gave a real insight into how Heaney approached his work. It was clear that as well as illustrating some of the poems, Cooke was also a sounding board for him. There was also correspondence between Heaney and Cooke which showed the development of some of the poems over a period of time.

Letters between Hughes and Cooke showed a similar pattern, and fishing was the main theme. The collaboration between the two men saw Cooke illustrating The Great Irish Pike for Hughes in 1982.

Hughes died in 1998, in 2013 Heaney died and then just one year later in 2014 Cooke passed away.

The letters which they exchanged were eventually given to Pembroke College where they will be catalogued, studied and preserved for students of literature to study.

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