Poems on the Underground Archive Donated to Cambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library

Some of the archive collection pictured in situ at Cambridge University Library

Hundreds of posters and ephemera which form the Poems on the Underground archive, including letters from leading poets, has been donated to Cambridge University Library.

Established in 1986 by writers Judith Chernaik, Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert, the public art scheme which has proved very popular with commuters and other travellers has regularly featured an impressive roster of poets and their work on posters on the Tube network in London. Its 116th set of poems, which includes works by Lord Byron, Emily Brönte and contemporary British and Irish poets, has just been released. The project has inspired similar schemes internationally including in New York and Shanghai.

The archive includes letters to organisers of the project - now co-directed by Chernaik, Imtiaz Dharker and George Szirtes - from former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Nobel Prize winners Seamus Heaney and Louise Glück, Scotland’s Makar Edwin Morgan, and Philip Larkin who died in 1985 just before his poem The Trees was added to project.

“I admire you for keeping the underground poems a priority: it is worth doing and has made a difference, I am sure, to the life-worth of poetry for many people,” wrote Heaney in a 1999 card. His poem The Railway Children appeared in the first set of posters in January 1986.

The Poems on the Underground archive has now been catalogued and is available for consultation at  Cambridge University Library.

Chernaik said it was “hugely gratifying to know that our archive is now housed and catalogued at one of the greatest libraries of the world”.

John Wells, Senior Archivist at Cambridge University Library, added: "This wonderful archive highlights the whole range of activities sponsored by Poems on the Underground, not just the well-known poetry posters in Tube carriages, but also readings, concerts and book publications. The letters from poets are backed up by correspondence from prominent supporters from political and cultural life, such as Michael Foot, Glenda Jackson and Matthew Parris.

"There is a strong international element. Many poets from beyond the UK are represented. The project frequently highlighted the international range of poetry such as Chinese Poems on the Underground, Polish Poems on the Underground, Irish Poems on the Underground, and there are papers relating to poetry on public transport systems around the world inspired by and modelled on Poems on the Underground."