Ruth Padel, Oxford Professor of Poetry

Oxford by Sara Haj-HassanHooray hooray for the month of May! Another first – Oxford University have finally elected a woman as Professor of Poetry! Ruth Padel, great-great-grandaughter of Charles Darwin (and cousin of my fellow Glamorganite, Emma Darwin). Her election comes somewhat soured by the late withdrawal of Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott, but you can read about that on your own. This post is entirely a hurrah for Ruth Padel!

The role of Oxford Professor of Poetry is quite an odd one – a five year term, not always confined to poets, and only paying around £5,000. And despite being refered to as “the most important academic poetry position in the UK”, there are few actual requirements other than three public lectures per year, and an expectation that the incumbent will ‘encourage’ poetry at the University. And it is a genuine election too – any and all graduates of the university may vote, but must do so in person. The turnout is usually around 500. (For those of you who like to know the numbers, Padel received 297 votes to Indian poet/critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra‘s 129.)

One thing I’m particularly looking forward to is her stated desire of bringing poetry and science together. There are of course a number of poet-scientists (recent visitor to Christchurch, Iggy McGovern, being one), and poets like Jo Shapcott and Lavinia Greenlaw have been combining the lexes of science with sensual lyrical poetry for a while now. Poetry and science have more in common with each other than most people realise – both disciplines deal with uncertainties in areas where the layman feels certain, and require their adherents to constantly challenge their own beliefs and assumptions. And both vocations are considered geeky and weird! Being a poet married to a scientist (and having a science background of my own), I can only applaud the enterprise.

52 ways coverConfession time: I have to admit that I don’t cheer for Ruth Padel because of her poetry. Not because it isn’t good writing. It is. (I’ve heard her referred to as a modern Metaphysical poet, which feels about right.) But no matter how good her poetry is, where she really shines is as a commentator. Her two books, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and The Journey are simply astounding. Intelligent, accessible and passionately engaged readings of a wide variety of different poems. Read them. Poem Journey coverTruly, if you take one bit of book advice from me, make it this. She’ll open your eyes. (The Christchurch Public Library has copies of both.) I’d use them verbatim for teaching if I could. And the essay at the beginning of 52 Ways is worth the price of the book on its own.

I can’t think of a better person for the job. Yay Ruth!

4 Replies to “Ruth Padel, Oxford Professor of Poetry”

  1. Actually her commentary doesn’t really excite me all that much, I find it too much about the technical stuff and not enough about inspiration. Perhaps if I worked harder at writing, I’d find it more useful. I think it’s best in small doses, one poem at a time.
    I was glad that she got the job, though. Controversy notwithstanding (poets behaving badly and all that – isn’t there a long history of male poets behaving badly?)

    1. For me, it’s that sense of a passionate conversation about the mechanics of a poem that really interests me. Especially when I think she’s wrong! But if it’s the inspiration behind the poems that interests you, you should have a look at <a href=";Black Lightning or the one I’ve just finished, Poem; Revised. Both deal with how the poem came to be – initial inspiration, plus some of the drafting/editing decisions along the way. (You can always skim over the technical bits!) Or for pure “how it came to be/why I wrote it like this”, there’s <a href=";Ecstatic Occasions; Expedient Forms.

  2. Oh, I think it very important that people comment on the technical side of things. With my students, it was often too much about inspiration and not enough about technique – they thought being inspired was enough to make work worth reading. I don’t disbelieve in the possibility of inspiration, but it can’t be relied on to produce anything worth reading. In my experience it’s revision that does that!

  3. I totally agree with Sheenagh, I think I just tend to look for a book that makes pleasant bedtime reading, and Ruth’s doesn’t quite work for that. As for revision, I’ve never quite figured out how to go about it. One way I sometimes do it is to read the poem aloud about half a dozen times, then go away and dig the garden or something. My ear will tell me what isn’t working, and my subconscious will often come up with a solution.

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