52 Ways of Looking at a Poem

“Part of the joy of 52 Ways is the ongoing discussion you feel you can have with Padel and the poem. The book marks an important milestone and continues to have resonance for poets, readers and academics alike.” Literary Landmarks: Groundbreaking Books in the History of Women’s Literature, Mslexia, October 2009.

Vintage, ISBN 0-099-42915-2, £6.99 buy on Amazon
52 Ways of Looking at a Poem began as a newspaper column in 1998 and Padel’s well-informed and expectation-bustingly long-running column helped set the ball rolling for the popular redefinition of poetry.
Her argument is consistently intelligent and never patronizing. The introduction is an incisive and deliciously upbeat description of modern poetry that places it firmly on your must-read list.

Crucial to the book is a feeling of equality celebrated in the choice of poets: exactly half are women.

“Part of the joy of the book is the ongoing discussion you feel you can have with Padel and the poem – even if that leads you to passionate disagreement.

“Her easy to read manner and staunch refusal to dumb down are undeniably refreshing. The book offers a key to unlocking the potential in every reader for enjoying a genre too often dismissed as elitist or difficult. It does so with verve and a keen eye for real pleasurable appreciation, and an enthusiasm that makes it hard not to feel excited about modern poetry.”

Back in 1999, Ruth Padel, poet and writer, began a weekly poetry column in The Independent on Sunday. This was an experiment to introduce modern poetry to the many people who felt sidelined by it, believing it ‘difficult’ or ‘elitist’. What began as a six-week trial ran for two and a half years, during which time Padel was deluged with letters, phone calls and e-mails from readers who declared she had completely changed their response to modern verse.

This is a selection of 52 poems and the related articles. Padel suggests ways of interpreting each poem, from a syntactical point of view and also from close analysis of the text. She provides some details of each poet’s background, with reference to their other work and explains how the poem under discussion fits into the canon. Yet this outstanding book is far from just being a study guide. Padel’s intention is to make the glorious diversity of modern poetry accessible to all, whatever their intellectual background. In the challenging essay that prefaces the poems she demystifies poetic style and structure in a lucid explanation of metre, rhyme and rhythm.

She revels in unveiling the hidden rhyme patterns in the poems she discusses, and her boundless enthusiasm is infectious. She never attempts to claim her personal reading of a given poem is to be taken as gospel – in fact, alternative viewpoints from her readers fill her with delight. The poems have all been published in Britain, although the poets themselves come from all over the world.

There are as many women as men represented, influential poets whose work has on occasion been dismissed as ‘formless’ and ‘whimsical’. Ruth Padel has no truck with such criticism, and points out how women poets are often misunderstood and under-represented, simply because their poems are read and interpreted by men.

There are poems about the enormous issues of death, sex and love, families and war. But there are also poems about feeling fat on the beach, a blind man making a cup of coffee, the loneliness of listening to the shipping forecast. For those of us who missed out on the chance to read her columns, Padel’s collection will become a much-loved friend, to be returned to again and again for her wisdom, her perception and her unrestrained passion for poetry. Kirkus UK

This much-loved book introduces poetry published in the UK since the Eighties. Im it, Ruth explains why poetry developed as it did (responding to East European and Northern Irish poetry, reacting against Thatcherism), what lies behind modern poetry’s relations with the media, and gender issues in women’s poetry today. Ruth also discusses fifty-two – a year’s worth – of the poems she discussed for three years in her celebrated newspaper column in the Independent on Sunday.

What some of the poets said whose poems Ruth discusses in 52 Ways.

Jo Shapcott

Her introduction will come to be seen as the summary of the age. I haven’t seen any description of where and who we are that’s as clear, balanced and inspiring.

George Steiner

Ruth Padel combines two major gifts. She is a distinguished poet and a quite exceptional reader of the poetry of others: add to this a delightful skill in explanation, the instinct of a caring, clearsighted guide to how poetry works and why it matters. The result is a book which opens doors, which bids us share with its author and the poems she has chosen a wealth of insight.


” A brilliant snapshot of contemporary poetry. Padel writes with incisive intelligence, particularly in her lively and provocative introduction on gender-related power in the poetry world and why poetry has “lost its audience”. – Christina Patterson, Independent

“Padel’s clear and informed approach makes modern poetry completely accessible”. The Times

“She chooses her poems with impeccable taste, an anthologist of the very best contemporary poetry” – Times, “Metro”

“A superb book: a unique critical anthology that provides a good overview of contemporary poetry and enough food for thought for years to come. The poems are prefaced by a 50-page essay READING OETRY TODAY, both a concise history of late 20th-century poetry and an examination of poetic form. The book closes with a GLOSSARY OF POETIC TERMS, so the reader gets four books for the price of a single volume.”
– New Hope International Review

“She argues away the idea that contemporary poetry is “difficult”: all it needs is a little work and the rewards are great” – Sunday Times

“The introductory passages are fascinating, the main text riveting: the mystique of poetry revealed in an intriguing, comprehensible way.” – Writers News

” A great gift for any student or poetry virgin who wonders what all the poetry excitement is about.” – Glasgow Herald

if you want to write about poems yourself, take a look at the website inspired by this book, where you can contribute your own readings of poems: STRIX VARIA, http://www.strixvaria.com/


From 1996-1999, Ruth wrote a column for the Books pages of the INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY, called “The Sunday Poem”. In it she discussed a poem by a living poet. Eight readers a week, fopr three years, wrote to the paper to say how much they loved it.

What Independent on Sunday readers said

“Ruth Padel’s columns are an example of raising up instead of dumbing down.”

“You have a jewel in Ruth Padel. It is a wonderful idea to have such a detailed appreciation of a poem. Not only are the poems well chosen for variety and quality, but Ms Padel writes clearly, wisely and beautifully herself.”
“It’s easy to rhapsodise about poetry or just sound erudite while waltzing around the issue of what a poem is actually up to. You do something much harder. You pick on the actual mechanisms of the piece, allow a reader to look at it through your eyes and see it in a different way.”
“I read the IoS because of you. I have shifted my allegiance from Scotland on Sunday. Poetry, it seems, can even today feature more significantly than politics in some people’s lives. A friend cut out the column and gave it to me. I thought it absolutely fascinating.”



The premise of this poem, and of course Ruth Padel spotted it, is the speaker’s claim that we are in this life to suffer. It was interesting to see how my subconscious had achieved the literal effects. For instance, I did engage in a few bouts of mental wrestling over the formal “one” instead of “we”, not knowing why. Now I do. Thank you, Ruth.


Her analysis moved me deeply, with gratitude for her care and accuracy


I was delighted by her exposition, astonished that there were such riches within it. I admire her for bringing that time and insight to a poem – especially one of mine!


This poem came to me very slowly. It took four years and it came largely through the ear. As a result, I could hear it at every stage without really understanding it. I am therefore immensely grateful to Ruth Padel, who seems to me to have understood what I merely felt, and to have noticed all sorts of felicities and grace-notes that must have come more by good luck than by good judgement. Her last sentence, in particular, pays the poem the sort of compliment that overwhelms me with its generosity and (I hope) truth. It describe, at any rate, what I would like to do. Thank you, Ruth!


How rare to hear one’s work, and poetry itself, taken as seriously as one dreams it ever might be, and how even rarer to read anything about a poem you’ve written that you want to do more than glance at and throw in a drawer.


Her Sunday Poem series is continually illuminating. The close scrutiny she offers is thrilling, unnerving, and very rare. She knows the inner and outer body of poetic language like a surgeon, a torturer, or a skilled masseuse. On my own poem, she’s very good on how the two parts reflect one another but also struggle within themselves.


Almost never does a critic or fellow poet comprehend what I try to do with structure and sound, but you consciously gave body to my largely unconscious processes of writing the poem. I am especially pleased with what you say about elegy liking long vowels. I have long felt that vowel lengths in English are more important than most metricists wil admit.
Thank you also for seeing that the poem’s lament for the old ways was not so sentimental as to ignore their hardships and cruelties.


Her analyses demonstrate the benefits of close reading and all there is to gain from going against the modern habit of glancing and moving on.


Thank you for your in-depth and acutely perceptive appraisal. Of course I was not aware of all its dimensions, writing just “what felt and sounded right” – but you’re quite right about every detail and its purpose, Thank you for revealing the poem – to me, and to others.


I very much appreciated the brilliant reading. How important this column is for teachers. They are always telling me how much they value and collect them. We’re all looking forward to a book of them!


How unusual to find a piece of my own analyzed so subtly. I feel like a cat that unaccountably finds itself being stroked in the right direction, after years of hunting for scraps around the back alleys. This is not a deeply considered response, just a contented purr.


Ruth Padel’s comments restored this poem to me. It rises from subject matter which runs deeply into my past in a way that is keenly felt but which previously I’d felt unable to articulate in language that was neither sentimental nor irrelevant. She confirmed the existence of the effect I’d hoped to create, took it apart for me, showed me how I had done it, and put the whole thing back together again. I was thrilled.


It made me laugh out loud when I first read her piece on my poem, to think that any of that had been in my mind when I write. I didn’t realize how clever I was! It’s very interesting, like psychoanalysis – Ruth does it particularly well.


Such a rare luxury to be so well read! I can’t really say you’re an extraordinary critic, can I, when the poem in question is my own? But it’s what I can’t help thinking.

2 thoughts on “52 Ways of Looking at a Poem

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