Ruth is a British poet, novelist, conservatist, critic and author, first Writer in Residence at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. She teaches Poetry at Kings College London and has published nine poetry collections, a novel, and eight books of non-fiction including three on reading poetry. Her recent book The Mara Crossing/ ON MIGRATION is a mixed-genre meditation on migration in prose and poetry. Her awards include First Prize in the UK National Poetry Competition, a Cholmondeley Award from The Society of Authors, an Arts Council of England Writers’ Award and a British Council Darwin Now Research Award for her novel Where the Serpent Lives. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Member of the Bombay Natural History Society, Ambassador for New Networks for Nature, Patron of 21st-Century Tiger and Council Member of the Zoological Society of London.
Ruth started out as a classical scholar, studying ancient Greek at Oxford. She wrote a D.Phil on Greek tragedy and ideas of the mind doing her research at the Freie Universität, Berlin, the Sorbonne, and The British School at Athens – for which she helped on excavations at Knossos and began a lifelong relationship with Greece, especially Crete.
She lived by teaching ancient Greek: first at Oxford and sometimes Cambridge, then at Birkbeck College London. In 1985 she gave up tenure to write. Her first publication was a poetry pamphlet Alibi (1985) followed by a collection Summer Snow (1990). Since then she has published nineteen books, writing non-fiction and poetry, and more recently fiction, side by side.
Ruth’s non-fiction began with two books based on her doctorate, In and Out of the Mind (1992) and Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness (1995), followed by a study of rock music and Greek myth: I’m A Man (2000) linked rock music to heroes of ancient Greek myth. (Ruth enjoyed discovering that Ian Rankin, in A Question of Blood, made I’m A Man the clue to the murderer’s identity.). Then came Tigers in Red Weather (2004) for which she spent two years exploring Asian forests – in India, Nepal, Sumatra, Bhutan, China, Russia and Laos – in search of vanishing tigers.
Ruth’s fiction began in 2010 with Where the Serpent Lives. a novel framed by tropical wildlife and wildlife crime, for which she visited the world’s only King Cobra Reserve at Agumbe in Karnataka. Two characters are zoologists studying the king cobra or hamadryad, “Spirit of the Forest.”. One scene describes king cobras hatching: the book contains much-praised descriptions of Indian forests, but also of Devon woodland and a scene of illegal badger baiting.
Interests and Themes
Music is central to Ruth’s life. Her first job was playing viola in Westminster Abbey for £5. She was brought up playing viola in family quartets: her parents met at music camp and her father’s family followed a tradition of amateur chamber music. She has sung in the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, Philippe Caillard’s choir in Paris, the church choir of St Eustache in Les Halles and the Heraklion Town Choir, and a couple of evenings in an Istanbul nightclub.
She has given pre-performance talks at Glyndebourne and for Radio 3 broadcast a radio essay on playing the viola and a series of interval talks on opera. Her indepth Radio 4 programmes on the lives and work of artists, scientists and writers include series on Elgar and W S Gilbert. She is now writing an OPERA BLOG on her residency at Covent Garden for the Royal Opera House.
Her written essays on music include pieces on women in rock music for the Guardian and articles on opera, and sixteenth-century madrigals, for The London Review of Books. Read her account of writing the text for a choral work on genetics by the composer Michael Zev Gordon.
On Desert Island Discs her choices included opera, folksong, chamber music, Muddy Waters and a Cretan mantinada. .
NATURE, SCIENCE, WILDLIFE, CONSERVATION
Ruth is on the Council of the Zoological Society of London. Her memoir Tigers in Red Weather describes her three-year quest through the forests of Asia to understand modern tiger conservation. Wild Things, two series of radio essays for BBC3, explored the biology and symbolism of British wild animals. For Radio 4 she has broadcast a series of programmes on her great great grandfather Charles Darwin.
The weekly column Ruth wrote for the Independent on Sunday from 1998 to 2001 helped foster a wider appreciation of poetry among readers across the UK. She expanded these columns in two popular books, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem (2002), in which she discussed 52 contemporary poems and explained how and why poetry developed as it did in 1980′s Britain, and The Poem and the Journey (2006), which discussed 60 poems by a wide range of British, Irish and American poets from popular and mainstream to modernist, around the image of the “journey of life”, suggesting ways of reading a poem as a journey of thought and sound.
In 2004-6 Ruth was Chair of the UK Poetry Society, overhauled the Society’s Constitution and oversaw the creation of poetry “Stanzas” across the UK, linking local poetry groups to the Society.
In 2008 she gave the Bloodaxe Lectures on poetry at Newcastle University, published as Silent Letters of the Alphabet, which addresses poetry’s use of silence and white space; and explores questions of metaphor, voice and tone.
In 2009 Ruth became the first woman to be elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. The election took place amid a media storm over unproven allegations of a smear campaign against Derek Walcott, the other main contender for the post. Ruth resigned, not wanting to be drawn into continuing controversy over her election.
In 2011 Ruth gave the Housman Lecture at Hay on Wye Books Festival, published by the Housman Society as The Name and Nature of Poetry, and began presenting Radio 4’s pioneer series POETRY WORKSHOP which ran for two years with poetry groups across the UK. Other broadcasts on poetry includes talks on Tennyson and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Ruth has been Poet in Residence at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts; at Somerset House in London where she ran an acclaimed series of Writers’ Talks at the Courtauld Gallery; at Christ’s College Cambridge; for the Environment Institute, University College London. and currently for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. .
As Trustee of the Zoological Society London, she is curating and chairing a series of Writers Talks on Endangered Animals at ZSL London Zoo to highlight the Society’s global conservation programmes.