52 Ways of Looking at a Poem

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‘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.’ Mslexia: Groundbreaking Books in the History of Women’s Literature 

This much-loved book, published 2002, introduces poetry published in the UK at the close of the 20th century. It explains why poetry developed then as it did, responding to East European and Northern Irish poetry and reacting against Thatcherism. It also offers ways of reading any poem, in any period. Ruth includes a year’s worth of the pieces she wrote on poems she analysed in her celebrated column, ‘The Sunday Poem,’ for the Independent on Sunday, 1998-2001.

52 Ways of Looking at a Poem began as a newspaper column. Padel’s well-informed and expectation-bustingly long-running column helped set the ball rolling for the popular redefinition of poetry today. Her argument is consistently intelligent and never patronizing. The introduction is an incisive, 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.’ Mslexia

‘A brilliant snapshot of contemporary poetry. Padel writes with incisive intelligence, particularly in her lively and provocative introduction.’ Independent

‘Her clear and informed approach makes modern poetry completely accessible.’ 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 an essay Reading Poetry Today, 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

‘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 excitement is about.’ Glasgow Herald

‘She argues away the idea that contemporary poetry is "difficult": all it needs is a little work and the rewards are great,’ Sunday Times

‘One of the most exciting books to come my way for some time, with an illuminating essay on poetry from the 1980s on: the importance of the regions, feminism, the influence of Ireland, America, the Caribbean, the richness of moden English in its varied ethnic roots.’ Barbara Ellis, Reach

‘A brilliant and provocative introduction,’ Gleebooks Review

‘She seeks to break down barriers between poets, the media, and the general reader who has been discouraged from reading poetry, believing it to be élitist or difficult. Her interpretative skills, and ear for the music of each poem, are a beacon for the reader. Padel's gift is that she can do this without killing the poem: on re-reading the poem one is enriched by her observations.’ Helica

‘After 35 years, I found it hard to get back into reading poetry, modern poetry in particular. I found her essay and analysis of poems most helpful, easily applicable to other poems, and found myself, as a male reading female poets, with enjoyment and interest instead of my usual defensive bewilderment. Highly recommended for the nervous and bewildered!’ Amazon reader

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 book selects 52 of those pieces. Ruth 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 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 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

What poets said about her discussion of their poems

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.’

Roger McGough

‘The premise of this poem, and of course Ruth 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.’ 

Les Murray

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

Kathleen Jamie

‘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!’

U.A. Fanthorpe

‘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 describes, at any rate, what I would like to do. Thank you, Ruth!’

C.K. Williams

‘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.’

Robin Robertson

‘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.’

Anne Stevenson

‘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.’

Lavinia Greenlaw

‘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.’

Pascale Petit

‘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.’

Kate Clanchy

‘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!’

Christopher Reid

‘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.’

Maura Dooley

‘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.’

Neil Rollinson

‘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.’

Susan Wicks

‘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.’

What Independent on Sunday readers said about the column 

‘Her 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 Independent on Sunday 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.’