Interview in Skopje, 2004
“It’s an important moment for me, this,”said Ruth Padel, “because my daughter has just left home and gone to Paraguay, I’m just finishing my prose book on tigers and I don’t know what I’m going to write next. So it seemed a good moment to come here, and tie up some things that have been important to me all my life.”
This is how Ruth Padel explained her visit to Macedonia in September of this year. She had been invited to the Struga Poetry Evenings, which coincided with her daughter leaving home, and though she could nto attend them then, this revived memories of Skopje from her last visit, some thirty years ago.
“My imagination and my emotions were very taken with Skopje, with Macedonia, and with your circle of friends and the interest in music that I found here in 1971, even though then I didn’t know I was a poet. I was doing a Ph.D. on Ancient Greek at Oxford and I didn’t know anything about modern Greece!
But I’d already met you and I wanted to come down through Macedonia, and do it on a train, so I met you and had the most wonderful evening. I met all your gorgeous friends and there was lots of singing, and I just thought these are the most wonderful people, I want to stay here for ever; but I had to go on to the British School in Athens.”
Padel wrote her first poem when she was three, but she was 43 before she realised that poetry “was going to be the thing”. In the intervening years she lectured in ancient and modern Greek at Oxford and Cambridge universities and at Birkbeck College, London University, but always as a visiting lecturer or a research fellow. The idea of a ‘career’ – in academia or in poetry – is, she says, anathema to the process and the vocation.
Her latest venture is her book on wild tigers, to be published in the spring. I ask her how it came about. “On the winter equinox of 2000 I ended a relationship that had been very important to me. It was a dark moment, and what I discovered at that point was that the only thing I was interested in was reading and writing about wild tigers. This is one of the things, one of the quirks, that happen in the unconscious. The tiger was the vehicle that took me out of that dark place.”
The book is a memoir of travels in Siberia, Burma, India, Laos, Bhutan and China. As she says, “It’s a double journey: into falling out of love (reassessing something that had been going on for five years), nbuit also finding out about tigers. And of course the larger things, the animals, the environment, are much more important than the smaller one. As in the ending of Casablanca: compared to the larger thing, two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
Her latest volume of poetry, The Soho Leopard, also reflects this journey. “Some poems in it which are about recovering from a relationship. They are also about animals, because I realised I had always cared about them… There were animals all over my earlier poems and I didn’t really realise that, it was just so natural to me. I think I must have been dreaming about tigers all my life.”
Asked how important it is that she is a descendent of Darwin’s, she says she is glad of the association now because it helps to publicise the ecological message in her book where, among other things, she argues that the health of the tiger, the largest predator, is an indicator of the health of a whole ecological system. But beyond this, all her family have been scientists, she says, so accuracy and attention to detailed observation was dinned into her in childhood. They regarded her decision to concentrate on poetry as extremely odd, but after being dragged to her first poetry reading her mother eventually admitted: “I see the point of poets now. They notice things.”
Poets have always held up mirrors to the world. “A modern culture needs modern poems to reflect its changing self to itself, through the tried tools of an ancient art but also through the evolving sound of its own words,” writes Padel in the introduction to her book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem. Travelling through Britain to give poetry readings, she felt the scale of real public interest in poetry was not reflected in the British media. “People who live outside poetry hotspots but who want to find out what poetry can offer may not know where to start. Poetry’s very richness and variety, the number of books of poems in the bookshops, are a barrier. Faced with a heap of books, all carrying puffs on the back saying how great they are, how can you know which one is worth anything to you?” She proposed the idea of writing a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday, printing a modern poem and adding her own way of reading it. No other paper had a column like it: it was a challenge to senior editorial colleagues, who were not exactly poetry lovers.
” It’s against current newspaper philosophy – they believe that the readers want more sex and more sport, but this is very unfair to the readers. My column actually got more letters every day from readers than they’d ever had for any single thing. They were amazed. Some of the people at the paper actually suggested I’d written them myself! They were wonderful letters, and they came from all over the place, not just Britain, and the writers really cared about the poems. The column was poem-led because the point was the poem, not the poet. In Britain you get lots of books of poetry, but potential readers are so disconnected from the poetry scene that they really don’t know who’s good and who’s not. So the idea was for them to taste, so that they could see if they liked this or they liked that.”
52 Ways of Reading a Poem is a selection of these weekly columns, with an introduction full of fascinating insights into the development of British poetry, its traditions, its innovations over the last forty years or so and the society which has produced it. The selection is of poems by alternately male and female authors – an amazing innovation itself in a craft which is traditionally male-dominated – and each poem is analysed as an insight into the complexities and concerns of life today; various levels of meaning are revealed through the way the language, the medium itself, is used to create and organise this meaning: pattern and sounds, syllable-length, line-length, rhyme or half-rhyme, and the play of imagery and reference. The craft of the poet, the “gritty technical stuff” which readers might not notice, is revealed.
Talking of the poet’s craft, Padel says: “A gush of sentiment has nothing to do with poetry. You;ve got to think of the the power of the poem, not the sentiment. Confessional poetry was fine, but Robert Lowell was a fantastic technician, he had lots of formal powers. When he started his confessional poetry he had amazing technical resources, formal resources, to draw on, which people who copy him don’t have.”
I ask her about her own poetry. A poem, she says, “starts with an image or a word or a line. It gets hooked onto some other things and then it grows.” We look at ‘Tiger Drinking at a Forest Pool’, the first poem in her latest volume, The Soho Leopard. She had been talking to an Indian friend who said that even in cities there people have an idea, an awareness, of tigers, even if they have never seen one. The associations are “water, moonlight, danger, dream”. She had this, eventually the first line, and the last was in her mind: “A painting on silk, that may fade”. These two lines stayed with her, then later: “I woke up in the half-light of Vladivostok,” she recalls, “remembering George Herbert’s poem ‘Prayer’, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’ I wouldn’t have to describe the tiger, I would just have a string of images for the tiger, and then if it was a sonnet it would need to be very sonorous, it would have to have all the same vowel sounds.” She spent the day driving to a deer-farm (antler fur is an ancient medicine, but the farm is “like a MacDonalds for the tigers”) and wrote the complete poem that day – which is unusual for her, she says
When we planned this article for Kulturen zivot, we asked Ognen Cemerski if he would make translations of some of the poems that Padel presented at the highly successful poetry reading she gave at the British Council during her stay.
This is her own selection, taken from The Soho Leopard. They are all shorter poems, with the concentrated craft, the breadth of reference and the glitter and precision of language which ranges across registers that readers have come to associate with her work.
These poems are a distillation of things noticed. They are like a photograph taken by flashlight, a brilliant illumination of a single moment which in fact includes the past and the present, the here and the there, the general and the particular. “I like to bring things together. You can talk about the glands under an alligator’s tongue at the same time as having a metaphor for something completely different,” she says. In the same way, she brings together a mixture of erudition, technical terms and the contemporary vernacular in her language. “I’m always trying, like a magpie, to bring different things in and see how much a poem can bear.” It is the craft of the poet that creates the relationship between all these. The theme of ‘how you make things’ – a ceramic vase, music, an embroidery, anything that is made by human hand, and why people make things – is one that runs through all her work.
In ‘Mary’s Elephant, Elizabeth’s Spinet’ the poet looks at two artefacts, an embroidery and a musical instrument, set side by side in the same room in the Victoria and Albert Museum and made by the cousins Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1st of England. Mary is in enforced isolation, imprisoned by her cousin, embroidering a distant animal she has never seen and including in the design her own personal emblem, the marigold turning towards the sun – the sun she will never again reach herself. She cannot communicate with Elizabeth, the letters in her mind are “unsendable as words for resin/In Armenian acrolect”. These words themselves are difficult to understand, the obscurity of the distant language in an alien alphabet and the technical linguistic term ‘acrolect’ reflecting the difficulty of communicating. But the demotic statement “It’s been said” sums up the situation: Elizabeth knows it all already.
Elizabeth’s spinet carries the falcon and the sceptre, the heraldic device belonging to her mother Anne Boleyn, “(Her mum’s. She paid extra for that)” the poet adds laconically; while the sound-hole is “eavesdropping”, a part of Elizabeth’s far-flung system of spies, whom she uses against all her enemies, including Mary, whom she will execute to hold on to the sceptre of power – the symbol borrowed from that mother who was herself executed by Elizabeth’s father. But against this background of bloody strife, the cousins have something in common. They both turn to art as a consolation. Elizabeth is also a lonely woman, ageing and grotesque, her melancholy caught in the image of the single dyed hair that falls on the keyboard.
Describing the two women, the poet is aware of the distances between them, suggested by “the black unbroken forest”, and the distance between us and them – the killing of the last wolf in Scotland “two hundred years down the line”, but still two hundred years before our time. Yet the embroidery and the spinet are now together in one room, and if we held hands across that room and touched them, we could join those two who never met, as they and we are joined in this poem about the role of art.
As well as the importance of art, in this volume Padel is concerned with the way it, like the tiger, is threatened today. The painter in ‘The Forest, the corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup’ cannot paint his traditional subjects: the forest, source of beauty and diversity, is being destroyed by the corrupt official, just as he is corrupting the two fifteen-year-old girls and has destroyed the tiger for the sake of a sex-enhancing soup. But the artist can still paint the desolation that is there, can act as witness. “The world may be full of political betrayal, but you can still go in there and make art out of it,” says Padel. “But you have to be sardonic about it,” she adds.
” The poor old tigers didn’t evolve to be adaptable,” she says. “They can’t maintain their being in a hostile world because this hostile creature, homo sapiens, has taken over the world.” On the other hand, the series of poems about wild foxes in London show how these smaller predators have learned to live with the threat of mankind, sharing his environment and using his products (‘Playtime’). “We should identify with this other animal,” she says, “we’re animals too. We belong with other animals and we need them. Macedonia has got the lynx, which is most rare and wonderful. I hope to God it keeps it.”
I ask if she will use her experience in Macedonia in her writing. “No,” she says, “my mind doesn’t work that way.” But she hopes to come to the Struga Poetry Festival one year. “I like being with people from other places from myself and listening to how they talk, and what they talk about, and their metaphors.”
Has she anything to say to people here? “Keep singing! Song is the most important vehicle of the human spirit and of the culture. Keep it. It’s a precious thing. Learn it, teach it to your children. Honour the folk tradition of song. It keeps your history.”