Interview in The Guardian, May 2009

Guardian Interview, by Sarah Crown, Saturday 16 May 2009

A life in poetry: Ruth Padel

Looking back over the last week, Ruth Padel doesn’t mince her words. “It’s horrible,” she says. “Derek Walcott is my colleague: I revere his work, and have written about him and learned from him. I had absolutely no wish to see him humiliated, and I’m very, very sorry he pulled out.”

The campaign for the position of Oxford Poetry Professor, of which Padel was one of three candidates, this week turned abruptly from race into car crash. The five-year role, which carries the obligation to deliver 15 lectures, is decided through an election in which all members of Oxford University are eligible to vote. That election is being held today, but although the voting is still taking place, the result looks like a sure thing. Barring a last-minute surge of support for her remaining rival, the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, or Padel feeling compelled to stand down, she will be confirmed this evening as the first female incumbent of the 300-year-old chair – an appointment that, in the wake of Carol Ann Duffy’s inauguration as poet laureate on 1 May, would see May 2009 go down in the annals as a historic month for women poets. By rights, Padel should be dancing in the aisles – but the events of the last week have left her with little to smile about.

Padel was the first person to announce her candidacy for the post back in February, with the high-profile support of, among others, Alice Oswald, Gwyneth Lewis and Melvyn Bragg. “All her life she has been committed to poetry, to spreading the word. I cannot think of anyone who would make a better professor of poetry at Oxford,” said Colm Tóibín; while Duffy described her as “the perfect candidate … an articulate and accessible, passionate and judicious advocate for poets and poetry”. Padel stood uncontested until March, when the Nobel laureate Walcott threw his hat into the ring. From then on, despite the late candidacy of Mehrotra, the contest was widely seen as a two-horse race, with Walcott just edging the lead. But last weekend, letters containing details of allegations of sexual harassment made against Walcott during his tenures at Harvard and Boston universities were delivered anonymously to Oxford academics – and a formerly decorous contest for an esoteric professorship morphed overnight into seamy national news. On Tuesday, Walcott withdrew his candidacy, claiming that the race had “degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination [and] I do not want to be part of it”.

Perhaps inevitably, suggestions arose that Padel – having, apparently, the most to gain – was behind the letter campaign; Walcott’s supporter Professor Hermione Lee urged her to “publicly dissociate” herself from the rumours, and there have been calls for her, too, to pull out of the race. At the time of going to press, however, Padel says she has no intention of withdrawing. She insists she has no idea from whom the letters originated, and claims to be deeply disappointed to find herself in the position of winning, as it were, by default. “I have now, unjustly, not by my own doing, been tainted whatever I do,” she says. “My supporters fought a clean campaign on the grounds of what I might offer the post. I asked supporters I respect, in Oxford and outside, what they thought: they all said I must not withdraw.” Support appears to be crumbling, however, with one of her champions, AC Grayling, publicly calling on her to stand down. “I have no idea what will happen,” she says. “But whatever does happen, it is very sad. All along, we should have been talking about poetry, and the role of poetry. This is not what poetry’s for.”

For Padel poetry is a sort of connective tissue; a thread to unite all subjects and disciplines. “I think I was formed by the 19th century,” she says, by way of explanation. “There’s something about the mindset of that time: a curiosity, a drive to make links. It appeals to me deeply.” It’s a sympathy that finds its fullest expression in her latest work, a biography in poetry of her great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, whose commitment to rationality over belief, evidence over revelation, made him a figurehead for precisely the brand of 19th-century intellectual progressivism that Padel admires. “I learned of the connection as a child,” she says. “My grandmother – his granddaughter – published the first unexpurgated version of his biography. The first time it really impinged was at school: we had to write an essay on the life of a scientist, and I chose him.”

Fast-forward half a century and Padel found herself writing about Darwin again, rediscovering him on a research trip for her acclaimed 2005 conservation memoir, Tigers in Red Weather, when she took his works with her as background reading. “I was kayaking through Laos,” she says, “and realised that where he had travelled through the tropics learning how species came to be, I was travelling through them learning how species came to be extinct. His forests were emptying. It was then I felt the first stirrings of wanting to write about him.” Back in England, she pushed the project to the back of her mind until two phone calls, one from the Bristol Festival of Ideas and one from the Natural History Museum, reawakened it. “They both asked me to contribute poems to their celebrations of Darwin’s bicentenary. And it was while working on them that I began to conceive of the idea of setting his whole life out in poems.” The book was well received: Richard Holmes in particular was impressed by her technical skills (the surfaces of the poems are patchworked; quotations from Darwin’s journals and correspondences skilfully stitched together with Padel’s own words) and the “bewildering” variety of stanza forms she employs to tell a story that is at once “immensely powerful and disturbing”.

The eldest of five children, Padel was born in 1946 in the attic of her great aunt’s house in Wimpole Street – a circumstance that lends her arrival in the world a gratifyingly Dickensian ring. Though an early reader (the first book she remembers was Kipling’s The Jungle Book), it was music that formed the backcloth of her childhood, and indirectly set her on the road to poetry: “singing and poetry,” she says now, “seem to me to be part of the same thing.” School was, initially, a struggle, but she tackled O-levels by dint of learning chunks of her textbooks by heart, embarked on classics and English literature A-levels, and finally began to see the point of it all. “When I started to read the Odyssey, it all came together. It took me about three hours to work out the first two lines, but after that it began to flow – and I was in love.”

She pursued Latin and Greek at university, embarking on what would turn out to be a long association with Oxford when she went up in 1965 to read classics at Lady Margaret Hall. Her doctoral thesis on the idea of the mind in Greek tragedy took seven years to complete; time she divided between trips to Crete, where she picked up modern Greek, and stints of teaching in Oxford. Her loyalty and affection for the place stem from this time: Wadham College made her its first female fellow, changing its statutes to accommodate her. The 1970s marked the beginning of the great revolution in classical studies: Oxford was in the thick of it, and Padel was in her element. “It was just when structuralism was coming to the fore – a very heady time, intellectually,” she recalls. “And that freedom spilled over into the rest of life. I lived for a while with the sculptor Michael Black. He taught me how to live a creative life: when he needed money, he made prints and sold them. That’s the model on which I still operate.”

She left Oxford in 1976 and returned to Crete, teaching English while she whittled her thesis into a book. And it was here that she began, tentatively, to write the poems that would eventually appear in her first collection – though publication remained over a decade off. Back in London, she took a teaching post at Birkbeck and met and married Myles Burnyeat, professor of ancient philosophy at Cambridge. In 1985, their daughter, Gwen, was born, and the event acted as an unexpected catalyst for Padel’s writing.

“Everything had been gradually amassing, but Gwen’s arrival seemed to open the gates,” she says, “because of the focus it brought.” She published her first pamphlet of poems, Alibi, that year, and slowly set about establishing herself as a freelance writer, despite finding that, in journalism, “poetry isn’t a great calling-card. I know of one editor who said: ‘I’d never have anything to do with a poet; they never say what they mean.’ So I felt I wasn’t seen as a very good bet, but I gradually found a niche for myself.”

As the writing took off, however, Padel returned to London with her daughter (then five). The family saw one another at weekends, but distance took its toll; Burnyeat and Padel eventually separated, “although we remain very good friends”. Her first full-length collection, Summer Snow, came out in 1990, when she was 44, and the inclusion of a poem from it in a PEN anthology led to an encounter with another poet, Matthew Sweeney, that had a profound effect on her career. At a party for the anthology, Sweeney invited her to take part in his workshop, whose membership (Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien, Jo Shapcott, Michael Donaghy, Lavinia Greenlaw and Sarah Maguire, among others) reads like the roll-call of a generation.

“It was,” she acknowledges now, “a movement, or something like it. We’d meet once a month at the Lamb pub on Conduit Street, bringing a poem each and considering them anonymously. My second collection, Angel, came out of the surprisingness of that process. Matthew had a genius for diagnosing a poem: he wouldn’t say how to fix it, but he’d put his finger on the sore spot. It was he, too, who led to the formal shift in my work that happened in [the 1998 collection] Rembrandt Would Have Loved You. I was complaining about not being able to get away from three-liners, and he said: ‘Well, you’re stuck on it! Do something completely different.’ So I started writing these big, structured poems, full of capitals and indentations – fantastically artificial-seeming things, but I found they imposed a wonderful formality. I became obsessed with this idea of form as a means of moving through the tangle.”

Padel won the National Poetry competition in 1997 with “Icicles Round a Tree in Dumfriesshire”, the opening poem of Rembrandt Would Have Loved You. Elaborate, sensual, speckled with contemporary references to Pepsodent and Aretha Franklin, the poem exhibits all the qualities of Padel’s mature work, and which saw her next two collections, Voodoo Shop and The Soho Leopard, shortlisted for the Whitbread and TS Eliot prizes.

Rembrandt’s passionate, turbulent poems charted the beginning of an intense five-year relationship with an attached man that played out in sometimes startlingly explicit detail across Padel’s next two collections. Half a decade on, she has no regrets about using her personal life as material for her poetry. “Once it’s happened, it’s the end product that’s important,” she insists. “What matters is the springiness of the form. You’ve got to trust the poem.” Was her lover comfortable with being written about? She hoots with laughter. “I think he was proud of it! In fact, he was pretty annoyed when I wrote a poem that wasn’t about him.”

Tigers in Red Weather, Padel’s account of her travels in search of the animal that has haunted her since her Jungle Book days, also arose, in part, from the demise of this relationship. In its opening chapter she explains how the affair’s disintegration pushed her towards tigers, which symbolised, for her, the act of “surviving, alone”. The book, she says now, was triggered by her need to “physically set off somewhere new”; in writing terms, she was also entering uncharted territory. But while prose rather than poetry was her medium, the book is vintage Padel: a rich stew of science, myth and literature, sprouting meditations on everything from yetis to archery. From the beginning of her career critics have been impressed by this energy; her range of interests and wholehearted emotional engagement. Her work has a “speedy omnivorous relish”, said Sean O’Brien; Jeanette Winterson describes it as “sexy, strong, rhythmic, passionate, fully alive”. And all life is filtered through “the lens” of poetry. “In my upbringing, there were all these ways of seeing: psychoanalysis, biology, botany, even music. But poetry seemed the natural thing, the best expression of it all.”

This devotion to poetry has resulted in the second, more public strand to Padel’s career that persuaded her, finally, to put herself forward for the Oxford professorship: that of a champion, a poetry proselytiser. In 1996, Suzi Feay, then literary editor of the Independent on Sunday, agreed to Padel’s pitch for a weekly column discussing a single poem. The column ran for years, and its success (it was eventually published as two books, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey) undoubtedly played a part in the Poetry Society’s decision to invite Padel to stand as its chair. With echoes of Duffy’s final decision to accept the laureateship, she was talked into it by her daughter: “She said, ‘Oh, come on, mum, have a go.’ We laughed afterwards about how I cursed her for it.”
While she chalked up some impressive achievements during her tenure (“I invented a system called Stanzas, which links the society to groups all over the country, and ran a series called ‘Under the Influence’, with contemporary poets discussing their influences, at the London Review bookshop”), the experience was a fraught one, and she didn’t write any poetry of her own during that period.

As her candidacy for the Oxford post has proven, however, her zeal remains intact. Not even the sordid final days of the campaign have muted her enthusiasm. Tonight, she’ll find out for certain if the job is hers, and if it is, “I’d very much want to do some work with the zoology department – which they’ve asked me to do anyway, even if not elected. And I’d like to forge links with other disciplines I’m close to: music and anthropology, for instance.” Though the fall-out from the campaign may, she admits, “taint things for a while, if I am elected, once you’re there … well, poetry rises above it. I intend to do the best I possibly can.”

Padel on Padel

“The deck is dazzle, fish-stink, gauze-covered buckets.
Gelatinous ingots, rainbows of wet flinching amethyst
and flubbed, iridescent cream. All this
means he’s better; and working on a haul of lumpen light.
Polyps, plankton, jellyfish. Sea butterflies, the pteropods.
‘So low in the scale of nature, exquisite in their forms!
You wonder at so much beauty – created,
apparently, for such little purpose!’ They lower his creel
to blue pores of subtropical ocean. Wave-flicker, white
as a gun-flash over the blown heart of sapphire.
Peacock eyes, beaten and swollen,
tossing on lazuline steel.”

“This marks the moment when Charles Darwin began actually to enjoy the Beagle, rather than lying seasick on the captain’s sofa. It is January 1832, he is 22, heading south through the north Atlantic, and starting work as a naturalist. The key ideas come in obliquely: Darwin still believes in biblical creation, yet his own language is readying him to doubt it (apparently). The rhymes often see-saw between the inside and the end of lines (ocean/swollen). The lyric description is inextricable from the imagery. A translator pointed out to me that I often use double images, an image for an image (those rainbows and amethysts). I like mixing tones and registers, complex sensuous imagery, vernacular and direct speech.”