Poet of Honour: Ruth Padel

Poet of Honour, an accolade by Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation, celebrates our best contemporary poets we should have read by now. They are iconic and a major inspiration.

I remember-not a long ago-Ruth lost her mother. Her heartbreak was felt by many of us as friends. So, her collection Emerald was timely. In the eighties, I managed high-end opticians in Wigmore Street at the corner of Wimpole Street, not far from where Ruth was born in the attic of her great-aunt’s house. Hence to me, in a way, her aura was always around the corner! I have also come to know her through Nehru Centre and friends. Therefore, to present her as our Poet of Honour for this Christmas is an exceptional opportunity for me. To be in the company of Imtiaz Dharker last Christmas made our festive outing exquisite. This year, I hope you will equally enjoy Ruth’s presence with us.

Ruth is one of seventy-two great-great-grandchildren of Charles Darwin. So, it is no surprise that she is drawn to science. Her experimental collection, The Mara Crossing, offers us the taste of it. If it occasionally feels parched due to hard science in the book, it also discharges gentle spirit and lyrical skips through many such lines as these:

You go because you heard a cuckoo call. You go because
    you’ve met someone, you made a vow, there are no more
    grasshoppers. You go because the cold is coming, spring
    is coming, soldiers are coming: plague, flood, an ice age,
    a new religion, a new idea. You go because the world rotates,
    because the world is changing and you’ve lost the key.

See how it resonates with our current troubled time!

London, UK – March 17, 2021: Ruth Padel, Poet . Ruth Padel renowed for her poetry has played music all her life. Her living room has music stands and an upright piano with music sheets at the ready. Her garden and its flora and fauna bring memories of her love for Greece. British poet Ruth Padel’s new book of poems Beethoven Variations, in which she folds personal reminiscences of her life, steeped in music, with acute reflects on Beethoven’s life and struggles. CREDIT : Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times

All great poets have a deep sense of music and how words assemble in line with that sate of mind. But Ruth’s understanding of it goes deeper. She grew up playing chamber music and singing, and took raga lessons. Singing and playing music of all kinds, especially classical and world music, informs her work deeply.

Ruth has interest in paintings as well and says, “I cannot paint myself but my poetry draws on looking and imagining, painting and drawing. The narrator of Daughters of the Labyrinth is a painter. There is also nature, science and the environment. (A little about my background, including Charles Darwin, here). I am a Trustee for New Networks for Nature, an alliance of scientists, environmentalists and artists who believe the natural world is central to cultural life; and am currently working on a book about elephants to follow my tiger book.” 

Ruth Padel has won the first prize in one of our most coveted awards, the National Poetry Competition. The quality of her work has remained timeless with much enviable consistency. Unfortunately, we lost her as Oxford’s first female Professor of Poetry with only nine days in an appointment. The unanswered question around it remains: would Derek Walcott have survived the post with all the allegations chasing him? Sir Isaiah Berlin would have been quick to point out the higgledy-piggledy nature of purist morality and its proponents!

All Ruth’s engaging journeys, stories and work collectively propose her as no ordinary Poet of Honour. Enjoy her presence at your Christmas table!

Merry Christmas!

-Yogesh Patel MBE

Poems by Ruth Padel


cute little legs of anonymous kid sleeping under blanket in bed
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

 ‘What is marriage but a little joy and then a chain of sorrows?’
                                                      Maria van Beethoven to Cäcelie Fischer

He goes to school dirty. They say his mother must be dead    
call him Spaniard because he is dark    
tease him about his name.  He leaves school

to play the viola
in the briary tangle of an orchestra.
He wears a sea-green coat, a wig, a little sword.
At home he writes concertos
pitching the wonders of modulation 
against his father’s blows.

Gliding north with her down the Rhine
on a winter concert tour, their one journey together,
she keeps him warm, holding his feet in her lap.

The Place without a Door  

black wooden door frame
Photo by ramy Kabalan on Pexels.com

Listen. There are dragons under cities
and monsters in white spaces on sea maps.
Sangatte is Gap-in-Sand. When we were there
we knew it was The Place Without a Door –
that commune on the coast of France
facing water which the English
call English Channel. A border
for which many men, and women, too,
have died. Mark the spot in my brother’s heart
where he built a cardboard shrine
for our wasteland jungle. Check the wall
where someone graffed, Nous voulons de l’air
pour nos enfants.
The cement octagons
where we hid at night to rush the axle
of Spanish lorries. The bridge where my brother
jumped that train into the tunnel.


tiger s reflection on water
Photo by Robert Stokoe on Pexels.com

Water, moonlight, danger, dream.
     Bronze urn, angled on a tree-root: one
     Slash of light, then gone. A red moon
Seen through clouds, or almost seen.

Treasure found but lost, flirting between
     The worlds of lost and found. An unjust law
     Repealed, a wish come true, a lifelong
Sadness healed. Haven, in the mind, 

To anyone hurt by littleness. A prayer, 
     For the moment, saved; treachery forgiven.
     Flame of the crackle-glaze tangle, amber
Reflected in grey milk-jade. An old song
     Remembered, long debt paid.
     A painting on silk, which may fade.

<strong>Ruth Padel</strong>
Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet and novelist, Professor of Poetry at King’s College London and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Zoological Society of London She has published twelve acclaimed poetry collections, a range of  non-fiction -from wild tiger conservation to Greek tragedy – and two novels. One set in the jungles of India; and Daughters of the Labyrinth set on the island of Crete, where she has lived on and off all her life. ‘Moving, superbly written: Crete itself becomes one of the main characters in the story.’  (Irish Times, Best Books 2021). ‘Transporting, immersive, historically informative story-telling steeped in the history and folklore of Crete’ (Sunday Times).  Her poems have appeared in New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The White Review, Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and elsewhere. Her latest collection, Beethoven Variations, explores a life of creativity and music. ‘Her imagery and imagination took me deeper into Beethoven than many biographies I’ve read’ (New York Times). ‘Bold,  breathtaking, spectacular’ (TLS).  In 2020, Ruth updated her 2012 collection on migration in We Are All from Somewhere Else, to include a poem on Syrian refugees to the Greek island of Lesbos, written in collaboration  with Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj. Images and lines from this work were chosen in 2021 as the 101st Object for Radio 4’s History of the World In 100 Objects, with these words which end her poem:
…and their stories our stories
steered by the small
star-light of cell phones

over waves like rings of a tree
rings of the centuries
rocking and spilling
on the windy sea
as if water kept its shape
after the jug has broken
one shining petrified moment

before the shattered pieces fall away.

To read poets honoured previously here is a roll call; please click on the name.

George Szirtes

Steven O’Brien

Nick Makoha

Fiona Sampson

Mimi Khalvati

Vijay Seshadri

Pascale Petit

Imtiaz Dharker

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Cyril Dabydeen

Tishani Doshi

Martina Evans

Sinéad Morrissey

Moniza Alvi

Ian Duhig

Raymond Antrobus

Keki Daruwalla

Mona Arshi

Christopher Reid

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