Interview: Ruth Padel


The doors open and the pro-Vice Chancellor sweeps in, flanked by a swishy mass of black-robed proctors. With impressive co-ordination for a bunch of academics, the procession crosses the floor of the Divinity School and sets up court at the far end. The procession is silent. The audience is silent. This is Convocation.

Only two elections merit holding Convocation: that of the Chancellor and the Professor of Poetry. Every detail has to be just right. Half-way through his first syllable, one of the proctors stops; he’s forgotten to tip his hat. Once the giggles fade he reads out the vote count, and in all of thirty seconds weeks of campaigning come to an end.

Ruth Padel is swarmed by a smiling, congratulatory buzz. When I finally catch up with her at the after-party in Holywell Manor, she looks more relieved than jubilant. ‘The last week has been a barrage of stuff, it’s been difficult to hold myself together,’ she admits, sipping a glass of red.

The controversy of the past week aside, I ask her if she already has plans for her lectures. ‘I will be thinking about science a lot. Coleridge described words in a poem as hooked atoms, and I would like to do something about words and atoms in a poem and how poems work,’ she says, a little uncertainly. ‘Those are the lectures. I don’t know yet.’

If it sounds a bit vague, that’s only to be expected: it was only after Derek Walcott dropped out of the race that Padel could be reasonably confident of winning. She has much clearer ideas of what she wants to do ‘on the ground’ though, and gets increasingly animated as she talks about them.  

‘I’ve got plans to work, for instance, with Wild CRU. It’s part of the zoology department here. Professor David McDonald is a really wonderful conservationist—he’s got a lot of ideas about involving science and arts, literature and conservation, and I’d really like to go down that path too.’

It’s partly this interdisciplinary enthusiasm which earned her such strong support during the nominations, but isn’t she worried that it’ll alienate people who prefer a more traditional approach to poetry? ‘What does traditional mean?’ she retorts. ‘Tradition is a big subject. We’re all using tradition. We’re all in tradition. And you actually take the tradition forward by going away from it.’

‘The good poems that are written now are the poems about our lives and what matters to us now. You don’t want poetry that’s in a museum—it’s got to be done in the language of now, with the ideas of now, but using all the things that’ve come before.’

Unlike the professors who’ve come before, however, Padel will be the first woman on the job. In this she has something in common with Carol Ann Duffy, the nation’s new and first female Poet Laureate. Unlike Duffy though, Padel had ruled herself out from ever being nominated for the laureateship, calling it a ‘terrible job’ under constant national security.

‘Carol Ann will be fine,’ she says with a firm smile, though she admits that she personally would be afraid of not writing poems. But the professorship, she feels, is different. ‘I hope I would keep private enough. And you’re not asked to write any poems for this job.’

Still, her ambitions for the role sound taxing – rather than limiting herself to lectures, Padel is determined to ‘bring poetry’ to all the colleges in whatever way she can. ‘Part of what I do, whether it’s in university or outside, is making people realise that poetry as it is written now—and poetry in the past —is for them, whether they study English or study, I don’t know, astrophysics.’

‘Every college is different. Would they like to talk about their own poems? Would they like me to give examples of the variety of modern poetry now and how to read it? How it matters to their lives , how you can find poetry in the subject you’re reading. I would probably work through some people in each college. Maybe it would be a poetry society, maybe it would be a drinking club,’ she laughs.

‘Poetry is something that brings together, like Orpheus. Orpheus with his lyre brought stones and animals and mountains and things to him. And it should be fun.’

There’s something infectious about her enthusiasm. Padel has a warm, crackling charm, a sort of  Pratchett-esque witchiness. Of course, not everyone’s thrilled by her appointment; some are still sore about the Walcott affair. But Oxford’s new Professor of Poetry is clearly determined to reach out. It only remains to be seen how the students respond.


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