The career of the first female Oxford professor of poetry
Ruth Padel, the first woman to be named Oxford professor of poetry since the post was created in 1708, was born in London in 1946 and grew up a poetry-obsessed child. She was reading and writing verse from the age of three, although her poetry career did not take off until she was in her 40s.
Her passion for poetry flickered through her teens and 20s as she graduated in classics from Oxford University and then gained a PhD, supplementing her income with stints as an English teacher in rural Greece.
Padel taught Greek, mainly in Oxford, where Wadham College made her its first female fellow, changing its statutes to accommodate her. She taught opera in the Modern Greek department at Princeton and myth in Buenos Aires. She spent some years in Crete, excavating Minoan tombs and teaching English. She has sung in an Istanbul nightclub and written and presented a Radio 4 series on Hans Christian Andersen.
She said in a 2006 interview that the pivotal moment in her career as a poet came in 1985, after her daughter Gwen was born and when her first pamphlet of poems was on the point of publication. She decided to sell her house and buy a cheaper one in Cambridge, using the difference to support herself.
"It could have been appalling," she said. "Jobs were very hard to come by because Thatcher was cutting down on classics departments, so it would have been difficult getting back to the one skill I had, which was teaching Greek."
Padel's first full-length collection, Summer Snow, came out in 1990, when she was 44. She followed this with other volumes, along with a variety of non-fiction: on Greek poetry, drama and the mind; on rock music and Greek myth; and on searching for wild tigers (Tigers in Red Weather). She has written about reading modern poetry in 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey.
Her series of poems, Darwin: A Life in Poems, received rave reviews when it was published this year. She has won the National Poetry Competition, been shortlisted for the TS Eliot and Whitbread prizes and was chair of the Poetry Society from 2004-2006.
The great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, Padel said she wanted to use her new post – the most important academic poetry position in the UK – to unite poetry and science.
"That is what I should like to do to explore what poems can give to students, college by college, department by department, in the humanities and sciences," said the poet, who is a fellow of the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Society of Literature.
Prior to her election, Padel said she valued "the anarchic-ness of the Oxford post". She told the Guardian: "There are hundreds of chairs of poetry these days, in creative writing departments everywhere. But they are all tied into teaching, filling in forms, meeting targets etc. The Oxford post is what you make it."
She added: "I love writing about poetry on the edge between traditional poetry criticism and the way a poet reads, carnivorously, learningly, to see how they can write better. That aspect of it would be a challenge I'd enjoy."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017