“Form is very important. Form is what’s part of the voice. I have not read very much of these poets because I don’t find the (their) form very interesting. I think it’s giving vent to a lot of feelings, which is not an accident because this is the generation that is very much threatened by climate change and politics and it is aware of it. Good luck to them. But for me, there is a sort of challenge with wrestling with form which communicates things under the surface and I think this thing under the surface is very important as well,” says British poet Ruth Padel.

She was replying to a question about the form of poetry vis-à-vis new emerging poets writing in English language who have got famous from social media platforms like Instagram etc. She was on a visit to Lahore to participate in the Faiz International Festival last month. She gave an interview to Dawn on the sidelines of the festival.

Ruth Padel has, so far, published 12 poetry collections besides many books of non-fiction, fiction and criticism during her writing career. She got worldwide fame after her selection as the first woman for the Oxford professor of poetry in 2009. She resigned from the coveted post just nine days after her election as a controversy had arisen that she had tipped journalists off against Derek Walcott, who was also in contest for the post, regarding the sexual harassment allegations against him. Walcott had to pull out of the contest. Padel had denied the allegations, saying she had not acted in bad faith. She is a professor of poetry at King’s College, London.

Padel had written about migration as well. Talking about this theme and how she got connected to it she said, “Migration made the world. We don’t know how life on the world started but however it did, it started to spread. It was beginning of migration and life migrated across world. We all came from Africa, all civilisations whether the Indus Valley or Sumatra or in Europe. We are all migrants. We all come from somewhere else.”

Upholds significance of form in poetry

Padel feels strongly about the role of the poet in society, saying that poets have a responsibility towards the world. To the question of personal and political for the poet, she says she takes personal for a poet in a different way.

“I wrote a book on migration, the Mara Crossing, which is on migration and then one on the Middle East, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, which is very personal in a way. But what’s personal does not necessarily mean connecting to your love, problems or family. Personal is how you feel a personal connection with what’s happening in the world. For instance, that book on the Middle East is concerned with the Muslim, Christian and Jewish experience of making music of harmony.

“I was once asked to write a book about Christmas. I said ‘I do not want to write a book about Christmas. It is cosy, it is silly and I am not gonna do it at all’. But looking around where I live in London, the homeless population has tripled in my area in the last 15 years. There are so many people sleeping rough in snow. They all have mental trauma. I wrote this book called, Tidings, which is an ironical title, on my area.”

Padel says she feels passionately that poetry has a responsibility to look inward to one’s personal problems, life and joys but also to look outwards to see what’s happening in the world.

“I have written poems about my daughter, about my relations and my recent book is about my mother dying. It is about looking for value in the darkness of mourning. It is interesting what is personal.”

Ruth Padel says she had just come from Lesbos, the Greek island where 600,000 Syrians have arrived.

“I met one woman in Lesbos. They told me she had lost her children somewhere while crossing to Europe. Her husband was killed by ISIS. There was a volunteer girl who took photographs of her kids, saying she would try to find them. She went back to Germany, she found both the kids. They both were alive but in different cities. Both were hospitalised and had gone mute from trauma. She showed them the photograph of their mother and the both started talking. That is an extraordinary story.”

Padel has worked on linkages of poetry with other disciplines like science and music. Talking about the connection of poetry with science, she says.

“One thing that poetry and science have in common is that they both focus on particular moments. Darwin was a good example of it because he had got his great theories from looking at very small things, like bees and worms. It shows that from small particular things, you can reach a big thing. That’s what good poems on the whole do. They focus on one particular thing and it might go out on other things. It’s from the particular that you get to the universal or general.”

Giving example of her visit to Lahore, she says she looked at the bird life and the black kites flying over Lahore.

“The black kites are apparently declining here because there are people who throw up meat for them and now meat is expensive and the sellers sell foam rubber soaked in blood. The poor birds eat it and die.”

Padel visited the Lahore Museum and found it very interesting. “Poems can be written about everyone of those beautifully made objects (in museum). They would be involved with emotions. I think you have to have the emotion (for writing a poem) but it does not necessarily have to be about emotion. Emotion is one of the tools. Milosch said ‘poetry has to be loyal to reality and may be the world as we see it is only a skin and underneath the skin there is something else’.”

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2019