From Biro to Mont Blanc via Oxbridge

Diane Spencer

Ruth Padel's curriculum vitae reads like a latter-day character from her beloved Greek myths.

The winner of this year's 20th national poetry competition has "sung in a nightclub in Istanbul, played in orchestras in California and Prague, dug on excavations in Crete; taught horse-riding in Berlin, myth on a Greek island, ancient religion in Buenos Aires, and Greek language and poetry at Oxford, Cambridge, London and Princeton universities".

She gave up her job at London University 12 years ago to write full-time, but teaches occasionally on Arvon courses and in primary schools. Her winning poem, Icicles Round a Tree in Dumfriesshire, was inspired by a photograph by sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. "He got icicles to go round a tree in a helter-skelter way and I thought it was analogous to writing a poem . . . it's about effort, imagination and making things." The Poetry Society's judges were unanimous in selecting it from 7,000-plus entries. "It was a fairy tale I it just staggered me," Ruth Padel said.

Apart from the Pounds 4,000 first prize, she received a prize from the sponsors, pen-makers Montblanc - but confessed to using a Biro.

She says children like learning by heart as long as it's done interestingly. "Rhythm gets them going, something like TS Eliot's Macavity from his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Four-year-olds like that, or Kipling's poetry in The Jungle Book - a wonderful beat."

She finds that children have preconceived ideas about what is poetic. "When I hear the word 'poetic' I reach for my gun, so to speak. They want all poems to rhyme and they think they've got to be about flowers or the wind. Perhaps that's what they find in a 50-year-old anthology. It's like freeing a blocked drain."

Ruth Padel, daughter of a psychoanalyst, was, appropriately, born in an attic in Wimpole Street, educated at North London Collegiate, and read classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. A travelling scholarship for her PhD from Wolfson College led to her remarkable CV.

"I owe that CV to the fact that in the Seven-ties there were those grants available for something potentially interesting. When you apply today, it must be for a narrow three-year project. It's pernicious. Now it's impossible to come across something accidentally during your research and discover your bent. A great tradition of research is being destroyed by the Government."

She discovered an aptitude for psychology and anthropology in addition to classics, which resulted in two books, In and out of the mind and Whom the gods destroy, before her first poetry collection was published in 1990.

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Diane Spencer

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