Ruth Padel: Tiger, tiger, burning bright

The poet Ruth Padel - Darwin's great-great-granddaughter - roams ground ranging from wildlife to the wild men of rock. Christina Patterson tracks her down
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The Independent Culture

You mustn't complain if the dog bites you," Ruth Padel says as she spears an olive. "But," she adds thoughtfully, "it doesn't bite women; only men." We both titter nastily, but later I have cause to be grateful. Leaping up for more drinks in this members' club in Soho, I actually manage to tread on the golden lurcher, which has, it seems, been lurking beneath my chair. He growls, but I am saved by my sex.

Padel is not afraid of dogs. She is not afraid of much. The woman once described as "the sexiest voice in British poetry" has recently been travelling around the world to see tigers. She has sung in a nightclub in Istanbul, taught horse riding to the wives of British officers in Berlin and lived with peasants in Crete. Her new poetry collection, The Soho Leopard (Chatto, £8.99), draws on travels in Siberia and Burma, Louisiana and China, with a panoply of wildlife - tigers, leopards, alligators and jaguars - that also includes the lounge lizard.

Padel started writing poetry when she was three, but she was 43 before she realised that poetry "was going to be the thing". In the intervening years, she had a career in academia, lecturing in ancient and modern Greek at both Oxford and Cambridge. The word "career" is, in fact, one that triggers a severe allergic reaction. "I didn't want to be tenured in," Padel explains, "so I had lectureships and research fellowships. I was", she adds, "the first woman fellow of Wadham College, Oxford. They had to change the statutes for me." In poetry, too, Padel is adamant that "career" is anathema to the process and the vocation.

It was passion that led her through her PhD, a passionate interest in the connections between the mind and the soul in the Greek tragic works that dominated her life for seven years. It was passion that led her to Crete, where she joined an archaeological dig and learnt Greek. And it was passion, of course, that led her to the sculptor she lived with for seven years. "He taught me a lot about the creative life," she confides.

A poem, she says, "starts with an image or a word or a line. It gets hooked on to some other things and then it grows. There are two ways of making sculpture. The first is where you have some wax and you work it up and bring some things in. The second," she adds, taking a sip of her red wine, "is Michelangelo chipping away at the stone and finding the image inside."

Padel's poetry is a fiercely idiosyncratic mix of erudition and the contemporary vernacular, bringing together references to Pushkin and Darth Vader, Malory and Iggy Pop, Odysseus and Issey Miyake. History features prominently, as do music, visual arts, restaurants and clothes - any and every aspect, in fact, of culture past and present. "I think I'm always trying, like a magpie," she confides, "to bring different things in and see how much a poem can bear."

Her first full-length collection, Summer Snow, published nearly 15 years ago, is the one that most explicitly draws on her knowledge of ancient Greek history. It is, she says disarmingly, "not very good". In her second collection, Angel, she continues to combine mythic and historical perspectives, but adds a babble of voices from Bedlam to raise questions about madness and meaning. In her third collection, Fusewire, she uses a love affair as a metaphor for the colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland. "If Wallace Stevens and Anna Akhmatova were one and the same person," the Irish poet Paul Durcan said on reading it, "you'd have Ruth Padel."

It was in her fourth collection, Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, that she discovered the theme, and form, that set her free. The book begins with a poem called "Icicles Round a Tree in Dumfriesshire", which won the National Poetry Competition in 1996. Ostensibly about an ice sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, it's archetypal Padel, combining references to art, Aretha Franklin, log fires and lightning in a love poem that's also a plea: "I hope you'll be truthful/ To me. At least as truthful as lightning,/ Skinning a tree."

Formally, it was a departure and set the tone for much that would follow. "I was stuck," she confesses, "and couldn't get away from these three-liners. So I decided to try something different. I did things that felt terribly alien - it was like putting a poem in a dinner jacket or an evening suit or something. I suddenly began to find interesting ways of stopping a line, which I think was going back to the patternings of the Greek lyric."

Rembrandt Would Have Loved You is the first of three collections charting the progress of a turbulent love affair, beginning with explosive passion and ending, in The Soho Leopard, with disillusion. Padel is engagingly open about the fact that her poems draw heavily on personal experience. "All poets use their personal experience in a different sort of way," she declares matter-of-factly. "Some disguise it a lot. Some don't. Actually," she adds, "once I've made a poem out of it, it doesn't seem an embarrassing or intimate thing at all. After a while, I think of them as artefacts."

If love is a theme, it is also a metaphor and the jumping-off point for a whole raft of intellectual challenges. Rembrandt Would Have Loved You is about love and art, light and dark, but it also subverts the whole trope of the love poem and the traditional male gaze. While writing the poems, Padel was writing a prose book, I'm a Man, a study of rock music and masculinity. It started off as an exploration of women and rock, but, after meeting Yoko Ono, Shirley Manson, of Garbage, and Gayle Advert (bass-guitarist in the punk band The Adverts, who announced wistfully that "it was just nice if they didn't spit all over you"), she realised that she needed to go back to basics - ie, men.

In her fifth collection, Voodoo Shop, Padel takes the reader on a whirlwind journey: from the local deli to Bondi Beach, from Venice to Galway and from Rio de Janeiro to Cannes. While the poems work as dramatic monologues in their own right, they are also metaphors for the human search for faith and truth, in art, religion and, yes, even voodoo dolls. And there's the jungle theme, too, the literal and metaphorical landscape that has come to dominate Padel's life for the past three years.

Padel is a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Her favourite book as a child was The Jungle Book. It is only recently, however, that her interest in wildlife has become something of an obsession. Looking back now, she can see that there were glimmerings of it all along. There are snakes, hummingbirds and tigers as far back as Angel. "I think," she admits, with a rueful smile, "I must have been dreaming about tigers all my life."

She is certainly dreaming about them now. The writing of The Soho Leopard coincided with her research for a travel memoir, provisionally entitled Tigers in Red Weather. The book, "an inner and an outer memoir", due for publication next year, involved tiger-watching visits to Siberia, China and Burma, which fed into the poems as well as the prose.

The opening poem, "Tiger Drinking at a Forest Pool", came to her on a journey to Vladivostok. "I woke up in the half-light of Vladivostok," she recalls, "remembering George Herbert's poem 'Prayer', and I thought: 'I could do that.'" The result, which she had written by the end of the day, is a touching lyric of love and loss, a lament for "treasure found but lost" and "anyone hurt by littleness".

As always in Padel's work, the poems work as individual, often dazzling, snapshots and together as an extended metaphor. Although love is still there, largely in the sour taste of its absence, it is no longer the main theme. That is no less than our human need for wildness and for stories - and the wider moral implications of the stories we tell. In poems such as "The Forest, the Corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup" and the title poem, "The Soho Leopard", she charts a journey of moral disenchantment. "There's always," she says, spearing another olive, "the fight between rhetoric and nature. But at the end," she adds, "there's a feeling that two people don't matter a hill of beans - the things I've learnt are so shaky, so large."

Padel is getting used to meeting tigers. "Tiger eyes are very small," she tells me, as I manoeuvre my way back round the tripped-over dog. "They're not green; they're a kind of amber-topaz - small and brown, with a sort of khaki iris. What's really lethal is the tiger's front foot. What does the danger," she concludes with a dazzling smile, "is the claws."

Biography: Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel was born in 1947. Her father was a classics teacher-turned-psychoanalyst and she went on to read classics at Oxford. While doing a PhD on the mind and the soul in the Greek tragic works, she taught at Oxford, Cambridge and in Greece, before giving up academia to write. Her first collection, Summer Snow, was published in 1990. It was followed by Angel (1993), Fusewire (1996), Rembrandt Would Have Loved You (1998) and Voodoo Shop (2002), which was shortlisted for both the Whitbread and the TS Eliot prizes. Her non-fiction includes I'm a Man and 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem. Ruth Padel lives in Hampstead with her daughter, Gwen. She is currently chair of the Poetry Society.

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