Michael Symmons Roberts

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Photograph: Martin Bence

Books

Associate: Seren Adams

Books

Michael Symmons Roberts was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire, UK.

His poetry has won the Costa Poetry Award, the Forward Prize, and the Whitbread Poetry Award, and has also been shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. He has received major awards from the Arts Council and the Society of Authors.

His continuing collaboration with composer James MacMillan has led to two BBC Proms choral commissions, song cycles, music theatre works and operas for the Royal Opera House,  Scottish Opera, Boston Lyric Opera and Welsh National Opera. Their WNO commission - ‘The Sacrifice’ - won the RPS Award for opera, and their Royal Opera House / Scottish Opera commission - 'Clemency' - was nominated for an Olivier Award.

His broadcast work includes ‘A Fearful Symmetry’ - for Radio 4 - which won the Sandford St Martin Prize, and ‘Last Words’ commissioned by Radio 4 to mark the first anniversary of 9/11.

He has published two novels, and is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.

DEATHS OF THE POETS, co-written with Paul Farley, was published by Jonathan Cape in February 2017. Michael's new collection of poems, MANCUNIA, was published by Cape in August 2017. 

Praise for DEATHS OF THE POETS (2017)

‘It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick post-mortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”… Theirs is a terrifically entertaining book: thoughtful, funny, informative, with an eye for good quotes and anecdotes, and wide ranging in both the distances it travels and the material on which it draws. The first person plural narrative is a voice rarely adopted by writers, but the “we” sounds natural here, and the banter and clowning don’t detract from the seriousness of the quest. Only at the end do the two part company, both literally (on a railway platform) and on the issue they have been exploring: the myth of the doomed poet needs to be debunked says one, while the other believes “there’s an unquiet spirit in many poets that means the myth still holds”. It’s an open question (they don’t even say who thinks which) but the evidence is there, in the stories of 30 or more poets, for the reader to decide.’ Blake Morrison, Guardian 

‘Although it’s difficult to write collaboratively, [Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley] seem to do so easily: it is a thoughtful book, structured as a series of pilgrimages to the places where poets have died… There’s a moving section on Sylvia Plath, whose suicide at the age of 30 remains an archetype of poetic death… Farley and Symmons Roberts argue convincingly that, for both [William Carlos] Williams and [R.S.] Thomas, the experiences of both medicine and religion seem to have enabled them to write about suffering that was not necessarily their own. Where does this leave our authors? … Together, they seem agreed that they are not going to die in the service of their art. I, for one, enjoyed their company, and was pleased that they should survive their travels and live to write some more poems.’ Daily Telegraph 

‘Poignant and comic… The book is at its most original and moving when the pair move beyond the usual suspects, travelling to Bournemouth and Leeds in search of Rosemary Tonks and John Riley, respectively… At the end of their journey, Farley and Roberts, fine poets too old now to die young, are still undecided about the very myths they set out to question… An absorbing trip.’ Financial Times 

‘The best sections of this book explore the longer slide of mortality as faced by poets: Auden’s final phase at Kirchstetten, and the withdrawn lives of Emily Dickinson at Amherst, Stevie Smith at Palmers Green and Rosemary Tonks on England’s south coast… Individual chapters splice together sections on different poets and the places they inhabited. When this works, it makes for poignantly intertwined narratives, as in the stories of two poets who disappeared – Dickinson, who passed most of her life in a single room, and Weldon Kees, who vanished in 1955 near the Golden Gate Bridge… Deaths of the Poets is packed with anecdotes and macabre frissons; its forays through some of poetry’s more sensational edgelands make for a compelling read.’ Nicholas Roe, Literary Review 

Deaths of the Poets is a gripping, witty read, but also asks serious questions about the way the post-Romantic myth of the doomed, self-destructive poet skews the way we interpret their work. If Wildfred Owen had not died at the age of 25 on the battlefield, but survived to 80 like his fellow-soldier poet Siegfried Sassoon, would we find his poetry less searing? … In other words, say Farley and Roberts, is it not time that readers started paying less attention to how poets lived and died and renewed their attention to the words they left behind?’ Mail on Sunday

‘They have chosen whom they have chosen, and have written about them with gravity and levity, combining acute analysis of the poetry with close attention to the myths we build around poets which are so eczematous they inflict craquelure on every reading thereafter… Farley and Roberts are always entertaining and illuminating, gentle guides and quixotic questers.’ Scotland on Sunday 

 

Non-Fiction

Publication DetailsNotes
2017

Jonathan Cape

From Chatterton’s Pre-Raphaelite demise to Keats’ death warrant in a smudge of arterial blood; from Dylan Thomas’s eighteen straight whiskies to Sylvia Plath’s desperate suicide in the gas oven of her Primrose Hill kitchen or John Berryman’s leap from a bridge onto the frozen Mississippi, the deaths of poets have often cast a backward shadow on their work.

The post-Romantic myth of the dissolute drunken poet – exemplified by Thomas and made iconic by his death in New York – has fatally skewed the image of poets in our culture. Novelists can be stable, savvy, politically adept and in control, but poets should be melancholic, doomed and self-destructive. Is this just a myth, or is there some essential truth behind it: that great poems only come when a poet's life is pushed right to an emotional knife-edge of acceptability, safety, security? What is the price of poetry?

In this book, two contemporary poets undertake a series of journeys – across Britain, America and Europe – to the death places of poets of the past, in part as pilgrims, honouring inspirational writers, but also as investigators, interrogating the myth. The result is a book that is, in turn, enlightening and provocative, eye-wateringly funny and powerfully moving.

2011

Vintage

The wilderness is much closer than you think. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, unacknowledged: the edgelands - those familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside - have become the great wild places on our doorsteps.

In the same way the Romantic writers taught us to look at hills, lakes and rivers, poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts write about mobile masts and gravel pits, business parks and landfill sites, taking the reader on a journey to marvel at these richly mysterious, forgotten regions in our midst.

Edgelands forms a critique of what we value as 'wild', and allows our allotments, railways, motorways, wasteland and water a presence in the world, and a strange beauty all of their own.

Poetry

Publication DetailsNotes
2017

Jonathan Cape

Mancunia is both a real and an unreal city. In part, it is rooted in Manchester, but it is an imagined city too, a fallen utopia viewed from formal tracks, as from the train in the background of De Chirico’s paintings. In these poems we encounter a Victorian diorama, a bar where a merchant mariner has a story he must tell, a chimeric creature – Miss Molasses – emerging from the old docks. There are poems in honour of Mancunia’s bureaucrats: the Master of the Lighting of Small Objects, the Superintendent of Public Spectacles, the Co-ordinator of Misreadings. Metaphysical and lyrical, the poems in Michael Symmons Roberts’ seventh collection are concerned with why and how we ascribe value, where it resides and how it survives. Mancunia is – like More’s Utopia – both a no-place and an attempt at the good-place. It is occupied, liberated, abandoned and rebuilt. Capacious, disturbing and shape-shifting, these are poems for our changing times.

2013

Jonathan Cape

Michael Symmons Roberts' sixth - and most ambitious collection to date - takes its name from the ancient trade in powders, chemicals, salts and dyes, paints and cures. These poems offer a similarly potent and sensory multiplicity, unified through the formal constraint of 150 poems of 15 lines.

Like the medieval psalters echoed in its title, this collection contains both the sacred and profane. Here are hymns of praise and lamentation, songs of wonder and despair, journeying effortlessly through physical and metaphysical landscapes, from financial markets and urban sprawl to deserts and dark nights of the soul.

From an encomium to a karaoke booth to a conjuration of an inverse Antarctica, this collection is a compelling, powerful search for meaning, truth and falsehood. But, as ever in Roberts' work - notably the Whitbread Award-winning Corpus - this search is rooted in the tangible world, leavened by wit, contradiction, tenderness and sensuality.

This is Roberts' most expansive writing yet: mystical, philosophical, earthy and elegiac. Drysalter sings of the world's unceasing ability to surprise, and the shock and dislocation of catching your own life unawares.

2004

Jonathan Cape

Corpus centres around the body. Mystical, philosophical and erotic, the bodies in these poems move between different worlds - life and after-life, death and resurrection - encountering pathologists' blades, geneticists' maps and the wounds of love and war.

Equally at ease with scripture (Jacob wrestling the Angel in 'Choreography') and science ('Mapping the Genome'), these poems are a thrilling blend of modern and ancient wisdom, a profound and lyrical exploration of the mysteries of the body:' So the martyrs took the lamb./ It tasted rich, steeped in essence/ Of anchovy. They picked it clean/ And found within, a goose, its pink/ Beak in the lamb's mouth like a tongue.' Ranging effortlessly between the physical extremes of death - from putrefaction to purification - and life - drought and flood, hunger and satiation - the poems in Corpus speak most movingly of 'living the half-life between two elements', of what it is to be unique and luminously alive.