Michael Symmons Roberts is a poet, librettist and novelist. His poetry is known for its expression of spiritual concerns through physical – especially bodily – realities, earning him the reputation of a modern metaphysical poet. He remains one of the few poets in Britain who are writing overtly religious poetry in a way that engages with modern tropes, and modern doubt.
The novelist Jeanette Winterson has written of Symmons Roberts that he “is a religious poet in a secular age. His work is about the connection between the things of the spirit and the things of the world. And his work is about transcendence.”
He was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire, and read Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University, going on to become a journalist and radio producer, and then Executive Producer and Head of Development for BBC Religion and Ethics. He gave this career up to concentrate on his writing.
He came to major attention with his fourth collection, Corpus, which deals with the limitations and metaphorical power of corporeal life, and scientific means of conveying the ineffable. A convert to Catholicism, he employed the scepticism he had learned at Oxford, and the language of science, to explore the state of the modern soul. The collection won the Whitbread Poetry Award and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for best collection, and the Griffin International Prize. The book chronicles – that is not too strong a word – the darker elements of physical life, the limitations of the flesh, and its transcendence, and in so doing gives them a life of the spirit. His poems question what the spirit is, and what the body is, in a matter-of-fact diction. The sequences ‘Food for Risen Bodies’ and ‘Carnivorous’ are scattered through the book, building impressions at a distance from themselves, just as meals are not taken all at once.
In ‘Food For Risen Bodies IV’, unnamed men, previously “silenced”, “whisper grace/ through open wounds”. Earlier, in ‘Food For Risen Bodies II’, it has been clarified: “This is not hunger, this is resurrection:// He eats because he can . . .”
Eating, through mouths which are symbolic of wounding, is a sacrament of aliveness. And communion with each other is another corporeal route to the spirit. In ‘What Divides Us’ he writes:
Skin is border country.
Ever exiled from each other,
we come here to meet.
He also writes:
If I believed the soul
was separate from the body
I might describe myself
As the soul of my clothes . . .
The poem ‘To John Donne’ maps out the “new found land” of the mistress’ body in illness and “real estate”, and – in case the reader is not yet sure what's going on – goes even beyond the corporeal to the mineral reality, ending with a “litany” of genetic code.
An earlier poem, ‘Lung Wash’, from his 1999 collection Raising Sparks, considers even the breath with which we speak as a physical part of ourselves:
The tube is pushed behind your voice
and water floods the hair’s-breadth
channels of your lungs, you choke
“No no too much too much”
and phlegm rides up between the words,
coloured by the scent of home, and cigarettes.
And, by the end:
. . . eating shellfish in a café
full of idle conversation, you close
around your quietness. From now on
every word you use is plucked from nowhere.
Symmons Roberts’ third poetry collection, Burning Babylon, was shortlisted for the 2001 T.S. Eliot Prize. His work for radio 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. His first novel, Patrick’s Alphabet, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2006, and his second – Breath – in 2008.
His ongoing collaboration, as librettist, with composer James MacMillan has led to two BBC Proms choral commissions, as well as song cycles, musical 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 in 2008.
Soft Keys, Secker and Warburg, London, 1993
Raising Sparks, Jonathan Cape, London, 1999
Burning Babylon, Jonathan Cape, London, 2001
Her Maker's Maker, Phoenix Poetry Pamphlets, Nimes, France, 2002
Corpus, Jonathan Cape, London, 2004
The Half Healed, Jonathan Cape, London, 2008
Patrick’s Alphabet, Jonathan Cape, London, 2006
Breath, Jonathan Cape, London, 2008
Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness (with Paul Farley), Jonathan Cape, London, 2011
Eric Gregory Award (1988)
Sandford St Martin Premier Award (2002)
K. Blundell Trust Award (2003)
Whitbread Prize for Poetry (2004)
Jerusalem Trust Award (2004)
Poetry Book Society Recommendation (2001 and 2004)
Arts Council Writers Award (2007)
Clarion Award for Radio Drama (2008)
Royal Philharmonic Society Award, with James MacMillan (2008)
Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction, with Paul Farley (2009)
Michael Symmons Roberts’ website
‘Pelt’ on video in The Guardian
Audio poems on The Poetry Archive
Feature in the Wall Street Journal
Profile for the Griffin Prize