Michael Symmons Roberts
Michael Symmons Roberts (born 1963) is a British poet. He has published five collections of poetry, all with Cape (Random House), and has won the Whitbread Poetry Award, as well as major prizes from the Arts Council and Society of Authors. He has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize twice, the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Forward Prize. He has also written novels, libretti and texts for oratorios and song cycles. He regularly writes and presents documentaries and dramas for broadcasting.
Life and career
Michael Symmons Roberts was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire, UK, and spent his childhood in Lancashire before moving south with his family to Newbury in Berkshire in the early ‘70s. He went to comprehensive school in Newbury, then to Oxford University to read Philosophy and Theology. After graduating, he trained as a newspaper journalist before joining the BBC in Cardiff as a radio producer in 1989. He moved with the BBC to London, then to Manchester, initially in radio, then as a documentary filmmaker. His last job at the corporation was as Executive Producer and Head of Development for BBC Religion and Ethics, before he left the BBC to focus on writing.
His fourth book of poetry, Corpus, was the winner of the 2004 Whitbread Poetry Award, and was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for best collection, and the Griffin International Prize. He had previously received the Society of Authors’ Gregory Award for British poets under 30 and the K Blundell Trust Award, and was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize for his 2001 collection Burning Babylon. In 2007 he received a major Arts Council Writers Award.
His continuing collaboration with composer James MacMillan has led to two BBC Proms choral commissions, song cycles, music theatre works and a new opera for the Welsh National Opera, The Sacrifice, which won the 2008 Royal Philharmonic Society Award.
His work for radio includes ‘A Fearful Symmetry’ — for Radio 4 — which won the Sandford St Martin Prize, 'Soldiers in the Sun' — for Radio 3 — which won the Clarion Award, 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. He is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and a trustee of the Arvon Foundation. He has judged many poetry awards including the Forward Prizes (twice), the Eliot Prize and the Arvon International Poetry Prize.
Symmons Roberts' family was passively secular, but in his early teens he became a thoroughgoing atheist. When he gained a place at Oxford, this led him to change his course to Theology and Philosophy, and his college to a Christian one, simply so that he could talk believers out of their faith. But things did not go according to plan: "As university went on I got deeply into philosophy — and the philosophy completely undermined my atheism, by making me realize that there was no overarching objectivity, no Dawkinsian bedrock of common sense if you strip everything away. I realized that atheism was just as culturally conditioned as being a Catholic."
The Oxford way of teaching, with its deconstructing, analytical approach, proved fatal, he says, to his assumption as "a naively dogmatic young atheist...that atheism is exactly the same as 'common sense' or objectivity. I'm not saying that in psychological terms we can't be objective. I just mean that there is no framework of thought that can be completely objective. I have exactly the same problem with unquestioning religious dogmatism."
A convert to Roman Catholicism, Symmons Roberts has been described by Jeanette Winterson as "a religious poet for a secular age", and by Les Murray as "a poet for the new chastened, unenforcing age of faith that has just dawned". Alan Brownjohn wrote that his "religious poems...seem designed for an age of doubt and DNA". Although rooted in the English lyric tradition, his work draws on the language of science (especially genetics and genomics), theology and philosophy.
Awards and prizes
- Whitbread Prize for Poetry (2004)
- Eric Gregory Award (1988)
- Clarion Award for Radio Drama (2008)
- Poetry Book Society Recommendation (2001 and 2004)
- Sandford St Martin Premier Award (2002)
- K Blundell Trust Award (2003)
- Arts Council Writers Award (2007)
- Jerusalem Trust Award (2004)
- Royal Philharmonic Society Award [with James MacMillan] (2008)
- Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction [with Paul Farley] (2009)
- T S Eliot Prize (2001 and 2004)
- Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year) (2004)
- Griffin International Poetry Prize (2005)
- Mental Health Award (for Radio Drama) (2008)
- Raising Sparks, (Jonathan Cape, 1999). ISBN 0-224-05902-5
- Soft Keys, (Secker and Warburg, 1993). ISBN 0-436-41988-2
- Burning Babylon, (Jonathan Cape, 2001). ISBN 0-224-06185-2
- Lime kilns, (Redundant Press, 2002). Limited edition
- Her Maker's Maker, (Phoenix Poetry Pamphlets, 2002). Limited edition
- Corpus, (Jonathan Cape, 2004) (winner of the 2004 Whitbread Poetry Award). ISBN 0-224-07342-7
- The Miracles of Jesus, (Lion Hudson, 2006). ISBN 0-7459-5194-5. Official tie-in to TV series
- Patrick's Alphabet, (Jonathan Cape, 2006). ISBN 0-224-07596-9
- Breath, (Jonathan Cape, 2008). ISBN 978-0-224-07802-3
- The Half Healed, (Jonathan Cape, 2008). ISBN 978-0-224-08567-0
- Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness (with Paul Farley), (Jonathan Cape, 2011). ISBN 978-0-224-08902-9
- The Sacrifice [Welsh National Opera] (composer James MacMillan) (winner of RPS Award 2008)
- Parthenogenesis [widely performed in UK & abroad] (composer James MacMillan)
- The Birds of Rhiannon [BBC Proms commission] (composer James MacMillan)
- Quickening [BBC Proms commission] (composer James MacMillan)
- Raising Sparks [Nash Ensemble commission] (composer James MacMillan)
- Sun Dogs [3 Choirs Festival commission] (composer James MacMillan)
- Chosen (composer James MacMillan)
Selected radio work
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned drama - ‘Brimstone’ - for 'Afternoon Play' - 2000
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned drama - 'Cleaning the Pipes' - for 'Fact to Fiction' - 2006
- BBC Radio 3 commissioned drama - 'Soldiers in the Sun' - 2007
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned drama - 'Worktown' - for 'Afternoon Play' - 2008
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned drama - 'Breath'- adaptation of MSR's novel for 'Friday Play' - 2008
- BBC Radio 3 commissioned drama - 'Idylls of the King' - adaptation of Tennyson poem - 2009
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned drama - 'A Man in Pieces' - for 'Afternoon Play' - 2010
- BBC Radio 3 commissioned drama - 'Migrant Mother' - 2010
- BBC Radio 4 commission – ‘Last Words’ – poem to mark 1st Anniversary of 9/11, performed by Sir Antony Sher, with music by John Harle.
- BBC Radio 4 / World Service commissioned poem for Hiroshima Day - ‘A Fearful Symmetry.’ With Fiona Shaw, Robert Tear and BBC Philharmonic. Music James Whitbourn.
- BBC Radio 2 commission - ‘Behold the Man’ - 6 part biography of Jesus. Performed by Derek Jacobi, repeated on BBC World Service.
- BBC Radio 4 commission - ‘The Wounds’ – poem for Good Friday, performed by Simon Russell-Beale, with music by James Whitbourn.
- BBC Radio 4 commission – ‘The Hurricane’ – poem for Pentecost, performed by Fiona Shaw, with music by James Whitbourn.
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned poem – ‘Crossing the Dark Sea’ with composer James Whitbourn, to mark D-Day anniversary. With Christopher Eccleston and Katherine Jenkins.
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned poem - 'White Nights'
- BBC Radio 4 commissioned poem for 'Today' programme on National Poetry Day.
- BBC Radio 2 commission - ‘Anno Domini’ - 11 part history of Christianity in Britain, performed by Derek Jacobi.
- BBC Radio 4 commission – ‘A Higher Place’ – writer and presenter of series on Sacred Mountains of the world.
- BBC Radio 2 commission – writer and presenter of ‘Landscape of Remembrance’, on the poets of the First World War.
- BBC Radio 4 commission – ‘Hound of Heaven’ – on the Victorian poet Francis Thompson.
- BBC Radio 2 commission – ‘The Good Book’ – 6 part series on the Bible.
- BBC Radio 4 commission – ‘The Chair’ – on Welsh poetry.
- BBC Radio 4 writer & presenter of ‘The Cross’ documentary.
- BBC Radio 2 writer of six part series ‘Sacred Nation’ - a history of multi-faith Britain, presented by Christopher Eccleston
- BBC Radio 3 writer and presenter of 'Elegy' - feature about the history and meaning of the poetic elegy.
- BBC Radio 3 writer and presenter of 'Utopian Pessimist' - feature about Simone Weil.
- Michael Symmons Roberts author Web site
- Profile and poems written and audio at the Poetry Archive
- British Council - Contemporary Writers: Michael Symmons Roberts
- Wall Street Journal interview
- Griffin Poetry Prize biography
- CBC Radio's Tapestry interview with Michael Symmons Roberts
- New coup for Writing School — MMU news item
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