Ruth Fainlight

Image by Caroline Forbes

Ruth Fainlight

b. 1931

I am a poet who is a woman, not a woman poet. - Ruth Fainlight

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About Ruth Fainlight

Ruth Fainlight (b. New York, 1931) is an award-winning poet and translator, whose collections, starting with Cages in 1966, have spanned five decades. Her 1976 collection Another Full Moon was described by Peter Porter as having "the steadiness and clarity of the moon itself", and A S Byatt has said of her poems that they "give us truly new visions of usual and mysterious events". Fainlight has lived in England since the age of 15, achieving success in fiction, translation and opera libretti as well as poetry. She became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2008.

On the process of writing a poem, Fainlight has said: "Like every other living organism, its development is a unique combination of unassailable laws and the entirely unexpected". One hallmark of her work is the special attention she pays to the apparently ordinary stuff of life, finding strangeness and even mysticism beneath familiar surfaces. Domestic life often contains and reveals the most significant truths. 'Handbag', for instance, with its intimate textures and smells, conjures an entire world, moving in just twelve lines from the smallness of the everyday objects carried around by the mother to a formidable list of human experiences : "womanliness, / and love, and anguish, and war".

Fainlight often uses keen physical memories as a way of creating surprise and coherence. In her poem 'Blankets', for example, the "old blue blankets" are so loaded with recollections of childhood nightmares and illness, they are not so much comforting as "potent and dangerous". Ageing and loss are more directly confronted in 'Friends' Photos', which mourns the "lost glamour" of youth. While many of the poems are intensely autobiographical, others take their inspiration from elsewhere: the real and imagined lives of others (such as the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova), and religious and mythical figures, including the Sibyls. 'Elegant Sibyl' is one of dozens of poems Fainlight has written about these ambiguous females with their prophetic gifts.

Ruth Fainlight and Sylvia Plath were friends in the years shortly before Plath's death, and it is possible to make connections, both thematic and stylistic, between the two. Their reading styles, however, are quite different. Fainlight's voice is full of warmth and quiet intensity; her skilful pacing and punctuation makes this a beautifully clear and rewarding experience for the listener.

This recording was made on November 12th 2007 at the Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Selected bibliography

New and Collected Poems Bloodaxe 2010

Moon Wheels, Bloodaxe, 2006


Burning Wire, Bloodaxe, 2002


Sugar-Paper Blue, Bloodaxe, 1997


Dr Clock's Last Case and Other Stories, Virago, 1994

This Time of Year, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993

The Knot, Hutchinson, 1990

Selected Poems, Hutchinson, 1987

Marine Rose: Selected Poems/Sophia de Mello Breyner...


1994 Cholmondeley Award for Poetry 1994 Cholmondeley Award for Poetry

Prize website

2008 Fellow of Royal Society of Literature 2008 Fellow of Royal Society of Literature

Prize website


Ruth Fainlight

Ruth Fainlight Reading from her Poems

1A Sibyl

2Blocked Sibyl

3Driving Northward


5It Must

6Animal Tamer



9In Memoriam H.P.F.

10As Though She Were a Sister

11Death's Love-Bite

12The Knot

13On the Theme of Artifice


15Ovid among the Scythians

16That Presence

17A Mourner



20Late Low Sun


22Facts About the Sibyl

23Elegant Sibyl

24Friends' Photos

25Young Men


27Autumn Crocus


29Ordinary Sorrow



32Four Pheasants

33La Traviata in 2001

34Sheba & Solomon: I - Their Words

35Sheba & Solomon: XI - Water

36Sheba & Solomon: XII - Solomon's Desire

37Moon Wheels


39Lovely Hands


41Midland Contemporary

A tour of the Archive with Mark Grist

Over the years I’ve become increasingly interested in the lyrical nature of poetry. I find that the more I’ve taken...

Featured Guided Tours

Books by Ruth Fainlight