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Roberts, Michael Symmons 1963–

Roberts, Michael Symmons 1963–

PERSONAL: Born October 13, 1963, in Preston, Lancashire, England; son of David Symmons and Iris (Corcoran) Roberts; married Ruth Humphreys, 1992; children: Joseph, Patrick, Griffith. Education: Attended Oxford University.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Jonathan Cape Ltd., Random House UK, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London SW1V 2SA, England.

CAREER: Poet, playwright, director, and producer. Has produced and directed numerous documentaries for radio and television. Radio credits include The Real Thing, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio 3; A Damn Good Lie, BBC Radio 1; Anno Domini, BBC Radio 2, 1999; A Fearful Symmetry, BBC Radio 4, 2000; Behold the Man, BBC Radio 2, 2000; Brimstone, BBC Radio 4, 2000; The Wounds, BBC Radio 4, 2001; The Hurricane, BBC Radio 4, 2002; A Higher Place, BBC Radio 4, 2002; and Last Words, BBC Radio 4, 2002.

AWARDS, HONORS: Gregory Award for British poets under thirty, Society of Authors, 1988; Sony Award, for The Real Thing; Sandford St. Martin Award, for A Damn Good Lie; Sandford St. Martin Premier Award, 2000, for A Fearful Symmetry; Whitbread Poetry Award, 2004, for Corpus.


Soft Keys (poetry), Secker & Warburg (London, England) 1993.

Raising Sparks (poetry; based on a libretto; also see below), Cape Poetry (London, England), 1999.

Burning Babylon (poetry), Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2001.

Corpus (poetry), Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2004.

Author's poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Grand Street, and Southern Review.


(Writer of text) Raising Sparks: For Mezzo-Soprano and Ensemble (song cycle; produced in London, England, then BBC Radio 3, 1997), Boosey & Hawkes (London, England), 1998.

Quickening (choral oratorio), produced in London, England, then BBC Radio 3, 1999.

(With Rowan Williams) Parthenogenesis (chamber opera), produced at Edinburgh Festival, Scotland, then BBC Radio 2, 2000.

The Birds of Rhiannon (choral), produced in London, England, 2001.

Also author of libretto for The Sacrifice (opera), 2003, and Zaide (retranslation and completion of unfinished libretto for Mozart opera), 2003.

ADAPTATIONS: Raising Sparks was recorded by Black Box (England), 2002.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Patrick's Alphabet (novel), for Jonathan Cape, 2006.

SIDELIGHTS: A poet and the author of several librettos for musical productions, Michael Symmons Roberts is, according to John Burnside writing in the Poetry House magazine, "still something of an emerging voice in British poetry." Burnside noted that some of the primary themes in the Roberts's poetry are "the experience of the body, notions of sacrifice and redemption, what we mean when we talk about love, the possibility of commitment to a truly moral/religious life in a secular/fundamentalist world … and a concern with how we might know the world around us without allowing that knowledge to lead to the kind of reductive ideology that informs some contemporary (pseudo-)scientific thinking."

In his collection of poems titled Burning Babylon Roberts provides a narrative about a controversial American missile base that he grew up near in England. Divided into four parts, the poems touch on such topics as the influence of Americans who work at the base, the relationship between the U.S. soldiers and the local women, pranks conducted by the children living nearby, and the eventual closing of the base and the area's return to nature. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, John Greening noted, "There is something not appropriately cautious and guarded in much of the writing." Nevertheless, the reviewer commented that he "enjoyed Burning Babylon as a narrative" and noted that the poem "Touched" "reveals Symmons Roberts as a fine miniaturist."

In Corpus Roberts writes primarily religious poems about the human body and life and uses a number of characterized voices, from a lover and theologian to a scientist and an art critic. He broaches such topics as the discovery of DNA and its impact on the revelatory aspects of John Donne's poetry. In another poem he looks at theory of evolution in the form of a dinner that progresses backwards to the origins of the food—for example, from the fish to the snail that is in its throat, and so on. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Jane Griffiths noted, "Roberts finds the extraordinary in the physical particulars of daily life, recreating them in an intensely sensuous language that causes the reader also to marvel." In his review for Poetry House, Burnside noted that "Corpus is unmissable: the work of a poet working at his full power, challenging, sensual and deeply satisfying."

Roberts is also the author of several librettos set to music by James MacMillan. The author's text for these musical productions generally follows themes similar to those explored in his poetry. For example, in the libretto for Parthenogenesis, written with Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, Roberts looks at the prospect of human cloning in a story about a cloned child and a disgruntled angel who seeks the companionship of humans.



Guardian (Manchester, England), January 19, 2005, Tim Ashley, review of Parthenogenesis, p. 28.

Poetry House, September 4, 2004, John Burnside, review of Corpus.

Times Literary Supplement, December 13, 2002, John Greening, review of Burning Babylon; January 21, 2005, Jane Griffiths, review of Corpus.


British Broadcasting Corporation Web site, (March 30, 2005), A Higher Place.

Ploughshares Web site, (March 30, 2005), "Michael Symmons Roberts."

Random House UK Web site, (March 30, 2005), "Michael Symmons Roberts."

Whitbread Book Awards Web site, (March 30, 2005), "Michael Symmons Roberts."

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