Contest for Oxford poetry professor begins again
Geoffrey Hill and Anne Stevenson are among the names being suggested, as hunt for a successor to Ruth Padel begins
The names of eminent poets including Geoffrey Hill and Anne Stevenson are being suggested as potential candidates for the Oxford professor of poetry post, as nominations open today to find a successor to last year’s controversial winner Ruth Padel.
Padel was elected in May by 297 votes to Indian poet and critic Arvind Mehrotra’s 129, but resigned less than two weeks later after admitting passing on material to journalists alerting them to claims of sexual harassment which had been made against her rival for the post, the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Walcott had earlier pulled out of the race.
The scandal prompted Oxford University to change the voting system for the election, which had previously only allowed Oxford graduates to vote in person at the university on a single day. Now, graduates will be able to vote online, as well as to cast their vote in person over a period of time.
The university opened nominations today to find a new candidate for the 300-year-old position, seen as the most prestigious in poetry behind that of the poet laureate. Aspiring professors of poetry must be nominated by at least 12 Oxford graduates by 5 May. If there is more than one contender, then graduates will be able to vote for their favourite.
Former poet laureate Andrew Motion, whose name was put forward as a possible candidate, ruled himself out of the running, as did poet, critic and author Blake Morrison. “Geoffrey Hill would get my vote, if he can be persuaded to run,” said Motion. Morrison agreed. “I’ve not written enough poetry in recent years to remotely consider it [but] Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Motion and Lachlan MacKinnon are all possible – and all would be good,” he said.
Stevenson – winner of the Lannan prize for a lifetime’s achievement in poetry – is also seen as a strong candidate, although the poet said she felt that “the whole notion of campaigning like a politician seems to me only to cheapen the post, as recent events have sadly shown”.
“I have always (probably naively) assumed that the professorship of poetry at Oxford was an honour that a poet was asked to accept,” said Stevenson. “If still so, having practised the craft of poetry for more than half a century, I would be pleased to be asked, and I would certainly accept the post, grateful for an opportunity to illustrate and affirm the literary values to which I have given my creative life. I don’t, though, cheer myself with great expectations.”
Other names being considered by the poetry establishment include the Scottish poet and critic Douglas Dunn, and the Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Jorie Graham. Broadcaster and writer Clive James said in Standpoint magazine last July that he “would rather throw himself off a cliff” than take the job, although he admitted later in the article that he did find the role “just about the most attractive cup of its kind in existence”. “The botched election might have made it a poisoned chalice, but what a chalice it is,” James wrote.
Mehrotra, who missed out to Padel in the last election, said late last year that he was unlikely to run for a second time. “Really, running for the professorship once seems like enough,” he told the Guardian at the time. “There was a point to be made – which is that occasionally, say once every five years, Oxford ought to look to points east and south for its poetry professor – and I think it has. There’s also the question of the Indian media. Alas, these things cannot be done quietly. The last time the media here got so excited about the whole affair – I mean, it’s Oxford, and then it’s the first Indian running for the job – that every journalist and her grandpa wanted a quote. In the end, the cacophony became too much. A lot of people I meet though think all the noise was about some big prize I’d won and even now congratulate me on it.”
Mehrotra is in the company of a host of distinguished unsuccessful candidates for the position, including CS Lewis, FR Leavis, Robert Lowell and Stephen Spender. The professorship, established in 1707 and coming with a stipend of £7,000, has been held in the past by poets including Matthew Arnold, WH Auden, Robert Graves, Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney. Literary critic Christopher Ricks held the post for five years, stepping down in 2009.
“We want someone who’s going to do what Christopher did – to enthuse everyone about poetry, not just literary students but the wider public,” said Dr Seamus Perry, deputy chair of Oxford’s English faculty board. Although there are no official nominations as yet, Perry said this could be a “very distinguished poet” such as Geoffrey Hill (“considered by many to be the greatest poet in England and also a very fine critic”), the current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy (“there’s nothing to stop her running”), JH Prynne, John Fuller, Jorie Graham, Simon Armitage or Alice Oswald. But it could also be a critic, he said, or even a novelist such as AS Byatt, who “has written wonderfully about Browning”.
Perry hoped last year’s events wouldn’t put any candidates off from running. “It was all a bit of a kerfuffle and a regret, but I don’t think it actually reflects on the post at all,” he said. “I think it emerged pretty much unscathed, and in a funny kind of way it drew attention to its distinction.”
If more than one candidate comes forward for the position, the winner will be announced once voting is completed on 18 June, to be in post for the new academic year in autumn 2010.