Oxford Professor of Poetry: a great honor or “sherry-drill for important people”?

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Missing Oxford every minute. From my stay in 2009.

After my recent post on Geoffrey Hill, I have been following the selection of his successor to the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, a highly prestigious position previously held by Seamus Heaney and W.H. Auden, among others. Alas, not being a graduate of one of my favorite institutions, I am not eligible to cast a ballot. Oxford grads must register to vote by June 8. It’s too bad. I’m more excited about this than the U.S. elections. It’s way better than football. Results will be announced June 19.

The going money (presumably Ladbrokes is taking bets) is on Nobel winner Wole Soyinka, poet, playwright, novelist, and political activist. The Nigerian writer is also over 80 – disqualifying? Not so fast. So is Geoffrey Hill. According to The Guardian:

Ken Macdonald QC, the warden of Wadham College and one of Soyinka’s key backers, said: “Wole Soyinka is a poet and activist of world standing who has faced persecution and suffering with surpassing dignity. He is that rare thing: a great writer whose life and eloquence have come together in a valiant struggle for rights and freedom. His election would grace the University of Oxford.”

Soyinka’s candidacy has been endorsed by a number of high-profile graduates, including the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti. “Pursued and repeatedly imprisoned by dictators who feared him, his shining language of resistance has never dimmed and his sense of justice never faltered,” Chakrabarti said. “His appointment would bring honour to the University of Oxford.”

The former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has also endorsed Soyinka, calling him “a massive cultural presence”.

A rival is emerging in poet Simon Armitage, with prominent broadcaster Melvyn Bragg recently switching his support to Armitage.

Among my own friends, there is a determined campaign for dark horse A.E. Stallings (full disclosure: a Facebook friend). There’s even a Facebook page (here) and a Twitter campaign for her candidacy. From The Guardian again:

Alicia Elsbeth

Dark horse.

Alicia Stallings, an American poet who studied classics at Oxford and the University of Georgia, and who has published three collections of poetry, is the only female nominee. The role was briefly held by Ruth Padel in 2009, but after it emerged that she had informed journalists about past allegations of sexual harassment made against her rival Derek Walcott, she resigned after less than two weeks.

Stallings, who lives in Athens, said in her statement that it is “not only the making of poems that interests me, but memorising and speaking them”, and that if elected, she would speak on topics including “the problems and possibilities of translation, poets in other languages (such as modern Greek), the classical tradition, the gears and springs of technique, the resonance between poems, and on new poets and poets fallen out of fashion”.

Ian Gregson and Seán Haldane are also contenders.

However, losers have this consolation: Philip Larkin scoffed at the honor. In a recently unearthed artifact:

The letter, typed on Larkin’s letterhead at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library, replies to a suggestion from the college’s then-principal, Rachel Trickett, that he should stand for the prestigious role. Larkin receives Trickett’s letter on 8 October 1968, and after “the luxury of a few minutes day-dreaming on the subject”, writes to dissuade her from putting his name forward.

Frontrunner (Photo: Chidi Anthony Opara)

Frontrunner (Photo: Chidi Anthony Opara)

The poet tells Trickett he is entirely “unfitted” for the role. “I have never considered literature in the abstract since that blessed day in 1943 when I laid down my pen in the Sheldonian Theatre and sauntered out into the sunshine, a free man; anything I have written since then has either been hack journalism or cries wrung from me by what I believe Gide calls the frightful contact with hideous reality,” writes one of the 20th century’s most beloved poets.

He adds that he has so far given just one lecture in his life – “I hated it, and a number of people walked out in the first few minutes” – before explaining that the increasing publicity which comes with the position makes him “quite unsuited” to the position.

“My idea of hell on earth (physical pain excepted, and I am not sure that it is excepted even in this case) is a literary party, and I have an uneasy feeling that the post carries with it a lot of sherry-drill with important people,” he writes, describing himself nonetheless as “deeply honoured” to be approached.

Don’t know about you, but I could definitely use a little sherry-swilling myself. Not to mention the £12,000 annual stipend that comes with the five-year position.


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2 Responses to “Oxford Professor of Poetry: a great honor or “sherry-drill for important people”?”

  1. Jeff S. Says:

    As much as I’d like to see an owl of good tidings fly from Oxford to Athens and validate my own taste, I’m particularly brightened by the prospect that a Stallings victory might show the American public that some Americans are working hard to keep formal verse alive. Perhaps even her candidacy will help with that.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    She certainly has the wind at her back right now.

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