Why you should care about the Oxford poetry scandal

The spat between Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott was an unappetising combo of namecalling and nitpicking that might have damaged one of the most important positions in British academia: Oxford professor of poetry.

Shirley Dent

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‘She looks sneaky.’ This just about sums up how the election race for one of the highest-profile and most important jobs in poetry descended into personal sniping, moral finger-pointing and ill-informed character assassination.

The comment was posted by ‘Hatchet’ from Newcastle, Australia in response to a London Evening Standard online report about Ruth Padel’s resignation as Oxford professor of poetry. Padel, poetry’s queen of nine days, was elected on Saturday 16 May and quit on Monday 25 May following an extraordinary series of events in the run-up to the election for the post. These events culminated in the Standard publishing emails sent by Padel on 9 April to one of its journalists, in which Padel directed the journalist to a book, The Lecherous Professor. The book relates sexual allegations made against Derek Walcott, the St Lucian Nobel laureate and Padel’s chief rival for the post at Oxford, when he lectured at Harvard in the 1980s. In the email sent to the journalist, Padel stated that the book ‘might provide interestigfn [sic] copy on what Oxford wants from its professors?’

From start to finish, this was a shabby affair. The delight that Derek Walcott, one of our greatest living poets, had entered the race to become the Oxford professor of poetry turned to dismay after what Professor Hermione Lee, who supported Walcott in the election race, described as a ‘campaign of vilification’. The first portent of trouble ahead was a column by John Walsh in the Independent on 28 April, in which Walsh asked: ‘Have Walcott’s fans all forgotten the shadows of sexual harassment allegations that have swirled around their man over the years?’ Within a week, a dossier detailing sexual harassment claims against Walcott was anonymously sent to staff and graduates in Oxford eligible to vote in the election for professor of poetry. Walcott thought enough is enough, and threw in the towel.

The story – sorry to say – does not end there. But first, let’s take a step back and look at the substance of the allegations, and ask: should they matter?

The 1982 claim was documented in The Lecherous Professor. In a conversation over coffee Walcott is alleged to have propositioned a female student, asking: ‘Imagine me making love to you. What would I do? Would you make love with me if I asked you?’ Now, if that is the worst thing that has ever been said to you as a woman, you need to get out more. A nastier edge to the story is the ‘C’ grade given by Walcott to his accuser after she refused his advances – which was upgraded to a pass after an appeal in which the student cited her allegations. The implication that Walcott punitively marked down a student because she rebuffed him is what really grates with many. The other allegation brought out of the attic against Walcott does little to dispel the idea that to slap down Walcott could cost you academically. In 1996, Nicole Niemi sued Walcott, alleging that he had propositioned her and then threatened to fail her and ensure her play was not produced when she turned him down. Walcott denied the claims and the case was settled out of court.

Niemi, who now writes novels as NM Kelby, has said: ‘I did what I felt was best to protect young women.’ My first reaction to this is: ‘Thank you. But I did not ask for your protection.’ My second is: ‘On your list of priorities, did protecting your sisters come before or after the $500,000 you were suing Walcott for?’ People settle out of court for all sorts of reasons. Walcott has never publicly admitted any guilt in this or the 1982 case. Academic departments know how to cover their backs, and, in an era of grade inflation, to single out this instance is disingenuous.

I’m not condoning the inept passes of English literature professors. Possibly Walcott is guilty of bad judgment. Possibly he was trying it on. But if overstepping the mark is what we are talking about here – despite the lingering whiff of coercion and abuse that consciously accompanies such allegations – then that is really very little to hold in the balance against the greatness of Walcott as a public poet and intellectual. At the end of the day, none of us, apart from those concerned, knows what really happened in these private encounters.

But, as I say, the story does not end there. Many commentators – including myself – were angered and dismayed that Walcott had pulled out and said so publicly. Some went further and turned against Padel, sneering at the populism of her criticism and dragging up her past relationship with Walsh at the Independent. Padel vehemently denied any involvement in a smear campaign against Walcott. The election duly went ahead on 16 May with only two candidates running: Padel and the Indian poet, Arvind Mehrotra. Padel won to become the first female Oxford professor of poetry in the 300-year history of the institution.

Then, last weekend, The Sunday Times revealed that Padel had sent the aforementioned email to at least two journalists. On Monday, amidst growing calls for her to step down, she resigned. However, far from Padel’s resignation bringing about a sober period of reflection, further name-calling and moral grandstanding followed in its wake. Jeanette Winterson outdid herself in declaring Oxford to be ‘a sexist little dump’ and claiming that Padel was forced out because she is a woman.

Why would anybody outside of the arcane world of academia and the even more recondite world of poetry scholarship care about all this? Well, we should care, because the Oxford professor of poetry is one of few remaining academic posts that allows, indeed requires, the holder to lean down from the dreaming spires and muse in public about their subject. It asks that an expert turn their authority outwards and hold their art and ideas up to intelligent public scrutiny. The Oxford professor of poetry was created in 1708 following a bequest by the Latin poet and landowner Henry Birkhead ‘to maintain for ever a Publick Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford’. The idea of a ‘Publick Professor of Poetry’ deserves more examination, particularly in the light of recent events. The position is part-time, requiring only three lectures a year over the five-year period of tenure, with an annual stipend currently standing at £6,901 (pay award pending). Not exactly a feather-your-bed gig for poets. But the role is hugely prestigious, in large part because of the ‘public’ aspect of the job. The role has allowed both poets and critics (the incumbent doesn’t have to be a poet) the chance to free-riff on a subject that for most has been a life’s love and work. They are not tied to a teaching curriculum and can range between translating Homer (one of Mathew Arnold’s lectures) to Bob Dylan’s lyrics (one of Christopher Ricks’ lectures).

As it happens, both Walcott and Padel would have done the post proud. Walcott’s work is of such stature that I would have walked barefoot to Oxford to hear him lecture. And despite the sneering in some quarters, Ruth Padel is a fine poet and excellent critic: her 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem is a model of how to take people who have not studied literature into the heart of a poem with intelligence and insight. When she spoke at an Institute of Ideas forum on teaching poetry, Padel was erudite, inspiring and generous. I think Padel’s actions in the Walcott affair were wrong and misguided. But that does not mean she would not have been good at the job she was elected to.

In the past few weeks the election race has been turned into a soap opera of the dons, with headlines that would have had Max Clifford running for cover. We have been cheated of an election race where poetry was discussed and debated (I would have liked to have heard more about Mehrotra’s, the third candidate’s, poetry). This is not to say that the election should be a polite, chin-stroking affair for corduroy jackets. You would hope that the election would be cut-through with the vigour and urgency of the politics and culture of its day; poetry does not stand aside from life.

One of my favourite ‘revisiting 1968’ articles from last year was Bernard Wasserstein’s recounting in Prospect of the election for the 1968 Oxford professor of poetry. A group of undergraduates, including Wasserstein, put forward the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Other candidates included Jorge Luis Borges, Al Alvarez, Enid Starkie, Roy Fuller (the eventual winner), Caradog Prichard, an Eisteddford bard who was ‘against hooliganism in poetry’, Barry MacSweeney, a 20-year-old anarcho-socialist who promised that if he was elected he wouldn’t give any lectures, and a computer nominated by a group of MAs on the grounds that it had written some interesting poetry and there was no rule about the professor being human. The students’ choice, Yevtushenko, promoted wide interest and debate. Christopher Hitchens, then a leading light of the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students, took it upon himself to declare on behalf of Yevtushenko – can you imagine!

The election campaigns in 1968 were not smear-free affairs. Kingsley Amis, ‘appointing himself manager of the anti-Yevtushenko campaign’, claimed that the poet was little more than a puppet of the Soviet regime and accused him of denouncing dissidents. These slurs were vigorously rebutted by Yevtushenko’s supporters. Arthur Miller said that ‘from his first disputes with Khrushchev, when nobody knew what the penalties might be, through his challenges to anti-Semites in his poem “Babi Yar” to the present day, Yevtushenko has been a voice of conscience to his colleagues’. The difference between then and now is that Amis’ ‘smears’ were part of a bigger political and ideological argument and far more was at stake because of this. In contrast, what transpired in recent weeks was the small-minded swill of individual ambition nit-picking at another’s personal peccadilloes.

Nothing to do with politics, despite feminist protests to the contrary. Nothing to do with poetry. And a pity for us all.

Shirley Dent is is communications director of the Institute of Ideas.


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