The Professoriat at Play

 Race for Oxford Poetry Professor heats up (#VoteStallings)
by Jack Hanson

A.E. Stallings.  Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

A.E. Stallings. Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

For a monarchy, the UK does love elections and whatever their outcome, they tend to be entertaining. After the Conservatives swept the 2015 general election like a tsunami over a coral atoll, several prominent Anglophone poets are now vying for arguably the most prominent position in English literature: the Oxford Professor of Poetry. 

The post carries with it a whopping £6000, and the Professor must give three public lectures per year over the course of his or her five-year tenure. Geoffrey Hill, who has held the position since 2010, has been characteristically reclusive outside of his poetry and lectures, and the press has more or less left him alone.

The one notable exception was his public response to poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s claim that text messaging’s linguistic compression qualifies it as poetry, and that the current generation is likely to become an exceptionally creative one. Hill, who is often referred to (with varying degrees of politeness) as a “difficult,” “traditional” poet, replied that text messages are not, as poetry is, condensed, but truncated. He then proceeded to critique a Duffy poem as he might an undergraduate workshop (he even compares the poem to the effort of a first-timer), indicating the level of his regard for the laureate’s work.

This kind of scrap is exactly what positions like the Professorship are for. An eminent poet makes a public claim about poetry, and another responds with vigor and panache. What the position is not for is public airing of personal grievances, as it was in 2009. At that time, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott was up for the job and was the clear frontrunner, until he pulled out amidst resurfaced allegations of sexual harassment in the 1980s. The position then went to Ruth Padel, who shortly thereafter resigned once it had come to light that it was Padel herself who had been tipping off journalists to the old allegations.

There is no such controversy this time around, but that hasn’t stopped some folks from trying to stir some up. Thankfully, the best they’ve been able to do is claim that broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, in changing his endorsement from Wole Soyinka to Simon Armitage, did so on the grounds that the former was “too old and grand.” (Bragg said no such thing.) Though it’s frequently covered as a two-man race, criminally neglected has been A.E. Stallings, to whom, incidentally, the position should go without hesitation, not just for her ability to incorporate the whole of poetic history, from antiquity to the present, into her masterful English lyrics, but also because it would be the first time a woman occupied the office.

But, aside from that lame attempt and a few grabby headlines, it seems that the popular press is treating the race as serious and noteworthy. And that is to be commended. The Oxford Professor of Poetry is one of the few highly publicized outlets from which the art form can be seen at its complex and contrary best. The more people see that, the better.

 JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.