The Unimaginative Decision for Oxford’s Professor of Poetry
by Jack Hanson
BY NOW, EVERYONE knows: Simon Armitage has been appointment Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. As a respected, high-profile, mid-career poet, and the only English-born frontrunner, Armitage was always the most likely choice.
And that’s the problem.
As you may have seen, Partisan did not favor Armitage for the job. Our choice was A.E. Stallings, an American poet and classicist who has received countless awards, including a MacArthur, and who has been a major force in the revival of formalist poetry (a term she has discussed with characteristic wit). Whatever one feels about the moniker of “Formalism,” it’s hard not to admire Stallings’ work, which treats meter and rhyme not as formulae to be trotted out for appearance’s sake, but as integral parts of a distinctly modern (yes, modern) engagement with those eternal human questions. To read Stallings is to be reminded that our language is still that of Shakespeare, Shelley, Spenser and Swift (to stay only with the letter S) and that our questions have an even longer heritage. Her place of residence—Greece—and abiding interest in Classics (she translated Lucretius, among others) put her at a salutary remove from the minutiae of Anglophone literary politics, all qualities suitable for the highest chair in the discipline. Had Stallings won the post, her presence would have reinforced poetry’s simultaneous strangeness and familiarity, not to mention its pleasure.
But here we are.
Simon Armitage has long been one of Britain’s most famous poets, and he has produced a substantial body of fine work, including novels and plays. He has also done a great deal of broadcasting, journalism, and other non-fiction. By any standard his is an exceptionally successful career.
But is this enough to make him suitable for the job? I would say no: as a supporter of the other frontrunner, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka put it, choosing Armitage demonstrates a clear lack of imagination (though not, to be sure, because Armitage happens to be white.) In his candidacy statement, Armitage put a strong emphasis on the contemporary import of poetry and its relationship to 21st century life. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s the manner in which Armitage makes this statement that worries (or do I mean ‘bores’) me. He cites his abilities as a “communicator,” which, in addition to Powerpoint, he will employ in order to discuss, among other things, poetry’s “declining ‘market share.’” I’m selectively quoting here (you can read the whole statement in the link above), but this is the impression I get from Armitage: he is overwhelmingly competent. He covers all the bases, especially the ones having to do with building a career. But is there anything weird, strange, or even terribly distinctive that he offers to the Oxford community?
He characterizes himself as a “self-schooled poet who views poetry from a hill above Yorkshire.” And it’s true: Armitage does not have an advanced degree in literature or writing and worked for years as a probation officer in Manchester. But that was a long time ago. He is now Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield (a post he’ll maintain alongside his Oxford duties), and writes frequently for the Guardian, the BBC, and others. It’s hard to get more establishment than that.
This is not the place to discuss Armitage’s work itself. He is, despite my protestations, a serious poet deserving of close critical attention. But there is something telling in Melvyn Bragg’s praise of the decision, in which he says that Armitage “has a direct connection with a very large, young audience who like poetry, and feel he speaks to them.” Apart from being young myself and feeling no special connection to Armitage’s work, I wonder what Bragg means. Is it because Armitage writes poems about Batman and interviews Morrissey? Yes, his poems are both accessible and accomplished, but there is nothing in them as strangely alluring as Stallings’ verse, nor as harrowing and powerful as Soyinka’s. It’s easy to see why Armitage was chosen for the position. That’s what makes it so disappointing.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan