Oxford Professor of Poetry

It’s a nice job: half a dozen lectures over a couple of years and it’s just been awarded to Ruth Padel, first woman to hold the post.  Coming soon after news of Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment as Poet Laureate, is 2009 a good year for women in poetry? 

Sadly, all isn’t quite as it seems.  Three poets were nominated for the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Derek Walcott, Ruth Padel and Arvind Mehrotra.  However, a dossier containing a alleged sexual harassment complaint made against Derek Walcott in 1982 was distributed amongst eligible voters.  Derek Walcott decided to withdraw.  I don’t know what was in the dossier but discussion on the complaint suggests that a student recorded a personal experience in a poem and Derek Walcott was asking her about how she’d described the situation.  The student become uncomfortable.  Derek Walcott’s choice of words to a naive student who hadn’t realised that once you write and share a poem about a personal experience, it ceases to be personal and becomes a shared, public poem and how you express that experience is important.

Despite Derek Walcott’s withdrawal, Oxford refused to extend the vote deadline or allow an alternative nomination.  Ruth Padel and Arvind Mehrotra did not step down.  There was no suggestion that either poet was involved in the dossier.  It has since been revealed that the distributor was John Walsh, Ruth Padel’s former lover.

Does it matter?  Outside the hallowed halls of academia, not much.  However, Oxford students have learnt that it doesn’t matter about the standard of your writing or your poetic talent, after all Derek Walcott is a Nobel Prize-winner; just how much influence you have.  Does that matter?  I’d suggest it does.

Update: Ruth Padel has since resigned as Oxford Professor of Poetry.

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