If you’d asked me ten years ago who the Oxford Professor of Poetry was I would have said, “Who cares?” I was a young man, not part of the Oxbridge circuit, and heavily invested in performance poetry, student poetry and in the thriving urban poetry cultures of regional England. At that time within those communities if people knew about the position at all, they mainly considered the professorship to be distant, elitist and irrelevant. But after ten years of controversy, changes to the voting system and social media storms it’s quite a different story. Today I’m still largely invested in those communities. As a lecturer and practitioner working with poetry in the community, I spend a lot of time with young working-class poets, and people here do know about the professorship. They really do care about it, and moreover they have some pretty strong opinions. So what’s been going on?
The Oxford Professor of Poetry is a professorial chair at the University of Oxford dating back to 1708. The professor delivers three lectures a year for a stipend of £12,000, the tenure lasts five years, and the post is elected by the Convocation (which consists of university staff and alumni). As a part-time and prestigious position the appointment often functions quite like an honorary title or literary award, and today it is largely seen as the second most prestigious authoritative UK poetry appointment after the Poet Laureate. Many of the lectures have historically been published as written works of poetics which have made substantial contributions to the field and are often quite beautiful (Heaney’s ‘The Redress of Poetry’ has been especially influential). For British and Commonwealth poets the position might also be seen as a stepping stone to the Poet Laureate as it was for Cecil Day Lewis and for Simon Armitage this year. On 1 October 2019 Alice Oswald took office as the first female Professor of Poetry at Oxford following a very convincing election in which she received 80% of the votes.
Perhaps this style of election, as it plays out in public, has a tendency to shift the focus from the poetry and poetics, to the group identities and personal lives of the candidates.
Following the 2009 election, and a public controversy which resulted in Derek Walcott withdrawing his candidacy and Ruth Padel resigning the post before she took office, the election of post was suspended until 2010 when it was relaunched with online voting. Since the 1970s each turnout had been between 400 and 500 members (it was 423 in 2009) but following the controversy and move to online voting the turnout shot up to over 2,500, and by the 2015 election the figure was 3,340. Unlike many literary appointments the process is quite transparent and democratic, and the voting members can be from any field (not just poetry or even literature specialists). There are potential benefits to such an approach: a vote has a good chance of being fairer than a behind-closed-doors appointment, and a generalist audience is perhaps more likely to select a poet of general appeal than the poets’ poet. Perhaps this style of election also, as it plays out in public, has a tendency to shift the focus from the poetry and poetics, to the group identities and personal lives of the candidates. The 2009 election looked as though it might deliver either the first woman or the first person of colour to the position and the controversy was typified as a gender war.
Following this election the post was held by a further two white men, Geoffrey Hill in 2010 and then Simon Armitage in 2015 (in a closely run contest with Alicia Stallings and Wole Soyinka). The 2019 election started with a minor controversy over new age restrictions, which ruled out nominees Denise Riley and Michael Horovitz. This controversy was quickly eclipsed though by a heated and personally focussed argument which played out in newspapers and extensively across social media, and culminated in a group of poets formally asking for candidate Todd Swift to be removed from the ballot, although Oxford University refused. In their letter Claire Trevien and Aaron Kent expressed either Andrew McMillan or Alice Oswald would be suitable candidates as they could provide a queer voice or a female voice to the position. In an interview with the Guardian, Alice Oswald described the election as a “distinctly unsettling process,”1 but in the end she was elected by a huge margin taking 1046 votes, with McMillan receiving 210 votes and Swift receiving 58. This year turnout was down by 60%, but unlike the previous election which was expected to be a close call, Alice Oswald had always been the clear favourite.
These days it seems when poetry is in the news, it is not good news. It’s hard to see how this kind of controversy could be good for poetry, although the community appears to be working through some important issues. But perhaps the social media scandal is good for the longevity of the position. The Oxford Professor of Poetry functions a bit like a prize, and as noticed by J.F. English, prizes attract scandal:
‘Far from posing a threat to the prize’s efficacy as an instrument of the cultural economy, scandal is its lifeblood; far from constituting a critique, indignant commentary about the prize is an index of its normal and proper functioning.’2
There is now widespread public engagement with the position and substantial press coverage. People know who the Oxford Professor of Poetry is, and they care about it. Like many other authoritative traditional positions subject to social media scrutiny it has become a cultural battleground.
- Oswald, Alice., quoted in Lea, Richard, The Guardian Online, <www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/21/alice-oswald-elected-oxford-professor-of-poetry-by-huge-margin>
- English, J. F.,The Economy of Prestige : Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, Harvard University Press, 2005, p 208