Poison pen: scandal and intrigue in Poets’ Corner

After an election full of controversy, Oxford has a new professor of poetry. But why is the job so important? And what is better poetry anyway – a classical sonnet or a modern rap?

Graduates and teachers at Oxford University have just chosen Geoffrey Hill to be the new Professor of Poetry, after a controversial campaign.
On the face of it, the Professorship isn’t much of a job. The annual salary is just under £7000, and the professor is only called on to give three or four lectures each year.
But competition is fierce. Despite the low pay, the Professorship, awarded by a vote of Oxford graduates and academics, is poetry’s most important academic post. Since it was established in 1708, it’s been held by a string of great poets including Matthew Arnold, Robert Graves and W. H. Auden.
In 2009, the sedate elections were rocked by a scandal which catapulted them into the media spotlight. Leading candidate Derek Walcott had to withdraw from the race after an anonymous smear campaign attacked him with old allegations of sexual harassment.
Another poet, Ruth Padel, was elected in his place, but it soon became clear that the campaign against Walcott had been largely her doing. Nine days after getting the job, Padel was forced to quit.
And this year, scandal struck again. Paula Claire, the only female contender for the post, withdrew early from the running, accusing the university of bias against women.

Not that the men had an easy time either. When one dark-horse candidate, Roger Lewis, wrote a list in The Telegraph of things he considered to be “poetry” (including Elizabeth Taylor’s eye colour and Charlie Chaplin’s cane), Rival candidate Michael Horovitz called him a self-promoting “pseudo-intellectual”.

Out of touch?

Now that Geoffrey Hill has been safely elected, many in Oxford are breathing a sigh of relief. Hill is a traditional poet, who produces books of subtle, difficult, highly polished verse. His work, say admirers, is rich, layered, and complex, just like the life it represents.
But opponents call for a shake-up. Poetry, they say, needs to break free of its elitist roots. Poets like Paula Claire or Benjamin Zephaniah have used music, video and performance art to communicate with a more diverse, audience. These days, a poem can be more than just words on a page, and maybe stuffy academics should try harder to keep up with the times.

You Decide

  1. If a poet wrote the world’s greatest poem, but hardly anybody could understand it, how well would he be doing his job?
  2. Roger Lewis thinks Charlie Chaplin’s cane is poetry. Do poems have to be made of words? How can you tell when something is a poem?

Activities

  1. Why is poetry important to you ? In groups brainstorm the answer to this question. Share your ideas with the rest of the class and decide on five reasons which you think are the strongest.

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