Fallout from the Oxford Professor of Poetry Debacle


The nearly unanimous response to Derek Walcott’s withdrawal as a candidate for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry from newspaper reporters, commentators, and bloggers has been one of regret and of condemnation of the tactics that pushed him to that decision.

There have been calls for Oxford to postpone the vote and a suggestion that nominations should be reopened to encourage candidates that may have felt that Walcott was too formidable an opponent to come forward. Oxford, however, has announced that the vote will take place this coming Saturday as scheduled. As the Guardian reports, “His withdrawal means there are now just two candidates competing for the post: Ruth Padel and Arvind Mehrotra, a situation that Oxford academic Peter McDonald of Christ Church College said deprived the electorate of “a meaningful choice”: “Are we to believe that, had only Padel and Mehrotra been on the cards before nominations closed, another name would not have come forward? Several eminent people who would not have stood against a poet of Walcott’s stature would certainly have felt up to public comparison with Ruth Padel,” said Dr McDonald, a poetry tutor at Oxford for the last 10 years.

Some writers have turned a bit against Ruth Padel, who has disassociated herself from Walcott’s anonymous detractors but stands to gain most from his withdrawal. The Telegraph writes of Michael George Gibson, a poet claiming to have been the anonymous subject of an attack that Miss Padel published while chairman of the Poetry Society. Gibson says: “Miss Padel’s approach to the prosody and poetics of modern and earlier English poetry, as evidenced in her book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, is grossly incompetent and misleading.” He adds: “She is unfit to be a Professor of Poetry and should stand down from the election.”

Shirley Dent, writing for The First Post, calls Walcott’s withdrawal “a shameful day for intellectual life in this country.” She adds: “I will stand up and say now that even if every word of the allegations are true, if the worst thing that is ever said to you as a woman is ‘Imagine me making love to you. What would I do? … Would you make love with me if I asked you?’ you need to get out more. If anybody thinks this is a fine day for feminism they need to be disabused of that misapprehension sharpish. If women winning is now associated with mean-spirited, conniving, back-stabbing, then we really have lost the plot.”

Even one of Walcott’s alleged victims, American Writer Nicole Kelby, is deploring the outcome and calling for Walcott to reinstate his candidacy. Writing for the Sunday Times, Kelby, whose allegations against Walcott date from 1996 and were used as part of the smear campaign, says Oxford should scrap this weekend’s planned election rather than allow it to be dictated by underhand tactics. She added that critics of Walcott, “the greatest living poet”, need to realize that poetry is a “passionate art” and that “it is his way to be sexual, to push the envelope of both decorum and good taste. I can only hope that Oxford decides to stop the election and allow everyone more time to reconsider what has just happened. Derek Walcott should not walk away from this post.”

Christina Patterson, writing for London’s Independent newspaper, writes about Walcott’s withdrawal as someone who has worked with the poet. It is brief and characteristic of responses to the news:

“Many years ago, when I worked in the publicity department at Faber, a colleague told me that Derek Walcott was “a bit of a one”. And so, indeed, it proved. His eye for the laydeez was manifest not just in his gentle teasing of publicity girls with names like Camilla (and Christina) but also in various allegations of sexual harassment at the universities where he taught. Nearly 30 years after the first one, these allegations have been photocopied and distributed to more than 100 Oxford professors, in an attempt to thwart his candidature for professor of poetry. Anonymously, of course.

Wide-ranging, and often entirely inappropriate, expressions of enthusiasm for the female form are, you could argue, a traditional part of the male poet’s armoury. While no one could condone the alleged downgrading of a student’s work for sexual favours not received, it’s rather hard to see its relevance to a post which consists entirely of giving lectures and to a man who is nearly 80. Walcott, a Nobel laureate, is a truly wonderful poet. Whoever did this petty act has deprived Oxford of the possibility of a great poetic voice, and the only other serious contender, Ruth Padel (also a hugely talented poet) of a proper, and satisfying, battle.”

Update: On May 25, Ms. Padel was revealed to have sent e-mails to the press detailing the allegations against Walcott and has resigned the Oxford Professor of Poetry post to which she was elected on May 16. For more go to E-mails show that Ruth Padel was implicated in smear campaign against Walcott

Her comments are reproduced here from her column in the Independent and can be found at http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/christina-patterson/christina-patterson-please-stop-telling-me-youre-sorry-1684503.html

For the article on Ms. Padel in The Telegraph go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mandrake/5319581/War-of-words-blights-poetry-contest.html

The article on the Guardian can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/13/oxford-poetry-professor-election. The photograph by Martin Godwin reproduced above appeared in this article.

For Shirley Dent’s comments go to http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/47580,opinion,walcott-smears-bring-shame-on-our-intellectual-life

For Ms. Kelby’s comments go to http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/poetry/article6288044.ece

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