If you're British, you've been inundated by news of the Oxford Professor of Poetry. If you're American, you probably just yawned at the words. Perhaps if I had written the Professor of Poetry sex scandal you would have pricked up your ears (although after the Clinton scandal we might have become blase about lesser sex scandals). But poetry in Britain is a scandalous, lecherous business of machinations and ambition taken quite seriously by a surprising number of citizens.
What happened is this: Oxford University nominated esteemed poet Derek Walcott as Professor of Poetry, a largely honorary position with light lecture duties. Then allegations of sexual misconduct toward female students from 20+ years prior came to light (most notably in a book titled The Lecherous Professor). Anonymous letters about the allegation were sent to 100 Oxford faculty who would be voting on the professorship in a smear campaign. Amidst the scandal, Walcott stepped down from the candidacy. Whether these past allegations should have prevented Walcott from taking the position has become a contentious issue.
The saga continues: another candidate, Ruth Padel, was selected. A few days ago news broke that Padel had tipped journalists off to Walcott's allegations of sexual misconduct via email, effectively forming a part of the smear campaign against her rival. Padel resigned May 25 before officially holding office (while denying misconduct), and Oxford University is again left in a lurch. Poetry can be a dirty business!
This dirty business hides a wonderful secret: Britain is experiencing a Renaissance of sorts in poetry. In measurable news inches (just look at the culture section of the Guardian or the Times), British people are talking about poetry in their country more than ever. Aside from lecherous and scandal-mongering poets, a fuss has also been made over their new poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a woman and a lesbian, the BBC is showing a series of programs examining poetry, and six new hardback editions of 20th century poetry have come out as part of an affordable line from Faber.
When is the last time America had a national debate about poetry? Despite our Puritan origins, I find it difficult to believe our poets are so virtuous that they couldn't raise a lecherous, scandal-mongering debate if need be. But they would have little incentive to do so. We provide few esteemed honors for our poets, and they are lucky to find a place in academia.
We're a nation of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, of Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe. We spawned the Beat movement. Maya Angelou. You would think we would have a young, vibrant poetry scene. Instead we hear a poem maybe, maybe, at a presidential inauguration or in college under the general auspices of the English Literature or Creative Writing.
Where are our poetry scandals and news inches and television programs? Why aren't we talking about poetry?