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Scandalous Professorship of Poetry

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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?

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About Art Ravels

  • Gary Glazner

    Hi Art! Your piece on poetry is interesting and as you ask where are our television programs about poetry you should know about HBO’s Brave New Voices documentary on youth poets. Last night at the Bowery Poetry Club we had a reading featuring among others three Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Philip Schultz, Paul Muldoon and Philip Levine and they were excellent, but it was Alexis Marie and Kayan James two youth poets from Urban Word NYC and who are featured in the HBO special that stole the show. Levine on his way out said, “The teen poets were amazing.” This from a guy who has taught taught literature and writing for over thirty years. Also featured at the reading was another young poet Amber Tamblyn the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actress, who will have a book of her poetry published by City Lights this year. Thanks again for writing about poetry.

  • http://artsravel.blogspot.com Art

    Gary, that does answer that question, and thanks for sharing! I think its wonderful to have a program not just about poetry, but about younger writers. I’ll have to look out for it.

  • http://nicholasstixuncensored.blogspot.com Nicholas Stix

    “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.”

    Nowhere does your essay support your contention that “Britain is experiencing a Renaissance of sorts in poetry.” Gossiping about poets’ private lives is not talking about poetry. And if a fuss has been made about “new poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a woman and a lesbian,” just imagine how much of a fuss would have been made about her, if she were a man and a lesbian.

    “When is the last time America had a national debate about poetry?”

    Your lack of any evidence that Britain is having such a debate, takes the wind out of your sails there, mate.

    “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.”

    Biographers of American poets do not paint them in pristine colors, but what do lechery and scandal-mongering have to do with debating poetry?

    “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.”

    Have you read the Beats and Angelou? Do tell of their poetic graces! After all, you wouldn’t mention them, simply to drop names.

    In any university town or medium-sized city, there are constant readings and “slams,” where one can hear the world’s worst poetry on a weekly basis.

    “Where are our poetry scandals and news inches and television programs? Why aren’t we talking about poetry?”

    You’re not interested in poetry. But if you should choose to read, write, and talk about poetry, as opposed to sex scandals involving poets, I doubt you will face arrest.

  • http://artsravel.blogspot.com Art

    My point was that the scandal inspired a wider debate, about other candidates, the nature of the post, and the role of the poet in society, which a large number of people had real opinions about. Comment boards on UK newspapers can give you a good idea of what a debate it has become.

    I do think that the things I mention show a renewed national attention to poetry that is heartening. At any rate, I’m glad not to be facing arrest. : )

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