When poets do battle, no one wins

May 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Backbiting. Character assassination. Accusations of personal and professional misconduct. It sounds like a Canadian federal election campaign, but it’s not. The dust-up over who will succeed Christopher Ricks as Oxford professor of poetry has now claimed not one, but two victims.

The first to fall was Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who removed himself from the race after documents containing allegations of sexual harassment on the part of the poet were sent anonymously to Oxford academics who would vote on the position. Walcott dropped out of the race, at the time decrying the “low tactics” that had been used against him. Nicole Kelby, the woman who made the accusations against Walcott in 1996, came to the poet’s defence, saying that she was “appalled” by the “smear campaign” that had been marshalled against him.

Another woman who came to Walcott’s defence was Ruth Padel, one of the two others vying for the position of Oxford professor of poetry. On May 12, the Telegraph quoted Padel as saying:

This is dreadful. My proposers are devastated because they have bent over backwards to run a clean campaign. On the one hand sexual harassment is horrible, but he is a very good poet and he has been humiliated. As a poet, he’s a colleague and I don’t like to see poets be humiliated.

Padel went on to win the position over her one remaining rival, the Indian poet Arvind Khrishna Mehrotra. She was Ricks’ presumptive successor for a scant nine days, however, because it was subsequently revealed in the London Times that Padel had herself sent e-mails to two different newspapers alerting them to the charges against Walcott. As a result of that revelation, Padel resigned the post, and declared that she would not put her name forward again. She is quoted in the Guardian as saying:

People wouldn’t believe in me. … I’m not afraid of people, but I wouldn’t want a faculty or a university to be divided. I care about poetry in that university and I don’t think it would be helpful for me to stand.

Of course, the knives on both sides have come out in force. On the one side there is Clive James, who calls the whole episode a “disaster” and a “catastrophe.” James told the Guardian:

It sounds to me like a David Mamet play where you’ve got an imaginative girl, thinks she’s been approached, she may not have been. But who knows? It’s a very bad reason to stop a 79-year-old man who has all the qualifications, including [the fact that] he would write brilliant lectures. It means a whole generation’s going to miss out on his wisdom. For what? For a couple of cases that have been mouldering for 20-odd years.

On the other side is novelist Jeanette Winterson, who sees more than a little misogyny at work in Padel being prevented from serving as professor of poetry: “This is a way of reducing women; it wouldn’t have happened to a man. But then Oxford is a sexist little dump.”

She may have a point. In the 300-year history of the post, it has never once gone to a woman. And it doesn’t take much of an imagination to convince oneself that Oxford remains an old boys club at heart. However, this entire fiasco does a disservice to both sides, and calls the dignity of the post, and of those who wish to hold it, into disrepute. Sexual harassment is a serious charge, and should be treated as such. But dredging up allegations from the past (in addition to the 1996 allegation, the anonymous packages alleged similar misconduct from Walcott’s days teaching at Harvard in the 1980s) as a means of casting aspersions against a candidate for an elected post is questionable at best.

None of this has anything to do with poetry. In the end, everybody loses.

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