Happy Saint Patrick’s Day 2010

March 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Under Ben Bulben

I
Swear by what the sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

Swear by those horsemen, by those women
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long-visaged company
That air in immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

Here’s the gist of what they mean.
II
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-digger’s toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
III
You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard,
“Send war in our time, O Lord!”
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.
IV
Poet and sculptor, do the work,
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought,
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there’s a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.

Quattrocento put in print
On backgrounds for a God or Saint
Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye,
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,
Resemble forms that are or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream,
And when it’s vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That heavens had opened.

Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
V
Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
VI
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

William Butler Yeats, 1939

For Robbie Burns Night

January 25, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Scotch Drink
by Robert Burns

Gie him strong drink until he wink,
That’s sinking in despair;
An’ liquor guid to fire his bluid,
That’s prest wi’ grief and care:
There let him bouse, an’ deep carouse,
Wi’ bumpers flowing o’er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An’ minds his griefs no more.
Solomon’s Proverbs, xxxi. 6, 7.

Let other poets raise a fracas
‘Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbed names an’ stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!

Let husky wheat the haughs adorn,
An’ aits set up their awnie horn,
An’ pease and beans, at e’en or morn,
Perfume the plain:
Leeze me on thee, John Barleycorn,
Thou king o’ grain!

On thee aft Scotland chows her cood,
In souple scones, the wale o’ food!
Or tumbling in the boiling flood
Wi’ kail an’ beef;
But when thou pours thy strong heart’s blood,
There thou shines chief.

Food fills the wame, an’ keeps us leevin;
Tho’ life’s a gift no worth receivin,
When heavy-dragg’d wi’ pine an’ grievin;
But, oil’d by thee,
The wheels o’ life gae down-hill, scrievin,
Wi’ rattlin glee.

Thou clears the head o’ doited Lear;
Thou cheers the heart o’ drooping Care;
Thou strings the nerves o’ Labour sair,
At’s weary toil;
Though ev’n brightens dark Despair
Wi’ gloomy smile.

Aft, clad in massy siller weed,
Wi’ gentles thou erects thy head;
Yet, humbly kind in time o’ need,
The poor man’s wine;
His weep drap pirratch, or his bread,
Thou kitchens fine.

Thou art the life o’ public haunts;
But thee, what were our fairs an’ rants?
Ev’n godly meetings o’ the saunts,
By thee inspir’d,
When gaping they besiege the tents,
Are doubly fir’d.

That merry night we get the corn in,
O sweetly, then, thou reams the horn in!
Or reekin on a New-year mornin
In cog or bicker,
An’ just a wee drap sp’ritual burn in,
An’ gusty sucker!

When Vulcan gies his bellys breath,
An’ ploughmen gather wi’ their graith,
O rare! to see thee fizz an’ freath
I’ th’ luggit caup!
Then Burnewin comes on like death
At ev’ry chap.

Nae mercy then, for airn or steel;
The brawnie, banie, ploughman chiel,
Brings hard owrehip, wi’ sturdy wheel,
The strong forehammer,
Till block an’ studdie ring an’ reel,
Wi’ dinsome clamour.

When skirling weanies see the light,
Though maks the gossips clatter bright,
How fumblin’ cuiffs their dearies slight;
Wae worth the name!
Nae howdie gets a social night,
Or plack frae them.

When neibors anger at a plea,
An’ just as wud as wud can be,
How easy can the barley brie
Cement the quarrel!
It’s aye the cheapest lawyer’s fee,
To taste the barrel.

Alake! that e’er my muse has reason,
To wyte her countrymen wi’ treason!
But mony daily weet their weason
Wi’ liquors nice,
An’ hardly, in a winter season,
E’er Spier her price.

Wae worth that brandy, burnin’ trash!
Fell source o’ mony a pain an’ brash!
Twins mony a poor, doylt, drucken hash,
O’ half his days;
An’ sends, beside, auld Scotland’s cash
To her warst faes.

Ye Scots, wha wish auld Scotland well!
Ye chief, to you my tale I tell,
Poor, plackless devils like mysel’!
It sets you ill,
Wi’ bitter, dearthfu’ wines to mell,
Or foreign gill.

May gravels round his blather wrench,
An’ gouts torment him, inch by inch,
What twists his gruntle wi’ a glunch
O’ sour disdain,
Out owre a glass o’ whisky-punch
Wi’ honest men!

O Whisky! soul o’ plays and pranks!
Accept a bardie’s gratfu’ thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou comes-they rattle in their ranks,
At ither’s arses!

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an’ barkin hoast
May kill us a’;
For loyal Forbes’ charter’d boast
Is ta’en awa!

Thae curst horse-leeches o’ th’ Excise,
Wha mak the whisky stills their prize!
Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, seize the blinkers!
An’ bake them up in brunstane pies
For poor damn’d drinkers.

Fortune! if thou’ll but gie me still
Hale breeks, a scone, an’ whisky gill,
An’ rowth o’ rhyme to rave at will,
Tak a’ the rest,
An’ deal’t about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.

Canadian literary icon P.K. Page dies: UPDATED

January 14, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Canada has lost a literary giant. The renowned poet P.K. Page died today at the age of 93, according to the Victoria Times-Colonist. The “grand dame of Canadian letters,” Page came to Canada from her native England in 1919. A member companion of the Order of Canada, Page won the Governor General’s Award for her 1954 collection The Metal and the Flower, and she also won two National Magazine Awards, the B.C. Book Prizes Hubert Evans Award for Non-Fiction, the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award, and the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence.

Her 2003 collection Planet Earth was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. (The book was also ranked ninth on Amazon.ca’s list of 50 Canadian Essential Books. The Griffin Poetry Prize website features an archived video of Page reading from that collection.

In a 2006 Times-Colonist article, Page displayed a defiant insouciance about her passing, saying that she hoped she died before humanity irrevocably ruined planet Earth:

“We absolutely seem to ignore [global warming], don’t we? I’m not too sure it isn’t too late,” she said.

“People are blind. It isn’t convenient for them to face it. It means they’d have to make vast changes in their lives … Civilizations have died from their own stupidity before. Look at the Easter Islanders. And we’ll do it. I may be gone before that, I hope. Oh God, I hope. I’m too old already.”

UPDATE: I had to share one anecdote from the Quill & Quire obituary, because I think it’s just about the coolest thing I’ve heard in ages. It involves Page and her one of her publishers, Tim Inkster of The Porcupine’s Quill.

Inkster last heard from Page on Wednesday afternoon, several hours before she was reported to have died. Apparently, an interior designer in Vancouver had used one of the poems from Coal and Roses in a custom-made wallpaper pattern without seeking permission from the author. To thank Inkster for resolving the issue, Page personally called the LCBO manager in a nearby town and had him hand deliver a six-pack of Heineken to Inkster’s home.

Honestly, the woman exuded class (and, apparently, good taste in beer).

On critical responsibility and best intentions

November 13, 2009 by · 31 Comments 

Two adversarial pieces about the nature of criticism caught my eye over the past few days. In the first corner, arguing in favour of critical relativism, is Chris Banks:

Most poetic forms are arbitrary and anyone who attacks or trivializes another poet’s work for not working within the same set of poetic conventions or formal restraints as themselves is either a propagandist or a pretender. Such talk simply propagates the pointless form versus content argument. Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet? How well have they used image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large?

In the other corner, arguing in favour of aesthetic standards, is Brian Palmu:

Reviewing is highly subjective. It is not a soft procedure in order to find, at whatever compromising stretch, a go-between for author and reader. Such a “sensitive” approach is patronizing to both. The author can detail the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions, yet if those aren’t set down in compelling image, metaphor, voice, syntax, narrative, sound, organic structure, passion, mood, rhythm, tone (you know, those outdated poetic “vice”-devices, according to the “revolutionaries”), the words may better be employed in a prose essay, religious tract, political speech.

The differences between these two approaches are worth noting. The former suffers from what Wimsatt and Beardsley referred to as “the intentional fallacy.” In Wimsatt and Beardsley’s conception, the notion that a critic can ever have access to an author’s intentions when writing is wrong, because these intentions are always inaccessible to the reader of a text (and often, to the author of that text once the process of writing is complete):

One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem – for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.

So, when Banks asserts, “Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet,” he is essentially suggesting that critics must become diviners or psychics, transporting themselves into the mind of the poet at the moment of composition in order to tease out the nuances of intention. In his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton castigates I.A. Richards for suggesting much the same thing: “Richards had naively assumed that the poem was no more than a transparent medium through which we could observe the poet’s psychological processes: reading was just a matter of recreating in our own mind the mental condition of the author.” Eagleton expands on this a few pages later:

Even if critics could obtain access to an author’s intention, would this securely ground the text in a determinate meaning? What if we asked for an account of the meaning of an author’s intentions, and then for an account of that, and so on? Security is possible here only if authorial meanings are … pure, solid, “self-identical” facts which can be unimpeachably used to anchor the work. But this is a highly dubious way of seeing any kind of meaning at all.

Authorial intentions are a problematic place for a critic to locate meaning or worth in a poem, because they are unavailable to him, and the work itself is not sufficient to testify to what an author was trying to do in its composition (which is, of course, distinct from whether the author was successful in whatever it was (s)he ended up producing).

What the critic is able to access are the words on the page, which are open to judgment on the level of euphony, metaphor, originality, and any number of other standards that are distinct from a kind of fuzzy supposition about authorial intentions. The fact that a critic relies on this kind of objective standard in assessing a work does not deny the essential subjectivity of all criticism, which is something that Palmu accedes to in his comment. But whereas Banks argues that the poetic devices of “image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation” should be used by the critic to determine the extent to which a poet has managed “to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large,” Palmu rightly separates the devices a poet employs from “the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions” that the poet might wish to espouse.

No doubt there is a subjective element to any act of criticism, but there is also such a thing as a bad sentence. Experience has shown that there are innumerable ways to construct a bad sentence, and sloppy writers with the best intentions will nevertheless be guilty of employing them. In any critical discourse, a retreat into vagaries such as unfolding one’s human experience or transcending one’s circumstances is never an acceptable substitute for a careful analysis of a work on a line-by-line basis. Instead of asking whether the poem’s devices “break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large,” the critic should ask whether the poem is clichéd, whether it employs appropriate images or metaphors, whether its argument is valid, etc. Although in the abstract it sounds very noble to suggest that critics should subordinate their analytical rigour to a heightened sensitivity about what an author was trying to do, in practice this approach results in an abdication of critical responsibility.

Malla, Dodds win Trilliums

June 17, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Last afternoon, at a luncheon at the Park Hyatt in downtown Toronto, the 22nd Annual Trillium Awards were handed out. Jeramy Dodds, the author of the debut collection Crabwise to the Hounds, won the Poetry Award, and Pasha Malla took home the Trillium Book Award for his debut, The Withdrawal Method. Malla’s acceptance speech was notable for using the new Pixar movie Up to illustrate why writers need not cleave to a naturalistic approach in their fiction, and for challenging journalists to come up with the correct spelling of the term “choked-uppedly” (which is how he described accepting the award).

Speaking about the books in the running for this year’s prizes, the National Post‘s Afterword blog quotes one of this year’s jurors, who sounds eminently sensible (and is probably knee-shakingly handsome to boot):

Juror Steven W. Beattie said he was struck by range of work coming out of Ontario. He was also encouraged to see the prizes go to two young writers – Dodds is 34, Malla is 31.

“You hear so much these days about the death of the book, and the fact that nobody’s reading anymore, and the fact that there’s nobody coming up to take over from the old guard of the Atwoods and the Ondaatjes, and I think that’s bollocks,” he said. “I think this award, and certainly the strength of the younger writers who were shortlisted for the award … is really hopeful and a good sign for writing both in Ontario and in Canada.”

The other two English-language jurors for the 2009 Trillium Awards were the estimable Emily Schultz and Meg Taylor.

Don’t tell me what the poets are doing

June 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Yesterday over at Quillblog, yr. humble correspondent published a post with the admittedly provocative title, “Why do people hate poetry?” The post began by pointing out a piece by Harry Eyres that ran in this past weekend’s Financial Times online. Eyres argues that instead of mouthing hypocritical platitudes about the benefits of poetry, it would be more honest to own up to the form’s marginalization and to address the reasons why people hate poetry:

It might be better to ask ourselves why, on the whole, we hate poetry – that is to say why we ruthlessly marginalise it and exile it to a cold place of almost total neglect – than to utter dishonest platitudes about how great it is.

Poetry is “up against it” in our modern, media-saturated culture, Eyres contends. “Unlike video games, reality television, amateur dance troupes, it is not a cultural phenomenon that is generally welcomed into people’s lives.”

In response to this, I posted an excerpt from the speech that James Wood gave at the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony last week. The speech was reprinted in The Globe and Mail, and the passage I excerpted reads as follows:

Poetry waves a flower in the face of a highly utilitarian age. That great secular hybrid, pragmatic evolutionary psychology and neuro-aesthetics, is busy telling us that art is a slightly puzzling evolutionary superfluity. Art is defended as “cognitive play,” crucial for the evolutionary development of homo sapiens. Art, for such people, must always somehow be justified. But poetry sings the song of itself, and offers a musical gratuity. Just as no one should have to justify, in pragmatic terms, playing the piano or listening to Bach, so no one should have to justify reading Keats or Wallace Stevens. And I am not making the weak case that poetry evades or exceeds such pragmatic cost-counting, but that it challenges such utilitarianism, makes it doubt itself. It faces down the enemy.

There, I thought – I’ve presented two sides of an argument in point-counterpoint, and that should be that. Of course, I expected some reaction, if only to the aggressive title of the post, but what I didn’t expect was the vitriol hurled at Wood by people working in the field of Canadian poetry. (Remember: Wood is defending poetry here.)

Zach Wells, a highly articulate poet and critic, excoriates Wood for his “caricatures” of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience (okay, “neuro-aesthetics”) as they apply to art. Wells – an aficionado of Steven Pinker’s thought on the interstices between neuroscience and linguistics – castigates Wood for his “pseudo-religious gabble,” which, in his view, “misses the point by a barn’s width.” Jonathan Ball, a poet with a collection forthcoming from BookThug, says in response to Wells that he “could not have said it better.” Angel Guerra, a book designer, calls Wood’s comments “[s]nobbish and hectoring,” and says that “[h]is was a language aimed at an exclusive audience.” Bill Douglas, the book designer responsible for the design of A.F. Moritz’s Griffin Prize-winning collection, The Sentinel, decries Wood’s “tired lament” and implies that the critic is a “wryly funny blowhard.”

What’s interesting to me is that these are people actively involved in the Canadian poetry community, attacking someone who was offering a passionate defence of poetry. The language of this attack is all too familiar: Wood is accused of elitism (apparently because he uses big words) and exclusivity. Wells comes closer to the mark when he criticizes Wood for not recognizing the way poets are working to incorporate modern theories in neurology and linguistics into their art, but that was never Wood’s purpose. His speech was a valediction, not a critical assessment. It was a song of praise for art that exists for its own sake and does not, in his words, require justification.

Anyone who does require justification of poetry’s vast rewards need not look terribly far to find it. It does not take a “stuck-up pseudo-intellectual” like the ones another anonymous (natch) Quillblog commenter mentions to enjoy the rollicking humour in Jeramy Dodds’ definition of the word “raccoon” as “A sexual position favoured by the limbless,” or the stream of mangled clichés in his poem “The Epileptic Acupuncturist”: “People who get their rocks off / in glass houses are the same people / who’d bend you over a rain barrel / just to give you the wet T-shirts / off their backs.” Or the brutal juxtaposition of the organic and the mechanical in Sina Queyras’s image of a cancer patient “Lying on the examination table, her bowels / On the ultrasound in front of her.” Or Kevin Connolly’s paean to baseball: “It’s Posada, never an easy out, but the hook / is there for Lilly. It’s the seventh and his old team, / the 250-million-dollar Yankees, have beaten the / shit out of us all week.” Not a stuck-up pseudo-intellectual image in the bunch, just a group of poets delighting in the compression and torque of language.

So why is poetry so marginalized? Why does it sell less than even the redheaded stepchild of prose fiction, the short-story collection? Perhaps one reason is that those who are supposed to be promoting it can’t help but express knee-jerk disdain, even toward people who are in the process of defending the form.

A.F. Moritz wins 2009 Griffin Prize

June 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

24949574The perennially (some would say criminally) overlooked Toronto poet A.F. Moritz finally got his moment in the sun last night. Moritz picked up the 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize for his latest collection, The Sentinel. A jury consisting of Michael Redhill, Dennis O’Driscoll, and Saskia Hamilton chose Moritz’s book over the two other shortlisted volumes, Kevin Connolly’s Revolver and Jeramy Dodds’ Crabwise to the Hounds.

This year’s $50,000 prize honours a poet whose work is deceptively simple, employing straightforward language to capture aspects of the human condition that frequently elude more abstruse versifiers. Indeed, Moritz frequently rails against the kind of poetry that assumes a haughty position or adopts a condescending tone toward its readers. In “Arrogance,” for example, a faceless mass of urban denizens “easily recognized the reprehensible arrogance / of the poet vilifying ‘a whole population / that goes about its business and doesn’t know / it is no longer human.'” The poem’s subjects, by contrast, “valued common things,” and “acknowledged that to walk / at such times past the form lying against a wall, / wrapped with thick blankets despite torturing humidity, / shamed them and assured them they were alive.”

Writing in The Globe and Mail, James Adams quotes the Ohio-born poet as saying, “I am looking at poetry as a kind of affliction that separates you from the rest of people, yet one of those proud afflictions where you pin the insult to your flag and raise it high.” Indeed, the title poem in the prize-winning collection, about a nightwatchman guarding a camp perimeter, could easily be read as a metaphor for a poet’s function in the world: “The one who watches while the others sleep / does not see. It is hoped, it is to be hoped / there is nothing to see.”

Moritz sees: plainly and honestly. His poetry is steeped in the specifics of the physical world, in which a jar is “[n]ot a vase, not a piece of the potter’s art / but glass, from a store shelf.” He acknowledges “that the good part / of the word is wind, and the adequate part / an image.” Whether his subject is nature or a woman’s mastectomy or a pleasure yacht seen from a harbour pier, Moritz brings to his poetry a clear eye and a powerful empathy, traits that are liable to pass unnoticed in the cacophonous din of our post-postmodern world.

What more is there to say except, it’s about time.

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.