The notion of poets slugging it out in an election campaign does have the feel of an old Monty Python sketch. You can imagine limericks versus (as it were) love poems, accusations of poetastering and poor scansion, perhaps even a back to basics rejection of blank verse in favour of rhyming couplets. But alas, these four poets, who profess to like and admire each other, are comporting themselves in a very civilised manner.
Not so Brenda Williams, the Raving Loony Party candidate (so to speak). An unpublished writer from St John's Wood, she lost her deposit early on - or rather the pounds 2,000 bank loan she spent on mailing her poems (she writes six sonnets a year) to 1,200 dons in the hope one of them would nominate her. Not one of them did - 'failure on a colossal scale', as Williams rightly noted - so she is even now sitting outside the university offices in protest.
How the MAs and higher degree people from Oxford will vote tomorrow or on Saturday is anybody's guess since each candidate is eminently qualified for the post, which involves lecturing 15 times in five years and a fair amount of extra- curricular time spent informally with undergraduate poets. All the candidates are gifted poets with valuable experience as writersin-residence .
U A Fanthorpe, whose poetry, according to one critic, 'speaks an often humorous, often painful stoic wisdom', came to writing poetry late in life when in 1980, age 51, she won third prize in the massive Observer / Arvon / South Bank Show poetry competition. Since then she has won numerous awards and scholarships and high critical praise, but is still probably the least well known of the candidates outside poetry-reading circles. If she wins, she will be the first woman to hold the post since it was established in 1679.
Alan Brownjohn represents what might be called the socio-poetical wing. He has distributed a kind of campaign manifesto, a press release which says, among other things: 'When elected Professor he will address himself in his lectures to a broad range of themes, including poetry and society: an on-off relationship, defending poetry against enemies and friends; Poetry: art accomplishment or outlet?'
Brownjohn has mounted the most professional campaign, with his campaign manager sending out a statement to 'as many MAs as he can find'. But then he's no newcomer to elections, having stood successfully as a local councillor and unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in the past.
'Enid Starkie started the custom of campaign managing in 1950 - she went round whipping up votes for C Day-Lewis,' he says of the professional approach. 'In 1979 Professor John Jones's wife was an incredible campaign manager. Managers try various things. Philip Larkin met me in the queue for voting once and said, quoting Pickwick Papers, 'This is an Eton Swell occasion', after lunch and fine wines.'
Voters have to attend in person and it has been known for people to be bussed in. 'For this election one is saying if you're coming by car, bring someone else,' Brownjohn says. He admits he's 'spent a bit' on his campaign. He's ever splashing out on a party - his polite note to MAs invites 'supporters and their guests' to attend it at the Playhouse over the Saturday two-hour voting period.
But then he thinks this an important post for Oxford. 'If you get a suitable person they can do a lot for students and others in the town. It's not just the lecturing, it's your presence in pubs and cafes. I've been thinking that in a rather deep way there could be a symbolic importance in such a post were we - in a nightmare scenario - to see democracy dwindling away. A post with some kind of high public profile that is elected is important in having something to say about poetry, literature and society.'
James Fenton is having his party on the day at his home close to Oxford. Fanthorpe and Brownjohn are invited too. Fenton, war correspondent, drama critic and columnist for the Independent, who stood unsuccessfully against Peter Levi 10 years ago, was the original favourite, but Murray and Brownjohn both got more nominations. He has no formal manifesto. 'My work is familiar enough, I hope. I don't think along the lines of poetry's role in society or anything. When I was writing my column ('Ars Poetica' in the Independent on Sunday) I concentrated on the technical side of poetry. For my lectures I want to look more in depth at individual poets, to set down in detail what I think about the great poets.'
All the poets see the extra-curricular parts of the job sharing equal importance with the lectures. As Fenton says: 'There is a good tradition that Auden started - he was the best - of being around for undergraduate poets in cafes and informally. Seamus Heaney too (the outgoing professor) has had a tremendous presence in the university. I think that is very important and one would try to take part in informal poetry activities.'
Fenton is curious about Les Murray's intentions. 'I don't know how he would arrange being around with the students. But I guess the geography isn't all that different to Seamus's. He divided his time between Harvard, Ireland and Oxford.' Murray isn't sure how he is going to manage it either, but nor is he worried. The stresses and instresses of electioneering haven't affected him because he hasn't done any. 'I'm chuckling and shaking my head at all this,' he says, chuckling. 'It'll be a miracle if I win. When I was nominated my publisher said 'Why don't you stay in - you won't get it, Fenton will.' I know I'm fairly well liked and some people are pleased with the idea. Craig Raine doesn't like it but then he doesn't like me at all. But I don't take it seriously since I'm assuming I'm not going to win.'
Murray has no platform either. 'You don't campaign for this. If I had a manifesto it would be on the side of poetry as itself not as part of a university study. I like that quote of Larkin's: 'You don't study poetry, you read it'. Criticism is our jailer. Poetry should be sprung from it so that it is as natural a form of reading as a novel.'
Murray isn't coming over for the vote. Indeed, the cost of bringing his family over to take up the post would probably be more than he would get paid. 'I come over once a year for readings so I expect I would give my lectures then if I were to win. It would be difficult any other way. I've got two children, one of them autistic, my dad is 83 and I'm rooted in this landscape.'
There have been some famous upsets in this election in the past: Edmund Blunden was chosen over Robert Lowell; C Day-Lewis won a landmark victory thanks to Enid Starkie; C S Lewis, F R Levis and Starkie herself were declined. Whether, when the winner is announced on Saturday, the losers will regard it as poetic justice or poetic licence, remains to be seen.
U A FANTHORPE
Born in 1929 in Kent, Fanthorpe was educated at Oxford and worked first as a teacher, then as a hospital receptionist. She now lives and writes in Gloucestershire. Her volumes include Selected Poems (Penguin, 1989) and
Neck verse (Peterloo Poets, 1992) where you can find 'Special'
We were special, our class.
Others knew less than us
(More, sometimes), but we were us,
The Clerks of the Weather,
Miss Knowles said.
We knew long words for him,
Our Weather, and had little toys
Like bones for dogs. Weather likes
Pinecones and seaweed,
So we brought them for him
(Or her). When they've decided if
It's boy-weather or girl-weather,
Miss Knowles will tell us,
Nice thing about Weather is
He knows what he's going to do
Before he does it, and we know
What he knows. That's why we're special.
I think of him, our Weather, shaggy old dog,
Lying all hairy by the fire of the sun,
Then barking, and shaking snow all over the world,
Or breathing fog at us, sending loony messages
In seaweed and fircones. Good dog, Weather.
I'll have a dog just like you when I grow up.
Born in Lincoln in 1949 and educated at Oxford, Fenton has worked as a literary journalist and foreign correspondent. He has published many volumes including Memory of War (Penguin, 1983) All the Wrong Places (Penguin, 1990) and Out of Danger (Penguin, 1993) which contains 'For Andrew Wood' (below).
What would the dead want from us
Watching from their cave?
Would they have us forever howling?
Would they have us rave
Or disfigure ourselves, or be strangled
Like some ancient emperor's slave?
None of my dead friends were emperors
With such exorbitant tastes
And none of them were so vengeful
As to have all their friends waste
Waste quite away in sorrow
Disfigured and defaced.
I think the dead would want us
To weep for what they have lost.
I think that our luck in continuing
Is what would affect them most.
But time would find them generous
And less self-engrossed.
And time would find them generous
As they used to be
And what else would they want from us
But an honoured place in our memory,
A favourite room, a hallowed chair,
Privilege and celebrity?
And so the dead might cease to grieve
And we might make amends
And there might be a pact between
Dead friends and living friends.
What our dead friends would want from us
Would be such living friends.
Born in London, Brownjohn read Modern History at Merton college, Oxford. He has taught in schools and polytechnics and has been a full-time writer since 1979.
His published volumes include:
The Observation Car (Secker, 1990) and In the Cruel Arcade (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994) which contains 'Neglected Fire' (below).
My mother says, That bonfire's still alight,
But I can't tell where she's pointing. On the right,
Can't you see it now?
And then I catch one spark
At the far end by the plane tree, in a dark
Recess of the undertrimmed garden where
She does sometimes light fires. So I lean and stare
Through the room the light paints on the window pane
As she holds back the lace curtain, and some rain
Or sleet, or snow - blurs the garden with sharp spots
Drumming down on the glass. And I shift some pots
On the unsteady scullery table, hoping for
A clearer view as she moves off through the door:
I can't have raked it over properly,
She murmurs guiltily; to herself not me.
But though they went on creeping back into
Our after-supper talk in the room we knew
As 'the kitchen', no one ever thought to go
And make the fires safe; our pre-war radio
Detained us, with its post-war comedies.
While out there in the garden, under the trees,
The flames were obstinately burning on,
My mother was reminding us that one
Small spark could fire a city, she had no doubt
That someone should have gone and stamped them out;
And all loose ends were living wires, they'd kill
If you forgot, and touched them.
But with no will
To act herself she left us reassured
That most fires died out of their own accord.
Born in 1938 on a dairy farm in New South Wales, Australia (where he still lives), Murray was educated at Sydney University. He worked as a translator before becoming a full- time poet in 1971. His published works include Translations from the Natural World (Carcanet, 1983), The Daylight Moon (Carcanet, 1988) and Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1991). 'It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Fifteen' (extract below) appeared in the TLS in March.
He retains a slight 'Martian' accent, from the years of single phrases.
He no longer hugs to disarm. It is gradually allowing him affection.
It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute, shrieking, and runs him at frantic speed through crashing doors.
He likes cyborgs. Their taciturn power, with his intonation.
It still runs him around the house, alone in the dark cooing and laughing.
He can read about soils, populations and New Zealand. On neutral topics he's illiterate.
Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn't a cyborg really, is he, Dad?
He lives on 40 acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually.
He knows the map of Earth's fertile soils, and can draw it freehand.
He can only lie in a panicked shout SorrySorryIdidn'tdoit] warding off con flict with others and himself.
. . .
He is anger's mirror, and magnifies any near him, raging it down.
It still won't allow him fresh fruit, or orange juice with bits in it.
He swam in the midwinter dam at night. It had no rules about cold.
He was terrified of thunder and finally cried as if in explanation It - angry]
He grilled an egg he'd broken into bread. Exchanges of soil-knowledge are called landtalking.
He lives in objectivity. I was sure Bell's palsy would leave my face only when he said it had begun to.
Don't say word] when he was eight forbade the word 'autistic' in his pres ence.
Bantering questions about girlfriends cause a terrified look and blocked ears.
He sometimes centered the farm in a furrowed American Midwest.
Eye contact, Mum] means he truly wants attention. It dislikes I contact.
He is equitable and kind, and only ever a little jealous. It was a relief when that little arrived.
He surfs, bowls, walks for miles. For many years he hasn't trailed his left arm while running.
I gotta get smart] Looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart]
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