Quills at dawn: The battle for poetry's prize job

A war of words is raging among Oxford's literary set. The position of Professor of Poetry is vacant, but will a poet or - shock - a critic win the coveted post?
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The Independent Culture

From 11 o'clock until teatime today, hundreds of Oxford graduates and senior University staff will crowd in and out of the Divinity School in the Bodleian Library complex, solemnly inscribe an illiterate "X" on a piece of paper and post it gravely into a wooden box with a hole in the top.

From 11 o'clock until teatime today, hundreds of Oxford graduates and senior University staff will crowd in and out of the Divinity School in the Bodleian Library complex, solemnly inscribe an illiterate "X" on a piece of paper and post it gravely into a wooden box with a hole in the top.

Coachloads of former English students will pile on to the pavements of Broad Street. Senior figures of stratospheric Parnassian repute will gossip like schoolgirls under the whiskery stone gargoyles outside the Sheldonian Theatre, before disappearing for an agreeable lunch in the Turf Tavern. At around 5.30pm, when all the votes have been counted by the University proctors, the result will be announced with the solemnity attending on the election of a supreme pontiff. And Oxford will have a new Professor of Poetry.

It is hard to convey how distinguished is this academic post. The salary is pitifully meagre (£4,695 plus expenses), the workload of 16 lectures in a five-year tenure is a strain. But in academic and poetic circles, it is a position of Olympian importance.

Since 1951, it has been held by some of the most elevated names in 20th-century literature: WH Auden, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Peter Levi, Seamus Heaney, James Fenton and Paul Muldoon. And, to many people, it embodies and defines the seriousness with which Britain takes poetry - and by extension literature, language and cultural life - in the 21st century. Hence the pungent miasma of ideological battle that hangs over the bookish voters at the Bodleian Library.

Last time the poetry chair was up for grabs, there wasn't a vote. In 1999 the Boston-based Ulster poet Paul Muldoon was elected unopposed. Quite a contrast to 1994, when 451 people turned out to vote, and James Fenton won the gig. Today, however, they're expecting many more voters.

First, they have changed the rules so that anyone with an Oxford BA can vote (the university reckons there are approximately 155,000 roaming the globe, though it is unlikely that the entire tribe of BA Oxons will descend - more like 800 of them). And second, because the contest has become a stand-off between poets and academics.

There are five contenders. Christopher Ricks, 70, is the doyen of modern literary critics, whose work on Milton, Tennyson, Keats and Bob Dylan are the stuff of academic legend on both sides of the Atlantic. Peter Porter, 75, is the Australian-born holder of the Queen's Award for Poetry. A charming, rumbustious man, and a poet of hectic fluency and intellectual pyrotechnics, he has published more than 20 collections, most notably The Cost of Seriousness (about the death of his first wife) and The Automatic Oracle, which won the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1988.

Anne Carson is a fiftysomething Canadian, a distinguished academic and classicist who began her career with Eros the Bittersweet, a scholarly work about ancient Greek which has, bizarrely, become a hot text in American lesbian circles. She won the high-prestige TS Eliot Prize in 2002 for The Beauty of the Husband, a work in "29 tangoes" disliked by some for its prose-poem doggerel and wilful obscurities.

Bringing up the rear are two wild cards: Ian McMillan, 47, the portly "people's poet" who has been poet-in-resident at Barnsley FC and Barnsley police station, and who roams the country bringing his sprightly light verse to small village halls; and Mark Walker, a graduate student at Oriel College, currently studying for a Masters degree in Byzantine history, of whose poetic form nothing is known.

Insiders say it is a two-horse race between Ricks and Porter - but an important race. For Ricks is a top critic, lecturer and scholar who has never, as far as anyone knows, written a line of poetry, while Porter, a favourite poet on the literary circuit, is no academic and never went to a university. So who is the more appropriate figure to sit on Oxford's Parnassian throne?

To qualify for election, each aspirant professor must be nominated by at least 12 Oxford graduates, who supply a "flysheet" essay extolling their virtues. Ricks's apostles includes the heads of nine Oxford colleges, and the front rank of literary academics including John Carey, Jon Stallworthy and Tom Paulin. Their submission concentrates on Ricks's "enormous distinction" as a teacher; his "uniquely subtle critical imagination" and "profound scholarship"; and the careers (including Seamus Heaney's and Philip Larkin's) that he helped launch or authenticate.

Porter's fans are more ad hominem, emphasising their man's good-egg qualities as well as his civilised and satirical poetry: "Although he is now naturally claimed by the Australians as an Australian poet, he has lived and worked in London since 1951, and is cherished as our senior London poet, our Pope, the most prolific of the heirs of Auden, and a wise, generous and conversible man."

Oxford being Oxford, there are all kinds of secret agendas behind the voting. "If it comes down to lecturing, then Ricks should get it," says John Sutherland, professor of English at University College London. "He is without doubt the best lecturer on his subject in the world. Also he was an Oxford man - he edited his classic edition of Tennyson there and may be thinking of returning to Oxford to retire.

"But Porter will get a certain sympathy vote because he was dropped by the Oxford University Press poetry list, and people like Jon Stallworthy are still spitting blood about it. And he's better liked than Ricks, who is famously uncuddly. He's the force behind the scathing reviews in Essays in Criticism and is absolutely loathed in Boston, where he set his face against literary theory. He's very impressive, though. You could say Ricks is our Matthew Arnold redivivus."

This is, in other words, a struggle between Roundheads (Ricks, critical rigour, Academia) and Cavaliers (Porter, poetic insight, University of Life). Behind Porter stands an awesome platoon of literary heavyweights, including the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, the poets John Fuller, Alan Brownjohn, UA Fanthorpe, Mick Imlah, Bernard O'Donoghue and Anthony Thwaite, and the novelists Julian Barnes, Maggie Gee, AN Wilson, Alan Hollinghurst and Ferdinand Mount. They emphasise Porter's status as a prominent figure from outside the university.

"The whole idea of the chair of poetry," says John Fuller, "is that it is given to someone free of the usual musical chairs of academia."

"It would be very nice to have a poet in the job," said Craig Raine, who is both a poet and an academic, "but if you can't find a poet, then maybe you should have a novelist like Ian McEwan. Somebody creative."

Wouldn't Ricks be the best lecturer? 'This is not an anti-Ricks position," said Raine. "What survives in the history of criticism is the work of critic-practitioners - people like Johnson, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Arnold, T S Eliot".

Would he like the job himself? "But I'm already lecturing here at the University. I don't need another platform. And it's a very testing post, having to give 16 lectures towards the end of your career. I've known two professors of poetry very well - James Fenton and Seamus Heaney - and they both found it very hard work."

Porter fans will tell you that traditionally the chair has always been occupied by a practising poet. This is not strictly true. Founded in 1708, in the bequest of a Berkshire landowner called Henry Birkhead, it was first held by popular Oxford figures, local wits, and literary critics such as Robert Louth (1741-51). In the 19th century it was, oddly, a religious post: the 1841 contest was a tough battle between a Tractarian and an Evangelical.

In those days, the professor's lectures were delivered in Latin. The first professor to give them in English was Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet and critic who held the chair from 1857-67.

"When Matthew Arnold did it, it was an attempt to evangelise for an emergent discipline, namely English literature," said Professor Sutherland. "Since then it's become a sort of popularity contest. I think the poetry chair was at its best under Robert Graves, whose lectures established a timeline of English poetry from Hardy to Dylan Thomas. Auden was good at being around to help young writers.

"Then in the 1960s, it became democratic, when all the MAs could cast votes for their champion, and there were farcical scenes. When Edmund Blunden stood against Robert Lowell and won in 1966, charabancs of doddery old MAs would come rattling into town to cast their votes. It attracts much more attention now than it used to. Poets take it very seriously."

Not all poets, of course, or even all professors. When John Wain's tenure as Professor of Poetry was ending, he told his friend Philip Larkin that he should consider succeeding him. Since Larkin had a stammer and hated lecturing, he asked Wain what on earth might be the appeal of the job. "It's the chicks, Philip, it's the chicks," said the priapic Wain.

And there is something shocking about the hostility and Ealing-comedy shenanigans that surround the voting. "I think I got my first taste of how venomous the literary world can be in 1978," said the novelist and biographer DJ Taylor, "when I read Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Spectator saying about the professorship: 'One looks forward with considerable relish to voting against Stephen Spender.'"

In 1938, CS Lewis was having breakfast with his friend Adam Fox, the chaplain of Magdalen College. Fox's eye fell on the morning paper, where he read that EK Chambers, the literary scholar and D.Litt, was being put up for the chair. "This is simply shocking," he said, "they might as well make me Professor of Poetry." "Well then, we will," promised Lewis, and, after marshalling support from MAs in rectories all over the country and bussing them to Oxford, he kept his promise. Fox, who published just one "childish" (his word) poem in his life - about Old King Cole - held the chair from 1938-43.

Time will tell whether such tactics will be employed today. But faint whiffs of hooliganism, favouritism and jerrymandering often lie behind the dignity of the Oxford poetry chair. If, as expected, Christopher Ricks gets elected this afternoon, he will attend a little party given by Marilyn Butler, the rector of Exeter College. He and his supporters will probably not celebrate by running round the Fellows' Garden with their jerseys pulled over their heads. But with the poetry professorship, you can't be sure.