A new professor of poetry at Oxford, and no scandal

  • @johnhenrywalsh

There were no blazing rows this time. After months of speculation and public controversy, Geoffrey Hill has been elected to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry – generally regarded as the most prestigious position in the poetry world after the Laureateship – by a landslide 1,156 votes. He fills a gap in the university’s teaching hierarchy left by the resignation of Ruth Padel last May.

She quit after only nine days because of complaints that she had told journalists about allegations of sexual harassment made against her main rival, Derek Walcott.

Hill, who is 78 today, beat nine rival candidates to win the 300-year-old professorship. His tenure runs for five years. The professor is expected to give three lectures a year for an annual salary of £7,000. But the meagreness of the stipend is neither here nor there.

The professorship is a teaching post with an awesome pedigree – previous holders include Matthew Arnold, WH Auden, Robert Graves, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney and Christopher Ricks – as well as a striking capacity to attract scandal.

Candidates for the post must be nominated by at least 12 members of “Convocation” – the huge, amorphous mass of Oxford graduates and professors in the UK. Hill was the first confirmed candidate and the odds-on favourite from the outset. His first supporters came from a variety of Oxford colleges; they included the Dean of Christ Church, the Warden of Keble, the President of Trinity, and the Principal of St Anne’s, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury (a graduate of Wadham College.)

Among his rivals were Michael Horovitz, the “English Beat” poet and magazine editor, who convened the magnificent Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall in 1965; Roger Lewis, the biographer of Peter Sellers and Anthony Burgess, and author of an annual Christmas letter to friends bitching about literary rivals and cliques; Stephen Moss, the Guardian feature writer who began publishing poetry in June last year; and the South African poet Chris Mann.

The only woman candidate, Paula Claire, an Oxford-based poet, artist and performer, pulled out of the race earlier this month, complaining that the university was flagrantly supporting Hill above other candidates – she cited the printing of a flysheet in the Oxford Gazette, the university journal, that called Hill “the finest living poet in Britain today”. The University denied any favouritism.

Then Roger Lewis threw down a gauntlet to his rivals by writing, in the Daily Telegraph, a “catalogue” of things that expressed “what I thought poetry might be”. It’s an eccentric, eclectic list of favourite moments from the arts and small details about people: the sea foam in Homer, Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes, Peter O’Toole’s Arab robes in Lawrence of Arabia, the bend of Chaplin’s cane, Samuel Beckett’s book on Proust, Samuel Palmer’s harvest moons, and the house that Wittgenstein built for his sister in Vienna. It was charming but not, in itself, poetry.

Michael Horovitz was quick to condemn “Lewis's absurd, grandiloquent, voluminous list quoting a maximum of two lines of poetry, which if he's standing for a chair of poetry, is entirely absurd. I'll give him half a mark for chutzpah and ludicrosity and self-promotion though.”

Things rapidly became personal. Lewis shot back in the press: “Catweazel lookalike Michael Horovitz fills me with an extraordinary lack of enthusiasm. I don’t think his brand of stupidness is harmless or charming… He is the biggest bore unhung. Let’s hope he croaks by swallowing his kazoo.” (A reference to Horovitz’s “Anglosaxophone” which he likes to play at poetry recitals.)

Meanwhile, another candidate, Michael George Gibson, was spurred into verse by Lewis’s catalogue of loveliness:

That Ox.Prof.Po.Candidate, Roger,

Is a diss-all-his-rivals old codger

Whose Telegraph prose-hymn

Prosodically shows him

A ‘My-Favourite-Things’ silly splodger.

Professor Hill is a greatly respected poet and teacher, often described as the finest poet writing in English (but then so are Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott.) He has won the Hawthornden Prize, the Faber Memorial Prize and the Whitbread (now Costa) Award.

His best known works are Mercian Hymns, King Log, September Song, The Enemy’s Country and The Triumph of Love. “The publication last year of Hill’s Collected Critical Writings,” wrote Peter McDonald, poetry tutor at Christ Church, Oxford last year, “made it clear that he is a thinker about poetry who can stand beside the very greatest – beside Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Empson and Eliot.”

Hill received a remarkable accolade 20 years ago. I was lunching with George Steiner, the awesomely brilliant Cambridge don and polymath (and incidentally Professor of Poetry at Harvard 2001-2). Steiner was giving me a list of public intellectuals and Nobel laureates with whom he was contributing to an anthology of millennial thought – and criticising them all, for lacking first-rate intellects.

Is there anyone in the world, I asked, to whom you defer when it comes to intelligence?

“What are you asking?” said Steiner, “Are you asking, who is the cleverest man in the world?”

All right, yes. Whom would you nominate?

“Isn’t it obvious? Who did the Times Literary Supplement get to review the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? Geoffrey Hill. Of course. Have you read the Mercian Hymns? They are outstanding.”

Whether Hill is clever enough to ride the white-water rapids of Oxford gossip and scandal remains to be seen.