Is this the violent new face of poetry at Oxford?

Writer famed for brutality of his verse nominated for prestigious professorship
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Endgame of one of the most acrimonious literary spats in recent times began yesterday when one of the nation's most divisive poets – revered for his "brooding verse" and chastised for being "inaccessible" – was announced as a candidate for Oxford University's next professor of poetry.

Geoffrey Hill, 77, widely considered to be one of Britain's finest living writers and critics, was named as the first formal candidate for the influential academic post that has lain vacant since May last year when the new incumbent, Ruth Padel, resigned amid claims she was involved in an alleged smear campaign against her chief rival.

The dispute saw the literary position, considered second only to the poet laureate in terms of prestige, dragged down to the level of a Machiavellian farce when Padel admitted she had alerted at least two journalists to claims of sexual harassment levelled against Derek Walcott, a Nobel laureate who had been regarded as the front runner.

Walcott, 80, who was born in St Lucia, withdrew from the contest and accused his detractors of indulging in "character assassination", leaving the field open for Padel to be elected ahead of the Indian poet, Arvind Mehrotra.

She became the first woman to hold the Oxford chair in its 300-year history but her tenure lasted only nine days after her initial assurances that she had "nothing to do with any behind-doors operations" against Walcott were met with the revelation of her briefings to journalists. She insisted her actions did not amount to a smear campaign.

The row fitted into a long history of distinguished fallings out between poets. Ben Jonson reputedly took aim at Shakespeare, suggesting that contrary to the great scribe's reputation for never having to erase a line of verse, he wished "he had blotted a thousand". Thankfully, few have felt so impassioned as the French poet Paul Verlaine, who shot his lover Arthur Rimbaud with a revolver.

In the wake of last year's debacle, Oxford University decided to let the post lie vacant for a year to allow the furore to die down and put in place a new system. The position's intellectual cachet is worth far more than its financial reward – it offers a paltry annual stipend of just £7,000.

Rivals to Professor Hill, who cemented his early favourite status by gaining nominations from 49 serving dons when the signatures of just 12 Oxford graduates suffices, have until 5 May to enter the fray. Voting is carried out by the 300,000-strong Convocation – the university's term for all its graduates.

Rather than forcing people to turn up in person to cast their votes, as happened previously the election will be on the internet over a three-week period ending on 18 June. The winner will be announced in time to take up the post in the autumn.

Seamus Perry, deputy chair of the English faculty board, which hosts the professorship, said it was hoped the new election would be an opportunity to bury the row. "It is difficult to see what electoral system might have prevented what took place last year," he said. "Certainly, it was a very regrettable episode but we have taken the opportunity to overhaul the system and ensure many more people can take part. We are hoping for a debate about poetry rather than other things this time, and I think the fact we have a poet of Geoffrey Hill's distinction is proof that the position itself has emerged unscathed. His is a very strong candidacy."

Professor Hill, an Oxford graduate who taught for nearly 30 years at the University of Leeds before moving to America, is regarded as a powerful and tenebrous voice, unafraid of immersing himself in a world of violence and brutality across subjects from the mythology of his native Malvern Hills to the Holocaust. But he is not without his detractors, who have criticised him as "difficult" and representative of an archaic nationalism.

With further candidates expected to emerge, the poetic beauty contest could yet be lively. Other candidates could yet include Sir Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, and the American Anne Stevenson, who vowed recently to introduce foreign poets to "an intelligent English public".

In Hill's words: Reanimating culture

*born 19.6.32 – deported 24.9.42

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable/ you were not. Not forgotten/ or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,/ sufficient, to that end./ Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented/ terror, so many routine cries.

(From "September Song", 1968)

*Culture is a dead word; let us re-/animate it. No, that would use/ more resources than I have exhaustion/ to yield, pledge, dig up, borrow against. Strange/ heterogeneous monsters, an impoverished/ and defeated violence. One scrawls obsessed.

Getting out of limbo is the earth-shaker.

(From "On Reading Burke on Empire, Liberty and Reform", 2006)

*Flanders poppy no trial variant. Does my bad breath offend you? Pick a name/ of the unknown ypres master as alias.

Abandoned mark iv tanks, rostered by sex,/ Marlborough s'en va t'en ... frozen mud wrestlers/ entertaining the Jocks. Arrest yourself/ for grief of no known cause

(From "Speech! Speech!", 2000)