Now for a truly dirty election: Oxford Professor of Poetry

11 candidates apply for £7,000-a-year position
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The Independent Online

Voters in Britain's second most hotly contested election this year will begin casting their votes later this week, with Oxford University hoping to consign to history the controversy and ill-feeling engendered by its last, aborted search for a Professor of Poetry.

Although the position carries a meagre stipend of £6,901, the prospect of joining the ranks of previous incumbents such as WH Auden, Robert Graves and Seamus Heaney has attracted a field of 11 candidates.

The early favourite to win the five-year post is the eminent poet and critic Geoffrey Hill, who has the support of top Oxford academics and a suitably long and well-regarded canon of work behind him. But there could be the odd surprise along the way – not least in the form of biographer and journalist Roger Lewis, whose Seasonal Suicide Notes is regarded as one of the funniest books of last year.

Whoever wins will be hoping that his or her success draws a line under the unsavoury fallout caused by the selection process last year, which saw the leading candidate – Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott – dramatically pull out of the contest after he became the victim of an anonymous smear campaign which resurrected allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

The eventual winner was Ruth Padel, a distant relative of Charles Darwin and the first woman to hold the professorship. But she was forced to resign after just a week in the job, despite vehemently denying any involvement in the attempts to discredit Mr Walcott.

Since then, the position has remained empty while Oxford University set about overhauling the rules of engagement for the contest in an attempt to increase turnout from a recent average of just 500 voters.

The main innovation this year has been the addition of an online ballot system, which it is hoped will allow far greater numbers of the estimated 200,000 members of Convocation – a body which includes all matriculated Oxford students who have had their degree formally conferred, as well as current or retired members of the university's Congregation or parliament – to have their say. Dr Seamus Perry, deputy chair of the English Faculty board, which hosts the chair, described the candidate field as "large and extremely diverse" and said that many more nominations had been received than usual.

"The new voting procedures were designed to involve more people in the election of the Professor, because we recognise that while poetry matters to academics, it matters a lot more to many people who aren't academics too," he said.

The introduction of the internet to the 300-year-old election has prompted candidates to open up a new front in cyberspace, in search of support among the computer-literate Oxford diaspora. Professor Hill, despite being 77 years old, has been one of the first to exploit the new frontier, with his supporters setting up a Facebook site dedicated to electing him. But the most likely to benefit could be the emerging young poet Steve Larkin, 34, who specialises in live poetry performances and draws on conventions more associated with hip-hop music.

In his candidate statement, Mr Larkin promises to "reload the literary canon and fire it through the walls of any stifling ivory tower that blocks the emergence of an exciting and inclusive live literature scene".

He has also pledged to stage the first Oxford University "slam contest", in which staff and students at each college will face off in "democratic live poetry competitions".

Another candidate to have launched a Facebook campaign is Michael Horovitz, a veteran of the Sixties beat poet generation. He vows to emulate the hands-on approach of WH Auden, who was Professor of Poetry when he was a student at Oxford. Those wishing to cast their vote in the time-honoured fashion at the university can do so. The result will be published in the University Gazette on 20 June.


Paula Claire

Artist and lecturer who has been writing and performing since the 1960s and whose online archive contains more than 5,000 examples of her work.

Michael George Gibson

Stood as parliamentary candidate in Tatton for the True English Poetry Party. Describes himself as "poet, husbandman and tunemaker".

Roger Lewis

Acclaimed biographer of Anthony Burgess and Peter Sellers, but also known as the author of the Christmas round-robin parody Seasonal Suicide Notes.

Chris Mann

South African academic, poet and musician who spent his early career working with his country's rural poor. He studied at Oxford and speaks Zulu and Afrikaans.

Geoffrey Hill

Favourite to win the post. The former professor of English at Leeds University is a distinguished poet who enjoys backing from some of Oxford's top scholars.

Michael Horovitz

Celebrated beat poet who organised the 1965 Royal Albert Hall Poetry Internationale – the best-attended poetry reading ever staged in Britain.

Seán Haldane

Poet, former part-time farmer and neuropsychologist who was inspired as a student by the then Oxford Professor of Poetry Robert Graves.

Steve Larkin

Founded the performance group Hammer and Tongue in 2003, which blends hip hop and world music styles at vibrant "poetry-slam" events in unusual venues.

Stephen Moss

A former literary editor of The Guardian newspaper. Now a feature writer, his campaign slogan is a variation of Barack Obama's – "Yes We Scan!"

Robert P Lacey

This self-confessed lay poet studied modern history at Oxford before becoming a doctor. If elected, he has promised to write a poem a week and publish it online.

Vaughan Pilikian

Filmmaker and Sanskrit scholar has pledged to herald a new era for the professorship using poetry as a "weapon, bloodsoaked and glinting".