Ecstatic Fenton wins Oxford's poetry chair

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JAMES FENTON, war correspondent, drama critic and Independent columnist, yesterday beat off three rivals and was elected the 41st Oxford professor of poetry.

The election result, which Fenton won by 228 votes to 98 from his nearest rival, the Australian Les Murray, was announced by senior proctor Judith Pallot.

Fenton, who stood unsuccessfully against Peter Levi 10 years ago, said from his home yesterday where friends had gathered for a celebratory garden party: 'I'm over the moon. I'm absolutely delighted. Oh gosh - what can I say? It's quite a result isn't it. I'm ecstatic.'

Born in Lincoln in 1949 and educated at Oxford, Fenton has worked as a literary journalist and foreign correspondent. He read philosophy, psychology and physiology at Magdalen College, but flunked his physiology, getting a third-class degree. He will now, in return for his pounds 4,000-a-year stipend, give at least one public lecture each term, judge one undergraduate literary competition and give one public oration.

'The lectures individually are supposed to make contact with the audience; they are events in themselves.'

His other priority will be to encourage poets and poetry appreciation at the university.

'I think it is quite important for the professor to be around. W H Auden made himself available a great deal of the time when he was professor.'

The position will give Fenton a significant influence in British literary life. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney used the position to promote the poetry of his countrymen.

Ursula Fanthorpe, who came to poetry relatively late in life at 51 when in 1980 she won first prize in the Observer-Arvon-South Bank Show poetry competition, came third with 85 votes. Alan Brownjohn polled 40 votes.

The voting turnout yesterday and last Thursday was smaller than the 485 five years ago when Seamus Heaney was elected.

The final round of voting began at 2.30pm yesterday afternoon. The Oxford MAs, or Members of Convocation, arrived, gowns folded over their arms, and queued patiently until it was time for the 'bulldogs' to usher them in. Only Oxford MAs were eligible to vote in the ballot.

In the midst of the celebrations for Fenton's victory, spare a thought for unpublished poet Brenda Williams, who spent a pounds 2,000 bank loan on mailing her poems to 1,200 dons in the hope that one of them would nominate her. When not one of them did, she staged a sit-in protest outside the university offices.


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

James Fenton

(Photograph omitted)