Les, Jim and Alan fight a contest in May (As does UA, who may have the final say)

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The Independent Online
SITTING down to breakfast with C S Lewis at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1938, the college chaplain, the Rev Adam Fox, mentioned some disturbing news. E K Chambers, a distinguished literary man, had been nominated for the post of Oxford professor of poetry, and Fox was unimpressed. 'This is simply shocking,' he said. 'They might as well make me professor of poetry.' Said Lewis: 'Well, we will.'

True to his word, Lewis put the suggestion about, ensuring - with help from J R R Tolkien - that Fox was duly elected to the post. The clergyman's period of office was not a distinguished one; he himself admitted that he had no claim to the role, other than as a lover of poetry, and that Lewis had probably only decided to exercise his patronage because he was in a good mood that morning.

On 12 May, an electoral system that has little changed since then will again be put to the test when three men and - for the first time in the post's 315-year history - a woman will pin their hopes on a disparate, small, and unpredictable electorate. Oxford dons - and the odd old boy and girl with an MA - will cast their votes in a small room behind the Sheldonian Theatre. (No South African election this one: voting is between 2 and 2.30pm and for a couple of hours two days later.)

One of the candidates, James Fenton, has already experienced the eccentricity of a quinquennial process that saw Matthew Arnold hold the post in the 1860s and was last cranked up in 1989 with the election of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, widely acknowledged as one of the most successful professors of recent times.

Fenton lost to the poet and scholar Peter Levi in 1984. But there's nothing like a third-class degree - Fenton flunked his physiology - to raise an Oxford graduate in the estimation of his peers, and Fenton is no exception: until recently he was the favourite to win this year. This despite the candidature of U A (Ursula) Fanthorpe, a former head of English at Cheltenham Ladies' College, who has received backing from her old college, St Anne's, despite the disadvantage of having achieved a first.

However, in a contest between the two, Fenton was thought to have the edge, not just because of his poetry, but because he lives near Oxford and was in a better position for a little discreet canvassing.

But this was before another heavyweight (in both senses of the word) entered the ring. Three days before the closing date for nominations on 25 April, the gargantuan and fiercely republican Australian poet Les Murray was declared a candidate, making the contest four-cornered with the equally late arrival of Alan Brownjohn, a former chairman of the Poetry Society.

Fenton and Murray will take some dividing when members of the body of dons and MAs vote in a fortnight. How important is it that they get it right?

Although the post is poorly paid, at pounds 3,500, it ranks for many alongside the Poet Laureateship and is a means of raising the profile of poetry in Britain. W H Auden, one of the best-regarded professors, elected in 1956, gave popular lectures and, like Heaney, set himself up as a walking workshop, inviting conversations with undergraduates wherever he went.

If they get it wrong, it's a waste of five years. The most infamous example was the failure in 1966 to recognise the American poet Robert Lowell, who was beaten by Edmund Blunden, a distinguished don but a man in poor health who served for only two years. His appointment was secured by a celebrated don at Somerville College, Enid Starkie, who rejected the gentlemanly avoidance of electioneering and campaigned vigorously for her favoured candidate.

Other perceived failures were John Wain (1973) and John Jones (1979) - according to Mick Imlah, poet and former poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, Wain 'hadn't written a decent poem in 20 years' before election, and Jones had never written a poem at all. Blunden and Jones won because they represented the traditional Oxford epitomised by Starkie; in those days, traditionalists abhorred the modernist movement, and there were few poets who appealed to both camps.

However, the distinction between the two is not so clear these days. Talking from his farm in Australia, Les Murray put that debate in the vernacular, suggesting the term 'modernist' didn't mean 'a squirt of old piss'. Whatever the description of his poetry - he offers the terms reactionary and rednecked - Murray congratulates Britain for its belated realisation that it isn't the only country to produce good poets: 'There's a revolution in this generation of people in Britain. The last person who only considered British poets was that chap up in Hull, now what was his name?'

While Murray doesn't rate his chances, Fenton appears confident. An experienced war correspondent who now writes a column for the Independent, and wealthy enough to be able to ignore the small stipend - he says he would not have stood against a poet such as Heaney but is prepared to fight his corner against U A Fanthorpe, whom he admires. 'Nor am I overawed by Les Murray having put his hat in the ring with all its corks dangling.'

Fanthorpe is modest, and touchingly oblivious of the mechanics of the election. But she is anxious that she should make a good show. Her livelihood depends on exhausting poetry-readings, and she yearns to stay at home in Gloucestershire, thinking about writers and writing more. Her quietly stated feminism, as well as her poetry, will appeal to voters who feel that 315 years without a woman professor of poetry is long enough.

Ann Pasternak-Slater, an English Fellow at St Anne's and one of her supporters, is urging on her candidate, despite her husband, the poet Craig Raine, backing Fenton. Another literary couple is at odds; the poet Wendy Cope is supporting Fenton, her partner, writer and teacher Lachlan MacKinnon, favours Murray.

But this is a friendly election and, win or lose, Fenton is throwing a party to which even opponents have been invited. Murray will be there, despite his host's reference to dangling corks: 'I'll tell him he's been reading too many old copies of Private Eye.'

(Photograph omitted)