A city of rhyme and treason

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The Independent Online
Yet, O ye spires of Oxford] domes and towers]

Gardens and groves] Your presence overpowers

The soberness of reason - as Wordsworth so acutely observed. Some rhyme remains, but there is very little reason about the elections for Oxford University's Professor of Poetry. Why should poetic genius, of all things, be subject to the process of democracy? Yet every Oxford graduate who has paid the few pounds to buy an M A can, every five years that this office comes up, pootle back to the sacred nurseries of blooming youth, hire a gown and, after a little posing before tourist cameras, vote a poet into office.

Of these voters no knowledge of poetry is required. This is the way things are done in the city that inspired Lewis Carroll. Corruption by candlelight is commonplace, and treating traditional. 'I understand that in previous elections people were invited to dinner at high table the previous day,' said John Purkis, campaign manager for poet / candidate Alan Brownjohn (Merton), sounding slightly worried. 'The most we could do is a glass of wine on the day.'

James Fenton (Magdalen), poet / candidate, journalist and Independent columnist, is holding, not by coincidence, a party on the Saturday of the election, 14 May. 'It's a very odd election,' he said. 'It's like an honour, but it's an honour for which you compete. It's hard to campaign on behalf of oneself without sounding like a complete jerk.'

However, the independence, not to say treachery, of spirit among MAs (Oxon) is so well developed that they can eat any amount of dinners, and drink any quantity of pink champagne, before going into the booth and casting their votes for the person opposing their generous host.

Perhaps this is the reason why this extraordinary system, like the British constitution, often unexpectedly works. Last time it elected Seamus Heaney. It has in the past appointed Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day-Lewis, W H Auden and Robert Graves. This time voters may choose between Brownjohn, a past chairman of the Poetry Society, Fenton, Ursula Fanthorpe (St Anne's) who left her teaching job at Cheltenham Ladies' College to find real life as a receptionist at a Bristol Hospital, and Les Murray.

Mr Murray lives on a dairy farm in New South Wales, and if elected, will probably be the first Oxford Professor of Poetry who knows how to shoot snakes. He looks much like an egg - large, bald and round - but he is a very fertile and productive egg, and possibly even something of an egghead, though he was so frequently distracted from academic work as an undergraduate at Sydney University that he was on the syllabus before he finished it.

Murray is generally seen as one of the best poets writing now in English, up there with Seamus Heaney. His entry in the Oxford lists - his name was suggested by Adam Schwartzman, a poet and fresher at Pembroke, whom Mr Murray helped with his work while he, Murray, was being sculpted in France last year - has come as a considerable surprise to him.

'I sort of smiled and said 'all right',' said the laid-back Murray from his home in Bunyah. 'I understand the duties are not onerous. I wouldn't mind having the right to read the Bodleian's rare books. I like rummaging in libraries, and that would be the best rummage ever. But I am not hanging by my fingernails. I can't imagine it's very likely I'd get it.'

It is, of course, perfectly likely. Les Murray is modest, as his poem 'Writer in Residence'* demonstrates: I was good at the Common Room game / but when Dr X dropped a name / it hung in the air / like a parachute flare/ far over my head, to my shame. But the names backing him include those of John Carey, Merton Professor of English, and the Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen, former Governor General of Australia.

The main contest is between Murray and Fenton, who has the famous Magdalen electoral machine on his side, as well as Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, John Bayley and Craig Raine. Mrs Craig Raine, otherwise known as Ann Pasternak Slater, is supporting Ursula Fanthorpe. 'We have freedom of opinion in our family,' she said, rebuking the suggestion that civil war has broken out in the Raine residence. 'She's a good poet and if she were elected she would be the first woman Professor of Poetry.'

On the day of the election Miss Fanthorpe will be attending James Fenton's party. 'He's very gentlemanly,' she said.

Whoever wins that day will, in return for an annual pounds 4,059, have to give three lectures a year, which may include poetry readings, judge a few Oxford prizes and deliver an oration every other year in praise of the university's benefactors. The best Professors of Poetry, like Auden, also saw it as their duty to sit in Oxford's pubs and cafes, talking to undergraduate poets about their work, in a kind of Live Poets' Society. All four of the present candidates say they will happily do this. There is no end to the sacrifices poets are prepared to make for literature.

* From 'Les Murray, Collected Poems', Carcanet, pounds 18.95.

(Photograph omitted)