The Oxford professorship of poetry is a very rum job. Its holder's salary is pathetic (£6,901), the winning candidate is chosen not by academic committee, but by Oxford graduates, and it has a reputation for eccentricity.
It was founded in 1708 by a landowner called Henry Birkhead who believed that "the reading of the ancient poets gave keenness and polish to the minds of young men." Because of the emphasis on "ancient poets", professors routinely delivered their lectures in Latin – even when quoting Shakespeare.
A century and a half after the professorship was born, Matthew Arnold was the first-ever prof to lecture in English in 1865. Since then, WH Auden, Robert Graves, James Fenton and the Dylan-worshipping Christopher Ricks have all held the post, with its gruelling duties of giving one public lecture a term and raising the profile of poetry inside the university.
Ricks steps down next month, and Oxford graduates are lining up like pompom-waving cheerleaders to vote their favourite candidates into his vacated throne: supporting my old friend Ruth Padel will be the biographer Victoria Glendinning, the philosopher AC Grayling, and Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Against her in this two-horse Parnassian gallop is Derek Walcott, the St Lucia-born poet and 1992 Nobel literature laureate. His fans include Marina Warner, Hermione Lee and the Booker prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst.
The chair of the English faculty board, Dr Sally Mapstone, has said: "The two candidates... both have excellent credentials for the post, and each has an outstanding record as an ambassador for the subject. It would be a great privilege to have either of them as Oxford's professor of poetry for the next five years."
Have Walcott's fans all forgotten the shadows of sexual harassment allegations that have swirled around their man over the years? Should one not mention Ms Nicole Niemi, 30 years his junior, who came forward in 1995 to claim that, when she was a creative writing graduate student in the 1980s, Walcott threatened to fail her unless she went to bed with him? When she declined, she alleged that he told her the play she'd written for the course couldn't, in that case, be produced. Years after the event, Ms Niemi was looking for half a million dollars in compensation and punitive damages before the claim was eventually settled.
This allegation might have been smoothed over, had it not been for an earlier, unnamed accuser who, hours after Walcott won the Nobel prize, accused him of being an "academic sexual predator" while he taught at Harvard in 1982. Confronted with her testimony, Walcott confirmed it was accurate, or so reported the magazine, The Harvard Crimson.
It's reproduced at length in a study of priapic academics called The Lecherous Professor, by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner. The student claimed Walcott took her for an after-class coffee at the science centre, saying to her: "I don't want to talk about poetry," and asking her to describe what she did with a recent boyfriend. When she told him to get lost, he said, "Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?" He then propositioned her and she declined, but he proposed they share a secret code so that if her asked her, in class, "Oui?" she could say "Oui" back. The book relates that she failed to say, "Oui" at any point but told an adviser, who suggested she write to Walcott asking him to cease these games. According to the anonymous accuser the poet stopped harrassing her, but ignored her in class and gave her a C grade (later amended to a Pass by the university.)
What's troubling is that, when asked about his behaviour by the Harvard grandees, Walcott is alleged to have said his teaching style was "deliberately personal and intense"; his success with students was because of the way he "drove" them to include "everything in their lives" in their poetry (not necessarily excluding, it might appear, their tutor's body).
I think it's the implication that a teacher's "personal and intense" involvement in his students' lives (and possibly beds) will make them better poets that I find most creepy; as if having sex with them would bestow an invaluable creative gift.
Last November, it was reported that Barack Obama had been seen leafing through Walcott's collected poems. Many people thought the Caribbean Homer might be invited to become Inaugural Poet at the new president's swearing-in. One can only wonder why the invitation never came.Reuse content