Been a funny old week for poetry. Whatever night you turned your telly on there was someone reciting Milton on the Millennium Bridge, or quoting John Donne in the snow outside St Paul's Cathedral, unless you happened to have gone straight to a news programme, in which case it was a reporter looking up at Oxford's dreaming spires, curling his lip around the concept of an "ivory tower" and sneering about "poetic justice". Television taking with one hand what it gave with the other.
I applaud BBC2 for giving poetry a go. There's always something desperate about literature on television. Where do you put the words? You speak them, is the answer, the way you always do, but television wants to see them when they're "literature", which means they have to run across the screen like fridge magnets or tumble off it like leaves from a wintry tree. And when they are spoken the speaker must be in motion, running on a beach or wandering lost round a railway station, though in life we normally read while sitting down. One day someone will have the nerve to sit a poet or a critic in front of a camera and have him read for half an hour. A stock-still A J P Taylor made enthralling television and there's no reason why a modern Donne or Milton shouldn't do the same. Or all I ask is that the person we choose isn't one of those northern poets who can't get their vowels around their profession. Is it Simon Armitage who calls himself a "pert"? One of those, anyway.
In the matter of the politics of the Oxford Chair of Poetry there is nothing further to say. Sad, gets it. Sad, all round. But life is sad and elections to the Oxford Chair of Poetry are part of life. My objection to the coverage is that it treated all parties to the barney as though they were outside of life, or of another order of moral being, exceptionally deserving of ridicule simply by virtue of their being poets and academics. The very title of the job in the question – Oxford Professor of Poetry – was as a red rag to a maddened bull. If you had to choose three words that particularly get the goat (to change the farmyard animal) of journalists and presenters, there you have them in a single phrase: Oxford, Professor and Poetry.
Why is this? We read articles by Oxford professors routinely in our newspapers. We hear them discussing world affairs, finance, immunology, vivisection, global warming etc every day on the Today programme. We don't snort when an Oxford professor tells us about the dangers of the North Korean nuclear programme. We don't immediately empty our minds of his expertise and picture etiolated dons feeling up their students or poisoning one another's ports. Ditto writers. Writers write the very television programmes and newspaper articles that make fun of writers. They write the instructions for our mobile phones, they write our tax forms, they write the rules that our politicians break, they write the crappy novels we buy at airports. Even in a technological age language is our medium.
So why do we behave like ninnies when the writing happens to be poetry, and the Oxford professors in whom we otherwise repose our trust meet to elect a poet or a critic to a poetry chair? Is it fear? Is poetry taking writing a little further than we want it to go? It shouldn't be. Wordsworth – who I fear might have called himself a "pert", and if that is so I am glad he never made a podcast – said that a poet was a man speaking to men. By which he didn't mean that the poet couldn't also be woman, only that poetry should be the actual language we speak, with the grosser parts of language excised, and should address the passions we share. Indeed what was good about last week's BBC2 poetry programmes was that they reminded us of that. Not all the difficulty fell away from Milton and Donne – and why should it, as Andrew Motion rightly asked in the first programme of the series – but the difficulties were not of the nature of deliberate abstruseness but a struggle with necessarily complex thought.
It would seem to me that a poet is rather more of a man talking to men than a detective is, if only because the range of his interests and reading is likely to be wider. And if one wouldn't say the same about every academic one knows, the argument can at least be made that academic life itself is as dramatically varied as that of a police station or a hospital. But in popular culture the university is shunned. Some of the most entertaining novels in the language are campus novels, but how many make it on to television? Why is it supposed that policemen and nurses are of limitless fascination to us and professors and their students not of interest at all?
It's the ivory tower business again, I suppose. The assumption being that what goes on in Oxford, unless it goes on in the mind of Morse, is remote from us. But that isn't true. Millions of us attend or have attended an academic institution of some sort. Many teach, many more have been taught. Certainly enough for a sizeable television audience. If it is argued that a university drama would alienate those who haven't been to one, my answer is that a lack of a decent education does not preclude intellectual curiosity, and where it does ample provision is already made in the schedules to keep the educationally incurious amused.
In fact, The History Man did not go without viewers in its day. Nor did Andrew Davies's A Very Peculiar Practice. Commissioning editors simply lacked the balls to follow them up. Jeanette Winterson has, with characteristic forthrightness, just called Oxford a "sexist dump". I have no way of knowing whether that is true, as I lack the sensory equipment necessary to detect sexism, but I would watch a series that had that, rather than murder at high table, as its premise. A Very Sexist Dump – I'd even buy the boxed set of DVDs.
So, I suspect, would the uneducated populace we go in fear of alienating. My own view is that they are not the source of our national philistinism; the culprits are those who have been to Oxford themselves and are in blokish denial of the scholarly seriousness from which they benefited. That's the true scandal of the Oxford Chair of Poetry affair, not the ambition and skulduggery of poets but the refusal of our educated classes to own up to their education.Reuse content