Howard Jacobson: It's not the uneducated we should blame for our national philistinism

Denial of scholarly seriousness is the true scandal of the Oxford poetry affair

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game