Letter: O for one scholar to leaven all the poets

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Sir: It is not too clear from Sandra Barwick's entertaining article on the Oxford poetry professorship ('A city of rhyme and treason', 30 April) that it doesn't strictly have to be a poet who is elected to the post. Several excellent poets have been chosen since the late Enid Starkie inaugurated the custom of campaigning for poet candidates from outside in 1950 (she organised C. Day Lewis's famous victory). But sometimes excellent scholars have still carried the day.

In the past, at different times, Oxford MAs have had the option of voting for scholars such as Peter Levi (also a poet) and John Jones, both of whom were elected; or for C. S. Lewis, F. R. Leavis and Enid Starkie herself, all of whom were declined. In this year's election, no eminent academic, from Oxford or anywhere else, has come forward.

It's probably heresy for a poet to say this, but in one way this is a pity. Should not poets have to take their chance against substantial academic candidates, allowing MAs to debate and decide whether - considering the talent on offer - a good teacher and communicator might not be a more useful gift to the university than a practitioner?

In another way, of course, it is an advantage this time that the scales are not naturally weighted in favour of a familiar candidate from the university.

On one sad occasion in the past, loyalty to the known local figure and unfamiliarity with the outsider led to the rejection of the late Robert Lowell, whose high talents as poet and teacher amply qualified him for the honour of the professorship.

Yours sincerely,


London, NW3

30 April

The writer is a candidate for Oxford Professor of Poetry.