Dear Oxford MAs: A poet without a vote calls on graduates to liberate the ballot for Oxford's new Professor of Poetry from the clutches of dons - by turning up at the polls in their thousands

Blake Morrison
Tuesday 10 May 1994 23:02

Sorry to interrupt when I'm sure, given the advantages of your education, you are bound to be engaged in pressing business in some important post. But there is this something to which I must draw your attention, an election at which you are entitled to vote. I'm speaking of the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. Polling takes place tomorrow and Saturday. Can we count on your vote?

Not having studied at Oxford, not being a don there, I can't vote myself. But any Oxford graduate who has upped a BA Hons to an MA (a privilege you pay pounds 30 for later) will be able to have his or her say. There are four candidates: Alan Brownjohn; UA (that's Ursula, the first woman candidate) Fanthorpe; James Fenton, who writes a column in this paper; and Les Murray, a gargantuan talent from Australia. Not a dud among them.

It's true the university doesn't make voting easy. You have to turn up at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (no postal votes). And the voting times are restricted to half an hour tomorrow and two hours on Saturday. Never mind. Do go if you can. And if you can't, write to the university and tell them to adopt a less cranky system.

Because the election does matter, you know. During his stint the retiring incumbent, Seamus Heaney, has delivered some marvellous lectures. W H Auden, too, in his day, was an inspiration to young poets. Yet the election is always likely to be sabotaged by donnish plots. It happened in 1984 when Fenton lost to Peter Levi. It happened in 1966 when the great Robert Lowell lost to Edmund Blunden - by 477 votes to 241.

There never is much of a turn-out - only a tiny percentage of the electorate. Which is a shame, and rather shaming. It looks as if, for all their education, Oxford MAs don't care about poetry. It reflects badly on everyone. Don't be a philistine. Get in your car. Get on the train. Walk, punt, cycle. Vote.

Who should you vote for? Well, traditionally this paper doesn't tell people how to vote in elections. And for the first time in the history of the post, there are four good candidates. All have written poetry (not a skill Oxford professors of poetry need to possess), and all have written well about poetry.

But Fenton and Murray are the most original, both as poets and as critics. And if it were my ballot paper I'd choose Fenton, because he's more likely to appeal to young poets, because he would effectively be a poet in residence (he lives nearby), because he has travelled and written widely (foreign correspondent, theatre critic, librettist). Above all, his talents are diverse: he has published war poetry, nonsense verse, ballads, elegies, songs; he can write in metre or free verse; he evokes love and pity as well as anger and pain.

In an ideal world, the votes for all four poets would run to thousands. It would mean that poetry mattered. It would suggest that Oxford MAs are people who care about art and democracy. It would stop this election looking like a five-yearly farce. Can we count on your vote?

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments