By now it’s old news that Ruth Padel has resigned her position as Oxford Professor of Poetry a week after she took the job. She came under fire because she supposedly lied about her involvement in the campaign against Derek Walcott. I refuse to call it a smear campaign as some others have because calling it so would make it seem as if the charges against Walcott were unfounded; the opposite is true. Walcott has been busted at least twice, once at BU and once at Harvard, so reminding the voters at Oxford (which is what I believe Padel was referring to when she said she wasn’t involved in the campaign against Walcott) is hardly “dirty pool”.
Is a history of sexual harassment enough to disqualify a person from holding such a prominent post? Some of these people say no.
Prof [Hermione] Lee said Byron and Keats would not have been ruled out of such a post: “We are acting as purveyors of poetry not of chastity.”
Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature at Oxford, said the anonymous packages were “creepy and unsettling”.
“If we started excluding people on the basis of their peccadilloes there would be no one for us to teach,” she said.
James Fenton, a former professor of poetry at Oxford University, said: “Who but the most bigoted would think that professional issues settled a quarter of a century ago should debar a poet from standing up at a lectern three times a year to give a public lecture on poetry? Who thinks Oxford’s reputation has been enhanced by this unscruplousness?”
To Professor Lee I say only that Keats was a man of his times, and if he were living today, we would have different expectations of him. To Professor Boehmer, I reply that sexual harassment is far more than just a peccadilloe–if Walcott wanted to dress up in a diaper, I wouldn’t have an issue with his candidacy. And to Professor Fenton, I suggest he may want to look at the record again. The first public charge came over a quarter century ago, but there have been others since then. That’s a pattern of conduct.
It may sound at this point like I’m ready to dump Derek Walcott into the dustbin of poetic history–I’m not. But I am suggesting that his supporters have been far too dismissive of the case against him, and that Walcott could have defused some of this furor by facing up to the charges and apologizing publicly. Had he done so, he’d probably have won the post in a walk, his critics would have been silenced, and his supporters wouldn’t be reduced to making such ludicrous argument in his defense.
In the end, no one wins here. Walcott is still Walcott, Padel is still the first woman to hold the post, but for perhaps the shortest tenure ever, and whoever winds up with the post will be remembered, if at all, as the third choice who was brought in to clean up the mess. And neat, tidy types don’t leave a memorable mark, generally speaking.
Wislawa Symborska, via Poetry Dispatch:
To Mr. Br. K. of Laski: “Your poems in prose are permeated by the figure of the Great Poet who creates his remarkable works in a state of alcoholic euphoria. We might take a wild guess at whom you have in mind, but it’s not last names that concern us in the final analysis. Rather, it’s the misguided conviction that alcohol facilitates the act of writing, emboldens the imagination, sharpens wits, and performs many other useful functions in abetting the bardic spirit. My dear Mr. K., neither this poet, nor any of the others personally known to us, nor indeed any other poet has ever written anything great under the unadulterated influence of hard liquor. All good work arose in painstaking, painful sobriety, without any pleasant buzzing in the head. ‘I’ve always got ideas, but after vodka my head aches,’ Wyspianski said. If a poet drinks, it’s between one poem and the next. This is the stark reality. If alcohol promoted great poetry, then every third citizen of our nation would be a Horace at least. Thus we are forced to explode yet another legend. We hope that you will emerge unscathed from beneath the ruins.”
Indeed. Go read the whole collection, especially if you teach creative writing. It might become your textbook.
National Poetry Month is over. Whew. I actually squeezed out the 30 poems in 30 days, no cheating or using previously written material. I’ll admit, there have been years where I haven’t produced thirty drafts of poems, good or bad, and that can’t continue. It’s the most condensed period of writing I’ve ever done, and it was tough given the end of the term and the new responsibilities I took on over at The Rumpus. It’s been brutal at times, and I will admit that not all of what I wrote will likely survive to be revised or sent out. But it was a good exercise all the same, and one I plan to repeat more than once in the coming year.
So now starts the task of revision, submission, and putting together another manuscript. It never ends, and I’m glad for it.
P.S. Ive tried posting this for five days now. Here’s hoping it works tonight.