Padel v. Walcott
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.