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What exactly is the point of the Oxford Professor of Poetry? And will Wole win it?

2 June 2015

4:24 PM

2 June 2015

4:24 PM

‘People are terribly interested in the election,’ said Christopher Ricks before his 2004 inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, ‘but then not terribly interested in the lecture, which I’m afraid is life.’ This year even the election campaign has been quite subdued. There has been no anonymous smear campaign as in 2009, no wildcard candidate like Stephen Moss in 2010 (‘Yes we scan!’), and only one, very tame, squabble after Melvyn Bragg switched his support from Wole Soyinka to Simon Armitage.

There remains an awkward question about whether the Professorship election deserves all the fuss. The same question applies to the poet laureateship, and it relates to what Ian Gregson – one of the candidates – calls ‘the major issue facing contemporary poetry, which is, nonetheless, the one most shunned in the poetry world: how poetry has suffered, in recent decades, a catastrophic loss of cultural prestige and popularity.’ Gregson says he will dedicate his tenure to addressing that issue. As he remarks, if we had a Dylan Thomas or a Sylvia Plath living among us, it’s doubtful whether anybody would notice.

Jeremy Paxman made a similar observation last year, when judging the Forward prize: ‘It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.’ Gregson doesn’t blame poets so much as TV and new media, which (he suggests) have left us with short attention spans more receptive to images than words.

It would be good to see Gregson develop his argument, but given the calibre of his rivals he is unlikely to get the chance. Wole Soyinka seems to be the frontrunner, which is fair enough: none of the other candidates have ever won the Nobel Prize, been sent to prison for their writing, or produced over 50 years’ worth of serious and influential reflection about culture and politics. Soyinka’s prose can, admittedly, be hard going. ‘One of the tribulations of an eclectic approach to creativity – which I consider the only reliable antidote to the ever-changing establishment monomania of the artistic world – is that genuine eclecticism manifests itself in awareness more than in application.’ Once you’ve read that three times, it turns out to be a useful thought. But – well, Oxford students, you have been warned.

Among the other candidates, there is a strong case to be made for A.E. Stallings. Not only does she write graceful, melancholic and ingenious poems, she’s also a natural communicator who can give a mean TED Talk. Further back in the field, Seán Haldane says he will try to emulate the ‘provocative’ style of Robert Graves, who held the post in the 60s. Haldane also reveals that early in his career he made a lifelong pledge ‘never to make a living from poetry or by teaching it’. Most of the poets I know have achieved a similar record without even trying.

Not Simon Armitage, though. In gaining a wide readership, Armitage has become an ambassador for poetry, and he has done it without dumbing down. Notwithstanding his bland mission statement (‘Most poets are critics at some level’), he has a star quality alongside his intelligence which could make the Professorship as interesting as the election – if anyone can.

Which brings us back to Ian Gregson. Gregson might be wrong to blame the internet; he might be exaggerating poetry’s decline. Even so, he is asking a significant question, and he should write a book about this in the likely event that somebody else wins.

Dan Hitchens is a doctoral student in English at the University of Oxford

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