Oxford Professor of Poetry
The Professor of Poetry is a unique academic appointment at the University of Oxford. The chair was created in 1708 by an endowment from the estate of Henry Birkhead. The professorship carries an obligation to lecture, but is in effect a part-time position, requiring only three lectures each year. In addition, every second year (alternating with the University Orator), the Professor delivers the Creweian Oration, which offers formal thanks to benefactors of the University. Until 1968 this oration was delivered in Latin.
Currently, the professor is appointed to one five-year term. After individuals are nominated, an election is held in which the members of the university's Convocation are eligible to participate. Convocation consists of members of the faculty (Congregation) both current and retired, and former student members of the University who have been admitted to a degree (other than an honorary degree). In 2010, on-line voting was allowed for the first time. As of 2009[update], it carried a stipend of £6,901 (£4,695 as of 2005) plus £40 in travel expenses for each Creweian Oration.
Since 1708, 45 persons have been elected to the position including many prominent poets and academics. Although one, the only woman elected to the post, Ruth Padel, resigned prior to filling the post. The current Professor of Poetry is Geoffrey Hill, who was elected in June 2010.
The elections typically attract media attention and involve campaigning by proponents of quite diverse candidates. Previously both practising poets and academic critics have been chosen. In May 2009, amidst a media controversy during which Derek Walcott withdrew over allegations of his previous sexual harassment of university students, Ruth Padel was the first woman elected to the position since its inception. She resigned after nine days, when the media called for her to resign alleging that she had been involved in media dissemination of these allegations.
On 16 May 2009, Ruth Padel defeated the Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra to become the first woman elected to the post since its inception in 1708. The Nobel Prize-Winning candidate Derek Walcott had withdrawn his candidacy, after The Sunday Times and Cherwell revealed that various Oxford academics had been sent, anonymously, photocopied pages from The Lecherous Professor, a University of Illinois publication on the prevalence of sexual harassment in American universities, describing two such cases laid against Walcott at Harvard University and Boston University. Walcott's candidacy had been controversial within the University from the beginning, some counselling against on grounds of Walcott's university past, others arguing that his record was immaterial since he would have no contact with students. Newspapers had previously claimed Walcott was the favourite, but The Times pointed out that this was a lazy understanding of a system which does not in fact admit of favourites, since the number of supporters listed in the University Gazette gives no clue to the final outcome. Padel criticised the anonymous missives and denied any knowledge of them, though many in the media continued to insinuate her involvement. After her election, in a media storm which both demonstrated the vulnerability of this electoral system to media opinion and allowed the media simultaneously to pursue allegations in Walcott's university past and criticise Padel for having mentioned these allegations as a source of university voters' disquiet, two journalists who before the election had requested information from Padel regarding voters' opinions, revealed that she had cited to them the source of some people's unease about the suitability for appointment of someone with such a university record. It was clear these emails had not led to Walcott's withdrawal, since the journalists concerned had not acted on them. Padel stated, 'I wish he had not pulled out.' and resigned on 25 May. The Observer newspaper attributed the campaign against Padel to "toxicity of the metropolitan media" and letters to British newspapers criticised media handling of the election. A letter to the Times Literary Supplement, complained of unfair media pursuit of Walcott's past, a letter in The Guardian complained of unjust denigration of Padel, claiming she was "justly held in high regard" for her poetry and teaching, and a letter to The Times claimed that "Oxford has missed out for the worst of reasons. 'One can only speculate why so many male voices were loud in condemning Padel but silent with respect to Walcott. I attended a course taught by Ruth Padel: she was inspirational, involved, enthusiastic and interested in her students. Perhaps it was unwise of her to email journalists but if Walcott's past is "irrelevant to his suitability to fill the post of Professor of Poetry", so is Padel's "unwisdom". That Walcott removed the decision from the electorate was his own choice. Padel should not have been made to pay for his decision to confront neither his accusers nor his past." American commentators attributed this series of events to a gender war at Oxford, perceiving a "split across the Atlantic - with the Americans, the ones after all working with Walcott over the decades, taking those claims much more seriously" and finding the spectacle of academics 'negating a substantial anecdotal reputation' depressing." Wider poetry opinion in Britain supported Padel, attributing the smear campaign in the media to misogyny and networking. "The old boys have closed in on her", the poet Jackie Kay stated. On Newsnight Review the poet Simon Armitage and poetry writer Josephine Hart expressed regret about Padel's resignation. "Ruth's a good person", Armitage said. "She dipped a toe in the media whirlpool and it dragged her down. I don't think she should have resigned, she would have been good." The election was for a post beginning the first day of Michaelmas Term 2009 hence Padel did not take up office. In the 2010 election she supported Geoffrey Hill.
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On 7 May 2010, the University, having changed its system of voting to embrace online voters, confirmed that Paula Claire, Geoffrey Hill, Michael Horovitz, Steve Larkin, Chris Mann and seven others had been nominated as candidates for the position.
Paula Claire, the only woman standing, announced her withdrawal on 7 June 2010, citing concerns about the fairness of the election which were dismissed by the university authorities.
Persons elected to the position (1708–present)
|#||Portrait||Professor of Poetry||Took office||Left office||Career||Notes|
|2||—||Thomas Warton the Elder
|7||Thomas Warton the Younger
|13||—||John Josias Conybeare
|14||Henry Hart Milman
|17||Thomas Legh Claughton
|19||Francis Hastings Doyle
|20||John Campbell Shairp
|21||Francis Turner Palgrave
|23||A. C. Bradley
|24||John William Mackail
|25||Thomas Herbert Warren
|26||William Paton Ker
|27||—||Heathcote William Garrod
|28||—||Ernest de Sélincourt
|29||—||George Stuart Gordon
|33||W. H. Auden
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- [‘Don’t wrong Ruth Padel’, Letters, The Guardian May 28, 2009]
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- University of Oxford, About the University: Past Professors of Poetry. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
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- Liddon, Henry Parry, Chapter XXVII: Visit to Ireland—The Jerusalem Bishopric—The Poetry Professorship—Friendly Remonstrances. 1841–1842., Life of Edward Bouverie Pusey, Volume 2 (London: Longmans, 1894), quote: "Mr. Garbett's name had not been in the first instance suggested by any purely literary anxiety to provide for the discharge of the duties of the Poetry chair". Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- The Nobel Prize in Literature 1995. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
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