Thursday, March 25, 2010

When Poetry Gets Political


JUST LIKE IN THE U.S., a controversy over a poetry professorship is a major news story in England.

I love it when the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times write about the importance of poetry professors in their pages. It always reminds us of the important role poetry plays in the unfolding drama that is American Life.

The drama of the Oxford Poetry Professorship is showing aspects of Americanness in that it has now reached Angelina/Jennifer proportions.

Poet Ruth Padel was elected to the prestigious post last may--the first woman to hold the position in the 300+ year history of the professorship. But, after only 9 days in the chair, she resigned.

Her appointment was not without some drama itself, as she was pitted against Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott, who himself withdrew from the competition after a report accounting a history of sexual harassment allegations was leaked to the press and to the Oxford dons who vote on the position. Walcott cried foul, indicating a smear campaign against him.

Padel denied having anything to do with the rumors, but just days after assuming the coveted post--an appointment that was groundbreaking from the perspective of gender equality--reporters revealed that Padel had been a source for the anti-Walcott scuttlebutt.

Enter Geoffrey Hill.

The 77-year old Oxford Alum has a reputation for being only slightly more cranky than his photo (above) might suggest. Considered by many to be among the most talented living British poets, Hill has a bizarre reputation for being both too conservative and too violent. But, Hill and his reputation aside; what's interesting is how this battle is being acted out on the public stage.

On one level, who is elected to the post is less important than the degree to which the position has become part of the national conversation in England. Matthew Arnold and W. H. Auden held the professorship, so for Brits this post figures into the larger English identity.

Put another way, this is newsworthy because Englanders know that the Oxford Professor of Poetry is a statement about their artistic and intellectual values. Brits see themselves through a literary lens in a vastly different way than Americans do. In part this is historical, but it's also cultural.

One wonders when (or if) a similar situation in America will become as noteworthy as it is with our neighbors across the pond.

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