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2 August 2023

How AE Stallings joined Oxford’s professor of poetry canon

The playful, unpredictable poet knows she is an outsider entering a male-dominated corpus.

By Emily Formstone

In October 2023, AE Stallings will become the second woman to be Oxford professor of poetry since the position was established in 1708. She succeeds Alice Oswald, and her predecessors include poets such as Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day-Lewis and Seamus Heaney.

The professorship carries with it prestige and the role of delivering a termly lecture on a poetic subject for Oxford University undergraduates, postgraduates and academics. Though it is in theory an academic position, it is usually taken up by career poets, who can both critique and create.

Stallings is well placed to tackle both tasks. She has published five poetry collections, is a frequent contributor to literary publications, and has translated Lucretius and Hesiod. She describes herself as “poet, critic, translator, docta puella”. The term “docta puella”, meaning “learned girl”, who outsmarts the gaze of the male poet, signals Stallings’s status as an outsider entering a male-dominated corpus. But in her work Stallings removes biography from the page, and has stated that she “isn’t interested in expressing herself”.

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Born in Decatur in the US state of Georgia in 1968, Stallings read Classics at the universities of Georgia and Oxford before moving to Athens in 1999. Her work bears the influences of both ancient and modern Greek culture, and Greek and Latin phrases are laced through her verse. Even the photo chosen for her election announcement features a glimpse of the Parthenon. But there is no pretension in her poetry: myth and fairytale are juxtaposed with images of phone books and bra straps. Burials and archaeologists are commonly encountered, with the poet arising as an excavator, a shaper of language and metre into “still more perfect order”, as she writes in “Eurydice’s Footnote”.

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Stallings has experimented across a wide array of forms: proverbs, lullabies, elegies and triolets appear throughout her collections. (The New Statesman summer special includes one of her riddles.) She favours refrains, playfully citing them as a time-efficient technique for the busy “mommy-poet”.

Hers are poems to be read aloud. In “Presto Manifesto!”, Stallings explains her relationship with poetic sound: “Rhymes may be so far apart, you cannot hear them, but they can hear each other.” This not only applies to the sounds within individual poems, but to Stallings as a poet in dialogue with classical and modern literature.

The role of professor of poetry guarantees Stallings an audience – though the position garners less and less attention each year. The lecture halls are emptier than they used to be: but what can those who do attend expect from Stallings? Discussions of tradition, form, rhythm and motherhood seem likely. But Stallings is predictably unpredictable. Perhaps that in itself will bring a newfound sense of vitality to the position.

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