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Poetic injustice

Observations on poetry's poisonous side

The election for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University began as a contest, turned into a tragedy, and is now a farce.

The professor’s role is to give three lectures a year for five years. This time round, the election became a salacious saga when decades-old allegations of sexual misdemeanour surfaced against the leading candidate – the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Voters were reminded that Walcott had made inappropriate advances towards a female student at Harvard in the 1980s and had given her a low grade when she said no, only to give her a pass after she protested.

This, the campaign whispered, made him unworthy.

Walcott, who likes literary slugfests – he has called the other Caribbean Nobel laureate “V S Nightfall”, and last year wrote a forgettable poem criticising him – withdrew from the race. Ruth Padel, who had become the front-runner, decried the smears, while the third candidate, the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, maintained a quiet dignity.

With the votes in, Padel won, defeating Mehrotra 297-129. But then, over the May bank holiday weekend, newspapers revealed that Padel had pointed journalists to a book called The Lecherous Professor, which detailed allegations against Walcott. Padel said she had acted out of concern for female students and regretted sending the emails, and that she would not take up the post. This raised an interesting dilemma: can you resign from a post you have not yet assumed?

Poets can ponder the right word for it – but what next? Some have suggested fresh elections. Clive James has thrown his hat into the ring, and other names, such as Michael Longley and Margaret Atwood, are being floated. Anyone but Mehrotra, apparently.

But Mehrotra ran a clean campaign: he had neither made unwelcome advances in the past nor acted in an underhand manner lately. He is also an excellent poet. “From this distance,” he says, “from any distance, it all seems very unfortunate.” Even though he was a late entrant, he polled nearly a third of the valid votes, or “the largest number of votes by a long margin received by an outsider candidate”, as the novelist Amit Chaudhuri, who campaigned for Mehrotra, puts it.

Oxford is notoriously insular; some who opposed Walcott said that his living in the West Indies was a problem. Chaudhuri says the aim has always been to bring English-language poetry outside of Anglo-American literary tradition into the English frame. Mehrotra does exactly that.

When I asked him what his lectures would be about, he told me: “I would speak about the 2,500-year-old Indian poetic tradition, starting with the poets of the Gathasaptasati, then going on to the bhakti poets, like Kabir, who didn’t tire of pouring scorn on Hindu priests and Muslim mullahs alike, much as we do; and ending with lectures on contemporaries such as A K Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Eunice de Souza and Adil Jussawalla.”

That’s the kind of rich scholarship an ancient university needs. The last man standing would lend the post grace, which, at the moment, is in somewhat short supply.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother