Monday, May 31, 2010

Oxford's Professor of Poetry

Every five years I have the opportunity to participate in a unique democratic exercise--the election of the Oxford Professor of Poetry. My suffrage was first granted six years ago when I became a member of the Oxford Convocation, which consists of all matriculated students and alumni of the University, and was cemented for the rest of my living days when I received my M.St. one year later. If any institution exists in the next life, however, it's probably (for better or for worse) Oxford, so there's a good chance I'll be voting in this election in perpetuity.

Convocation Members, not discussing the Oxford Professor of Poetry
Paul Muldoon held the Chair during my M.St. year, and in addition to receiving a salary of roughly £5,000, he delivered three public lectures at the Sheldonian; I attended the last one, in Trinity Term, which was less a lecture than a conversation with Seamus Heaney, who was conveniently visiting Oxfordshire that week. Both poets read, and while I can't remember if Muldoon read Heaney's work or vice versa, I do remember that the experience of hearing their rich brogues dancing through the poetic cadences, and under the eyes of the Sheldonian cherubs, no less, was positively heady. I left the Theatre in an ebullient daze, and was basically babbling when I returned to the Somerville MCR. Even now, when I read Heaney's "The Real Names", I get goosebumps.
As election watchers know, my second chance to vote should not have been this year, but instead 2014; after Muldoon finished his term, Christopher Ricks assumed the Chair, and his tenure should have ended in 2009. However, due to a little incident known as the Walcott-Padel Controversy of 2008, which resulted in both the withdrawal of Derek Walcott from contention and the election and resignation of Ruth Padel (who was also the first woman to win the Chair), Ricks stayed around for an additional year, and the Convocation is now voting again. Despite, or perhaps because of, this aberration, the recent issue of Oxford's English Faculty News made no mention of this scandal, with the exception of the following oblique statement: "As readers will know, the election in May 2009 for the next Professor of Poetry resulted in the elected candidate's standing down from the post without ever taking it up". Ah, British circumspection. In keeping with this reticence, I'll offer two observations--first, I love how "The Walcott-Padel Controversy of 2008" possesses the same titular ring as Acts of Congress or landmark legal cases (e.g. "The Glass-Steagall Act" or "The Dred Scott Decision"). Second, instead of explaining the nuts and bolts of this poetic scandal, and in line with how most voters educate themselves on significant issues, I encourage you just to Google it.
Being the good Convocation citizen that I am--for this is truly a scenario in which "citizen" holds the full original meaning of civis--I registered, received my voting codes from the British Electoral Reform Services, and voted. For whom, one might ask, did I cast my vote? A poet of integrity, of course. A poet who can memorialize Plantagenet kings as well as that bad a** Mercian Offa, a poet who can elegize and word-play, a poet who can rhyme "door" with "moor". I voted for Geoffrey Hill. And with that vote, I hope to help usher in a new era of poetic partisanship, poem-making, and positive poetic discourse. Dominus Illuminatio Mea!

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