Derek Walcott: withdrew, Ruth Padel: resigned
At the time of writing, in the first days of June, it is still not clear why Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has not been declared winner of the election for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, the other two candidates having pulled out, one before the election, the other after. As the only surviving candidate, surely he should have been given the job automatically. Perhaps he himself resigned too quickly, having got the idea that resigning was the thing to do. The chair left vacant, the election was postponed until later in the year, and speculation has already started about who might stand. Names have been put forward. One of them, startlingly, is mine. How did that happen?
It started happening a few days before the election, when I was being interviewed, nominally about my latest collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, a book I mention here because it wasn't mentioned in the interview even once. My interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, was charming, so when she asked me a question I did the thing I always do when asked a question by a charming woman. I opened my mouth to its full extent and put my foot in it up to the knee. The question was about the Oxford Poetry Professorship election debacle. "Would I like the job?" (Those might not have been her exact words, but that was the main thrust.) My answer (and these are far fewer than my exact words, but this is the thread) was: "I would love it, but not if I had to run in an election." She used only the first bit — that I would love to have the job — and the Guardian editors flagged it as "Clive James throws his hat in the ring".
In reality, Clive James had already made it clear that he would rather throw himself off a cliff. But the thing had been said, the Australian papers had the story next day, a Spanish paper, bizarrely, had the story the day after that, and within a week my supposed candidature in the postponed election was being discussed, with at least two pundits in the British broadsheet weekend press allowing that I might not be a bad choice, in the absence of William McGonagall, E. J. Thribb or Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who wrote a terza rima encomium to Adolf Hitler.
In my house on a Sunday morning, the major papers are read collectively by every female in the family, including the cat. Very soon, I was facing a tribunal. "Please say that not even you could be that stupid." "You aren't thinking about it, are you?" "You aren't." The cat was right: I wasn't thinking about it. Not in the sense of actually going for it. But I couldn't help thinking about the job itself.
It is always a doomed effort to say, "Let this cup pass from me" when you have already pronounced it attractive. And I do indeed find the Oxford Poetry Professorship just about the most attractive cup of its kind in existence. I would imagine that any poet who has spent his or her lifetime at the craft can only feel the same. The botched election might have made it a poisoned chalice, but what a chalice it is. You have only to think of the string of poets since the Second World War — Day Lewis, Auden, Graves, Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Heaney, Fenton, Muldoon — and think of how much you would have liked to hear them speak, summing up their knowledge, opening up whole fields of interest with the merest aside. You have only to think of how you would have quarrelled about them. Was Graves certifiable or merely potty? Wasn't Blunden a dim bulb beside the candidate he beat into second place, Robert Lowell? (Perhaps: but it was Blunden who wrote Undertones of War.) How could such an uneven poet as Wain be so fine a critic? You have only to think of one book: Heaney's magnificent The Redress of Poetry, his richest critical work, and nearly all of it based on the lectures he gave while he held the office. In that book, he joined poetry to the world. Read it, students, and begin your adventure.
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