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Poetic License


The Oxford poetry scandal is making headlines. But back in the day we expected writers to be wild.

Poets do not often make the first page of The New York Times. Poetry professors even less. But thanks to a scandal across the pond, we get to read about poets sending anonymous emails to reporters, organized smear campaigns, sexual harassment charges, and humiliating resignations.Here's the backstory: the Oxford University chair of poetry is a prestigious British post-second only to Poet Laureate in the poetry hierarchy. He (and it has been a he for 301 straight years, save for a single week), receives about $11,000 dollars a year, and the duties consist of giving three lectures a year. The chair is elected by a large group: Oxford professors and anyone who holds an Oxford degree.When the post opened up recently, three finalists were chosen: Derek Walcott, Ruth Padel, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Literati campaigned for their favorites: Alan Hollingsworth backed Nobel Laureate Walcott, initially the frontrunner, and Carol Ann Duffy, the new (and first female) poet laureate, threw her support behind Padel, the great-great grandaughter of Charles Darwin.Late in the race, Walcott withdrew from the election after it was revealed he had twice been accused of sexual harassment. A book from the 1984, The Lecherous Professor, described these charges, and packages containing the book were sent, anonymously, to key people. Eventually, Padel was appointed the new chair.She held the post for 10 days before resigning, admitting she had participated in the anti-Walcott smear campaign by sending emails to two reporters, alerting them of Walcott's alleged past sexual misdeeds.Go ahead, laugh. It is rather funny, these preposterous poets, with so little actual capital, raising hell over their small slice of cultural capital. It is also sad, too, to think of Padel, whose life is devoted to keeping a dying art form alive, reduced to playing dirty to get that slice.But the scandal is also revealing a shift in how we perceive poets. Back in the day, we wanted them to be cads, didn't we? It was part of their appeal, their big "R" Romanticism. Byron was a philanderer, Coleridge loved to get high, Pound was a fascist, and scads of others were just plain drunks and adulterers. Don't tell me you did not consider these backstories part of those boys' luster, and cite these biographical tidbits over beers. Walcott's come-ons to students-one he settled by changing a "C" to a Pass and the other was settled out of court-used to be sort of stuff considered proof positive of Great Poet-ness.Another interesting angle involves sexual harassment within universities. Before it became an offense to have sexual relations with a student, consensual or not, academics often married their students (usually a male professor marrying a female student). And having dalliances was part of the game, part of the mystique of studying and professing writing. There is a cottage industry of novels about English profs representing such affairs-Francine Prose's Blue Angel and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace are but two of many notable examples. Had all this been played in the 1960s, say, Walcott's actions would have been appropriately louche. Over the past two decades, we have made these deeds into skeletons, and built a closet into which they must be stuffed.What place should morality have in deciding on the prestige of our greatest writers? There are few spoils-the Oxford chair of poetry receives little money and does not teach students. And there are few contemporary poems to rival Walcott's "Omeros." Think about it: do we really want poets to have to pass the test of clean living?
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