Britain terse over poetic verse

Oxford University's first female professor of poetry resigns. But nation's first female poet laureate is second only to Shakespeare in popularity.

Ben Birchall/AP
Ruth Padel, Oxford University's first female Professor of Poetry, speaks at a press conference at The Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, on Tuesday.

In the land of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, poetry has the power to stir passions – but it seldom dominates news headlines.

However, an unseemly row over the election of the first woman to Oxford University's prestigious post of professor of poetry – just weeks after the appointment of Britain's first female poet laureate – has pushed the art center-stage.

Ruth Padel, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin and the first women to hold the position at Oxford since its creation in 1708, has been reciting some words of mea culpa after being forced to resign this week.

Her crime?

It emerged that, during her campaign for the post, she tipped off journalists about past allegations of sexual harassment made by students at Harvard University in 1982 against her main rival, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott.

The St. Lucian-born writer, who had been the leading contender for the job, withdrew from the race after a dossier containing photocopied pages from a book detailing the allegations, The Lecherous Professor, was anonymously sent to 100 academics at Oxford.

Apology and withdrawal

"I apologize to Derek Walcott for doing something which could be misconstrued in the context of a large campaign that had nothing to do with me and which I didn't know about," Ms. Padel said in statement she read out at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales on Tuesday. She stepped down after learning that opinion in Oxford was "bitterly divided."

But there was a mixed reception to what many regarded as a half-hearted apology and her insistence that she had felt compelled to contact journalists because female students had come to her expressing concerns about Mr. Walcott's past.

He ruled out a second bid at the newly-vacant Oxford position, telling The Times newspaper on Tuesday that he did not want to revisit "that awful business".

Padel's fate was sealed at the weekend when the Sunday Times newspaper revealed the existence of the e-mails sent by her, after previously denying that she had mentioned Walcott's harassment record and/or being part of "any closed-door operation" to smear him.

Defenders of Padel have turned their fire on the media, specifically London arts journalists, accusing them of hypocrisy, malice, and a preoccupation with gossip. The novelist Jeanette Winterson, an Oxford graduate, told the Guardian that her alma mater was "a sexist little dump."

First female poet laureate

Among poetry lovers, there is sadness that the affair has come so soon after the groundbreaking appointment of Carol Ann Duffy – a Scottish poet widely admired for her accessible, sometimes gritty, and yet frequently innovative work – to the post of Britain's poet laureate.

Ms. Duffy, is openly gay and, according to one poll, her work is second only to Shakespeare in popularity among teenagers applying to study English. Many have lauded her for her ability to improve the popularity of poetry among the young. She has written about topics ranging from Diana, Princess of Wales, to the Iraq war, and President Barack Obama.

Her new role obliges her to produce poems for state occasions, including royal events, and was traditionally a job for life until former Prime Minister Tony Blair made it a 10-year term for previous holder, Andrew Motion.

Poetry renaissance

Benjamin Zephaniah, a British Rastafarian and writer who has also won admiration for his mission to reclaim poetry from academia on behalf of ordinary people, says that those who "care about poetry, or write poetry" would take little notice of the Oxford spat.

Although a friend of both Padel and Duffy, whose work he admires, he says that the most exciting developments in poetry were happening on the street, away from the world of academic posts and laureateships, while public interest was being fueled by new poetry shows on the BBC.

A couple of years ago, people were saying that poetry book sales were down and that there was a lack of interest," Mr. Zephaniah says.

"But for me the most fascinating thing that is going on is that kids are writing their own poetry and performing it everywhere, inside the school gates and in front of their friends just hanging out in shopping centers."

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