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May 12, 2009


Note to Obama: This is not your next Poet Laureate

This story includes weirdo Oxbridge traditions, a Nobel Laureate/sexual harasser and an anonymous smear campaign. So... Oxford University elects a Professor of Poetry every five years. The tradition has been in place since 1708, and previous Professors of Poetry include Seamus Heaney, Robert Graves and W.H. Auden, as well as a bunch of men I have never heard of. The voters are anyone with a degree from Oxford (except for those fakey honorary degree people, no votes for you). Oh, and it's not really a job or anything. It consists of a small salary, an even smaller amount of work and a fancy professorial title.

This year there were three candidates, one of whom was Derek Walcott. Walcott is a Nobel laureate. But he's now withdrawn because people keep talking about his history of sexual harassment.

He's been accused of sexual harassment at least three times, has never denied it, and seems to have reached a settlement with at least one of his accusers. Salacious details of one of the incidents are here, and in a book called The Lecherous Professor, including a dirty comment he made to one student about "licking".

An anonymous person or group felt that Oxford should not be honoring this harasser, so they bombarded various Oxford folks with an anonymous note. Meanwhile, various prominent poets like Carol Ann Duffy and AC Grayling were taking sides in the election. And it really is an election, with campaign statements etc. His 'flysheet' states his credentials and his endorsements, and includes a poem.

Some of Walcott's supporters think his little sexual harrassment problem shouldn't get in the way:

[Feminist Scholar] Professor Hermione Lee, a campaigner for Derek Walcott, said that these allegations should not interfere with Derek Walcott's running for the post.

She said, "I ask myself how far this puritanism might go. Should students be forbidden to read Derek Walcott's poetry, lest they be contaminated by his long past behaviour?"

"I am campaigning for a professor of poetry who will be a person giving public lectures to students and professors. I am not campaigning for someone who will be in pastoral relations to students."

"This matter has arose in the past, when Derek Walcott was given a honorary D.Lit at Oxford and these issues were raised at the time as with the many awards and positions that Mr Walcott holds. These historic matters of previous bad behaviour were set aside."

She added, "You might ask yourself as a student body whether you wanted Byron or Shelley as a professor of poetry neither of whom personal lives were free of criticism."

There were rumors that Walcott would speak at the Obama inauguration, since Obama has been caught reading him (see photo above) but apparently Obama's vetting team knew better. He wrote a poem entitled "Forty Acres" to mark the occasion anyway.

Walcott has dropped out of the race, claiming a character assassination. Now it looks like the Oxford Professor of Poetry will be Ruth Padel, the first woman to hold the position.

Tx Amy.

categories: Books
posted by Cushie at 3:19 PM | #

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I am also hoping that Hermione Lee did not use that ridiculously poor grammar, but was misquoted.

Posted by: cushie at May 12, 2009 4:03 PM

The best/grossest anecdote from that Harvard student that Walcott harassed is this, as quoted in The Independent:

"He proposed they share a secret code so that if her asked her, in class, "Oui?" she could say "Oui" back. The book relates that she failed to say, "Oui" at any point but told an adviser, who suggested she write to Walcott asking him to cease these games."

I wish that when Walcott said "Oui?" to her in class, she had replied, "No f'ing way, Professor Oui-ner."

Posted by: Amy at May 12, 2009 4:10 PM

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