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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Poets, Academia: A Couplet in Conflict

The idea was that penalizing candidates for dubious conduct would have disqualified many famous poets. Which is true: plenty of not-very-nice people have written very good poems, and had Oxford been electing an official “Oxford poet,” it’s conceivable that the allegations against Mr. Walcott would have been less problematic for some voters (all Oxford graduates may vote for the position). The only thing that would matter then, at least in theory, would be the poetry itself.
The difficulty, however, is that the Oxford contest was not intended to elect a poet but “the Oxford professor of poetry.” The title alone puts the contest squarely in the uncertain area between poetry and academia, even if the job itself involves only a few lectures and no class supervision. Indeed, the current professor of poetry, Christopher Ricks, is a critic who defeated a greatly admired poet, Peter Porter, for the post. So it seems reasonable to say that the professor of poetry position represents not just an academic view of “the poet,” but a view of “the poet” as he or she should exist in academia. Given how complicated that existence has often been, it should surprise no one that university life has again been disrupted by poets who, like Frost, just don’t believe in going to school.


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