This past spring, Poetry gracelessly stumbled into the public spotlight with a controversy more typically witnessed in the political circus. Derek Walcott withdrew from his candidacy for Oxford Professor of Poetry in the face of rehashed allegations that he sexually harassed students at Boston University and Harvard in the 80s and 90s. The rehashing was immaturely enacted by his chief opponent for the position, Ruth Padel, who, after winning the election, resigned the post because her success was tainted by the scandal; her colleagues and supporters, knowing the truth, encouraged her to do the right thing and give it up. If only she could have done the right thing in the first place and run an upright campaign. But she didn’t. She wanted the professorship, the prestige, and to be a pioneer (she would have been the first woman ever to wear that hat). I’m not saying it would have been a fair fight–Walcott is one of the world’s most well-known and admired poets. Perhaps for her to conquer, it was necessary for her to stoop.
Indeed, whenever there is an election of any sort, whether it be for hall monitor or President of the United States, political schemes will routinely, if tiresomely, play a part. As many of today’s more (and less) visible poets reside in Academia, you might think that they would be dignified enough to rise above such common commotion. But in an ivory tower or not, they are still poets, and poets are still people. As Clive James opines in a recent article for the BBC, “good poets are often frail people, and people who are not frail are seldom good poets.” Perhaps it is their humanity that lures poets to such depths–to the depths of alleged sexual harassment and admitted skullduggery alike. I can practically see Padel sitting at her computer–The Lecherous Professor lies open to her guilt-ridden glances, tempting her itchy fingers into sin. In my hypothetical vision, she’s seething inside, thinking, “They’re going to give this prestigious university position to this licentious man! He doesn’t deserve it! OK, yes, he is a good poet, but I’m just as good! [Every poet likes her own poetry best.] He doesn’t even live here in bloody England! He’s only got the name!” Her indignation rages, or at least mine would. And then she wonders just how far she can push the lines of political indecency. She rationalizes, “I’m not saying anything that isn’t true.” She convinces herself, “it’s for the welfare of the students.” It’s human nature– base, primitive, easy human nature.
In his article on this particular kerfuffle, James goes on to cite former occupants of the position, such as WB Yeats and Philip Larkin, who, due to their social improprieties and their susceptibility to human nature, would nowadays never make it past the vetting process for the Oxford Professorship. After all the deserved tut-tutting directed at Ms. Padel, I’m not sure whether it is worse to make mud or to sling it, but it seems almost no one wins in this fight. Except maybe the third candidate, Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra, who has remained somewhat in the shadows of the controversy, eclipsed on either side by a poet giant and another who would like to be a poet giant. Some are calling for him to assume the position, but, according to his Wikipedia page, he remains undecided and uncommitted.
There might be one more winner, though. Namely, Poetry.
I can honestly say that learning about Mr. Walcott’s alleged attempted dalliances won’t make me stop reading or enjoying his poetry. Art cannot be dismissed solely on the basis of the creator’s (supposed or confirmed) misconduct. How could you ever watch a Roman Polanski film? Or listen to Miles Davis? Or to Mozart for that matter? No, this scandal should not diminish anyone’s attention to these poets. Nor should these poets or the poetry world withdraw in shame. I believe Poetry stands to benefit here. With any luck, the attention may rekindle some public interest in a widely neglected art form. I have never read Ruth Padel’s poetry or anything by Arvind Mehrotra, but now I’m intrigued, particularly by the former. (Where’s your bad behavior, Mr. Mehrotra?) Perhaps poetry could use a bit more deplorable deportment, some of that good ol’ rock ‘n roll badassitude that ignites a generation. Ms. Padel and Mr. Walcott, naughty as they are, might not be the faces for a new, young generation of verse-spewing rebels, but now, as the public’s consumption of poetry ebbs to an all-time low, is the perfect moment to bring poetry to the streets for a bit of revolution–one that could even start with the abolition of a position that has become naught but an irrelevant ivory fossil. OK, maybe that reaction is a bit rash–the professorship certainly is not irrelevant to many of those in the literati nor to high-flying culture vultures. But the distance between Academia’s hallowed halls and the avenues of the masses seems to be growing at an ever-quickening pace, begging the question, how do we bring the People back to Poetry? Or perhaps more appropriately, how do we bring Poetry back to the People? In any case, if there is a revolution, please remember, it’s DBYOG–don’t bring your own guillotine. In a poetry revolution, only metaphorical heads should roll.
By Lisa Grove