It’s been a scuffle of candidate platforms, fickle endorsements and even a few dignified bouts of mud-slinging — and for once, the hubbub had nothing to do with American politics. In fact, it featured a cast of characters you might not have expected: those men and women of letters, the poets.
On Friday, British poet Simon Armitage won election as the newest Oxford professor of poetry. He edged out Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and American poet A.E. Stallings.
The post, which is widely considered the second-most prestigious position in British literature (behind only the country’s poet laureate), was established at the University of Oxford in 1708. In the centuries since, the chair has sported an impressive list of title-holders — including Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden and, more recently, Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry editor at The New Yorker. The winner is chosen by a host of voters called the Convocation, a mixture of current and former faculty at the school, as well as Oxford alumni.
But enough of the throat-clearing; now to the fuss: Armitage had been just one of five candidates nominated for the position. The list featured not only Soyinka and Stallings, but also Ian Gregson and Sean Haldane. Shortly after voting began in late May, one of Soyinka’s most prominent backers, former broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, publicly withdrew his support for the Nigerian poet and playwright.
“Soyinka is a grand man and would regard it as a grand post,” Bragg said of Soyinka, in comments made to the Sunday Times, but “I also query his age.” In the same conversation, Bragg also said that the 80-year-old poet “has not written much poetry recently and I now wonder how often he would bother to come to Oxford.”
Bragg later clarified, in a letter to The Guardian, that he did not intend to disparage Soyinka’s age.
“I have had the greatest admiration for Soyinka’s remarkable work and his political courage for many years. I was delighted when he won the Nobel prize,” he added. “But when I learned that Simon Armitage had applied for the Oxford post, I thought that he would be a better choice for what I think is required.”
Soyinka responded quickly: “How curious that anyone would even speculate that I would allow busy and committed people — friends, colleagues and total strangers — to waste their time nominating and campaigning on my behalf for such a prestigious position if I were not serious about contesting.”
Soyinka had begun the voting period as a heavy favorite for the position, amassing more than 140 nominations compared with Armitage’s 58. (A poet needs 50 to be considered a candidate.) And others had even gone so far as to declare that winning the position “should be a cinch” for Soyinka.
But as The Guardian notes, this is not the first race in recent years to draw a tumult, and not even the first to involve a Nobel laureate:
“In 2009, Ruth Padel was elected by Oxford graduates to the post, but remained in position for less than two weeks, resigning in the wake of charges that she had leaked to journalists the allegations of sexual harassment which had been made against her rival, the St Lucian writer Derek Walcott.”
Despite all the intrigue and dust-ups, perhaps we should instead take a page from Armitage’s own poetry and take a bird’s-eye view of the drama. As he writes in his aptly titled poem, “Poem”:
“Here’s how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.”
Armitage will succeed the current professor of poetry, Geoffrey Hill, this year.