Ode to Oxford

The elections for the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford are now once again underway, with Geoffrey Hill being tipped as the frontrunner for the position at the time of going to press.

Media coverage of the contest has been extensive, following the widely reported resignation of Ruth Padel from the position last year, after she was linked to the smear campaign that had prompted the leading candidate and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott to withdraw his candidacy.

For all its prestige, however, it is a rather vague academic appointment. The incumbent is only required to make three lectures a year, and the job description is simply to “encourage the art of poetry in the university”, whatever that may involve.

The reputation of the post, which was created in 1708 following a bequest by the 17th century academic Henry Birkhead, has thus centred on the leading figures that have held the post, such as W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney.

The elections, usually held every five years, are open to all graduates and current academics of the university: the successful candidate will be announced at the end of June and should, smear campaigns allowing, take up the post next Michaelmas.

Poetry has long been a central component of Oxford’s identity in the popular imagination. The classic evocation of Oxford as “that sweet city with her dreaming spires” comes from the poem Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold, who coined this description of the view of Oxford from Boars Hill whilst Professor of Poetry in 1865.

Keble College is named after the poet John Keble, and the artist and poet John Ruskin founded the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in the 1870s.

At least seven poet laureates have attended Oxford, with other poets claiming Oxford as their alma mater including John Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman and Philip Larkin.
The university also runs several poetry competitions, including the Eugene Lee-Hamilton Prize, the Lord Alfred Douglas Memorial Prize, and the Newdigate Prize, which have in their time awarded prizes to talented young students like Andrew Motion and Oscar Wilde.

Nowadays, the main port of call for poetry aficionados in Oxford is the Oxford University Poetry Society, which advertises itself as “the centre of undergraduate poetic life”.

Whilst it is student-run, it includes members of the university and the public alike, and has attracted a long line of well-known poets to its Thursday readings, which take place at a variety of different locations like the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Jericho.

This close proximity to the greats of the British poetic community certainly places Oxford students in a privileged position; but it can understandably be a rather daunting place for a student to launch their poetic ambitions.

This perhaps explains why there is a strange disparity in the Oxford poetry scene, with a sizeable amount of student creative-writing taking place at the collegiate, rather than the university, level.

So how can the new Professor of Poetry and students work to further “encourage the art of poetry in the university”?

Whilst not perhaps for the faint-hearted, these poetry-readings are made more accessible by including mixing student performances with those of established poets.

An added emphasis on performance art has also been suggested, merging poetry readings with musical performances and art so as to attract a more diverse crowd.

The rewards and the accolades are already there for the taking; the challenge is to keep pushing new creative talent forward.