Oxford University faces backlash after change to Professor of Poetry nomination rules

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Changes to the rules for the Professor of Poetry competition has left the University of Oxford facing accusation of ageism. The new rules in place prevent poets over the age of 69 years old being eligible for standing.

The Professor of Poetry position is elected every four years. It is regarded as one of the most prestigious positions poets can hold, and involves the delivery of one lecture every term by the position holder.

Jonathon Ellis, academic at the University of Sheffield with the twitter handle @JonathonSEllis, tweeted his disappointment to find that Denise Riley was not eligible to stand, writing: “I nominated Denise Riley because she’s an absolutely brilliant poet and critic. Apparently, she is ineligible to stand because of a new rule about mandatory retirement ages.

“For future elections I hope this ridiculous new rule is abolished since it clearly hinders poets (particularly women poets) whose career is interrupted and who thus end up publishing later in life”.

Concerns that the rule change may hinder women poets is likely intensified by the fact that no Professor of Poetry has ever been female.

Marcus Walker, with the twitter handle @WalkerMarcus, expressed his support of Jonathon Ellis’ tweets, writing on twitter: “Having been nominated for the position of Professor of Poetry of the University of Oxford myself (at the tender age of 22), I endorse this thread”.

A spokesman for The University of Oxford told The Telegraph: “The University of Oxford operates an Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) for employees in all academic posts.

“From 1 October 2017, the University has adopted an EJRA of 30 September before the employee’s 69th birthday. Despite its unusual appointment process and duties, as an employed professorship the Professorship of Poetry is subject to the EJRA”

Three candidates have passed the threshold of 50 nominations from members of the Convocation: Andrew McMillan, Alice Oswalk and Todd Swift.

Andrew McMillan grew up in in south Yorkshire, studying English at Lancaster and University College London before becoming a lecturer in creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University. His debut collection physical was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. His second collection, playtime, was published in 2018 and it was a Poetry Book of the Month in both The Observer and The Telegraph and a Poetry Book of the Year in The Sunday Times.He is senior lecturer at the Manchester Writing School at MMU.

Alice Oswalk read classics at New College, Oxford. Her first collection of poetry, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), received a Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Memorial (2011), a reworking of Homer’s Iliad,  has received high critical praise for its innovative approach and imagery,  and won the 2013 Warwick Prize for writing.

Todd Swift was born in Montreal and earned a BA at Concordia University and an MA and a PhD at the University of East Anglia. He has published eight collections of poetry in the UK, Ireland and Canada.From 2005 on Swift has run the literary blog Eyewear.He is currently Senior Lecturer in Writing at the University of Worcester.

Voting will be open to members of Convocation, a group that includes a quarter of a million Oxford graduates who have had their degree formally conferred, and several thousand members of staff who make up the University’s ‘parliament’, known as Congregation.

Voting opens on Thursday 23 May and closes on Thursday 20 June, and the result of the election will be announced on Friday 21 June.