The battle for the coveted post of Oxford Professor of Poetry begins in earnest this week after nominations closed on Wednesday.
Ruth Padel, Derek Walcott and Arvind Mehrotra will compete on 16 May in an effort to win what is seen as the most prestigious position in poetry after that of Poet Laureate.
It is the first time in the post’s 300-year-history that a woman and a Caribbean have been campaigning for the position.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a little-known Indian writer, livened up the race by joining less than a week before the nominations closed.
The race has been somewhat overshadowed, however, by opponents of Derek Walcott claiming he is an unsuitable candidate for the position as he has been reprimanded for sexual harassment.
Current Professor Christopher Ricks will step down from the position in September to make way for the new incumbent. In the past, the post has been held by such poets as Seamus Heaney, Robert Graves and W. H. Auden.
The position comes with a salary of £6,901 and a requirement to deliver three annual lectures. The Professor of Poetry is unique in Oxford as the only elected academic position.
Candidates must receive nominations from at least 12 Oxford graduates to be eligible to stand. The successful poet is then chosen by election, in which all Oxford degree holders are eligible to vote.
Prize-winning poet Ruth Padel was the first to be nominated this year. She is supported by the philosopher AC Grayling and the eminent scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Padel, who has a particular interest in the links between poetry and science, has said she hopes to encourage connections across the arts and sciences within the university. Her latest volume, ‘Darwin: A Life in Verse’, was written to mark the bicentenary of her ancestor, the father of evolutionary study. She has been dubbed “a voice of great authority and integrity” and placed “among the most gifted poets of her generation” by literary critics. A vigorous campaign is behind her candidacy, with supporters having created a website to promote her cause.
She will face competition in the form of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, the West-Indian poet and playwright. Walcott won the Nobel prize for literature in 1992, founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and has worked as a critic and lecturer. In a statement, Walcott’s nominators said that his appointment would be “a very significant and distinguished event for Oxford’s place in the literary world”. If chosen, Walcott would be the first African-American to take up the post.
Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra made a surprise third entry in the contest. Mehrotra, a poet and critic currently lecturing at the University of Allahabad, has held poetry posts around the world and been described as “one of the finest poets working in any language”. His poetry is described as “a rich, fraught world history of cosmopolitanism”. Supporters have said that his interests in multilingualism, translation and creative practice would make him a “timely” choice for the position.
May will also witness the announcement of Andrew Motion’s successor as poet laureate. Unlike the elected Oxford position, the poet laureate is appointed by Queen on the recommendation of the Culture Minister. Speculation that Motion might put himself forward for the Oxford position was ruled out in February when he announced his intention to take a break from “public poeting”. He criticised the professorship as being in “drastic need of an overhaul”, saying that it was “too vague” in its teaching requirements, and that the pay was “lousy”.
Dr Sally Mapstone, chair of the English Faculty Board said, “The high level of interest in the Professorship of Poetry in Oxford, in the UK, and across the world indicates how much poetry matters to people and how much relevance this chair still has. With three strong candidates, it looks like the election may be a close run thing on the day.”
She added, “We hope that as many members of Convocation (graduates of the University) will come to Oxford on the day to vote in the Examination Schools – where most of them will have sat their examinations in the past. There is a good chance too that the Proctors will be able to announce the result on the day, so we are in for an exciting 16th of May.”