As far as the British literary landscape is concerned, few public appointments provoke such interest as that to be the next Oxford Professor of Poetry. Established thanks to a bequest of a Berkshire landowner more than three hundred years ago, the role has grown to become internationally important, with the Nobel Prize laureates Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott, from Nigeria and St Lucia respectively, being past contenders.
The Professor’s responsibilities are relatively straightforward: give one public lecture per term throughout their appointment, help to judgesome of the University’s writing awards, including the Newdigate Prize and Jon Stallworthy Prize, and, in the University’s own words, ‘encourage the art of poetry’.
Winner of last year’s Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, Simon Armitage, is due to deliver his final lecture as Professor of Poetry, entitled ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’, in 3rd Week. Alongside devoting lectures to individual figures including Elizabeth Bishop and Bob Dylan, Armitage has dealt with medieval literature and questions of literary form.
Every four years, as the Professor’s time in office draws to a close, Oxford University opens nominations for the next election. To become a candidate in the election, an individual must receive at least fifty nominations from members of Convocation, defined as ‘all the former student members of the University who have been admitted to a degree (other than an honorary degree) of the University, and of any other persons who are members of Congregation or who have retired having been members of Congregation on the date of their retirement’. Once nominations have closed, the final list of candidates is published, alongside the names of all those who nominated them, and an online election held. Shortly afterwards, at a meeting of Convocation, the result is announced. This year, the result will come on the last day of term – the 21st of June – making for an exciting end to the academic year.
If media speculation is to be believed, the search for the forty-sixth Professor is nearing its end. With five candidates in the race, Alice Oswald is tipped as the favourite, backed to beat Aaron Kent, Todd Swift, John Leonard, and Andrew Mcmillan. Were she to receive the most votes, she would be the first woman to be appointed to the position. Awarded the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for her 2005 collection Woods, etc, Oswald studied Classics at New College, so Oxford is hardly unfamiliar to her. Her work synthesises this knowledge of classical literature with her experience of the natural world. Dart (2002) mixes Greek legend with folk myth to tell the story of the Devonshire river.
Renewed interest in who will be the next Professor of Poetry is almost certainly attributable to two developments: more scrutiny than ever before about appointments to senior positions in prestigious public institutions, and a surge in the reading and purchasing of poetry (in 2018, sales of poetry books rose by more than 12%). Nominations having closed at 4pm yesterday, we now know who is definitely in the running. Let the voting commence.