Journalists compete for Oxford poetry professorship

Two journalists are among the nominees competing for the University of Oxford professor of poetry post in 2010, in the contest’s first online elections (in which only holders of Oxford degrees can vote).

One, the Guardian writer Stephen Moss (@benonix on Twitter), says he was inspired to enter following last year’s national coverage of the episode resulting in Ruth Padel’s resignation. It highlighted the “absurdity” of the process, he says. Moss’ candidate statement – in which he admits he has only published about 6 poems and that “a literary friend at college” described his poetry as “the worst he’d ever read” – says he will “give the stipend away to needy poets and writers, and to good literary causes”.  Additionally, he promises to set up a new two-week poetry festival in Oxford. An extract from Moss’ statement:

So why I am standing? It’s a good question. The idea came to me over a curry at the Hay Literary Festival last year. News of Ruth Padel’s resignation had just broken, and I was struck by the sheer absurdity of the process – the curious electorate, the media’s fascination with poetic politics, the odd idea of an elected poet. It intrigued and delighted me and, perhaps foolishly, I decided I would stand. Once you enter the race, your campaign develops a life of its own. I wrote a rather good poem for National Poetry Day ( if you want to read it), my name was mentioned in a few places, and suddenly one is a “real” candidate. I asked my rivals to start spreading scurrilous rumours about me, so I could pull out in a huff, but they preferred to stay magisterially aloof from such tittle-tattle. So momentum, the Big Mo which is supposed to determine political campaigns, took its course and here I am, standing naked (metaphorically speaking) before you.

His journalistic rival is Roger Lewis, a biographer and author of the Seasonal Suicide Notes, whose statement can also be found on the Oxford site dedicated to the contest. Writing in the Times, Lewis says:

When I heard that the dons were sewing it up to elect either 77-year-old Geoffrey Hill or 75-year-old Michael Horovitz to the chair of poetry at Oxford, my heart sank. I’m sure they are nice old codgers, but I’m afraid I find their work serious-minded to the point of pain and obscure of purpose. But then I believe Alan Bennett is more worthy of the Nobel prize than Harold Pinter, as it is surely better to laugh at life than to lament it.

I can’t do anything about nabbing a Nobel, but I can stand for election in Oxford and lead a rebellion against sour academics, and with my mortarboard tossed into the ring, this is now happening. I have been nominated for the chair of poetry and I hope I don’t come ignominiously last.

Members of the Oxford Convocation are now voting until 16 June – and the winner is due to be announced two days later.

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