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This item is taken from PN Review 187, Volume 35 Number 5, May - June 2009.

1968 was the first Oxford Poetry Professor election in which I participated. In my second year as an undergraduate, I was president of the University Poetry Society, and though I could not vote (only MAs of the University were permitted to do so), I campaigned for Robert Lowell, around that time a Fellow of All Souls. One of his chief sponsors was Sir Maurice Bowra, Warden of my college. Sir Maurice’s old sparring partner, the dauntless Dame Enid Starkie, with biographies of Rimbaud and Baudelaire to her credit, and herself a failed candidate for the Chair, was against us. Also in the race was Roy Fuller.

Lowell had made a mixed impression at Oxford. He smoked between courses at High Table; he showed boredom, even fell asleep, in company; he was unpredictable, at once gracious and sardonic. In public recitals he read work by writers he admired - Plath, Jarrell, and memorably one evening at New College, Ezra Pound. Some of that audience were incensed to hear work of such notoriety recited with respect. They noisily left the room. Worst of all, though, Lowell was an American.

So Roy Fuller was duly elected and delivered the lectures later collected in Owls and Artificers and Professors and Gods. I accompanied Lowell, who wanted to show there were no hard feelings, to Fuller’s inaugural lecture. He sat in the front row in a large armchair, fell asleep and ‘snarled and rattled’ like the buzz-saw in Robert Frost’s ‘Out, Out’. At the end of the lecture he complimented the new Professor and discussed a quote from Stevens that had caught his attention - or penetrated his inattention.

After the election I wrote importantly to the Times Literary Supplement, declaring that Roy Fuller did not have the support of the undergraduates. The letter was published and Dame Helen Gardner invited me to tea at St Hilda’s, there unfolding her plot to change the election process so that in future undergraduates might vote and rout the fogeys. The old process survived, however, and after I purchased my Oxford MA, I helped to nominate and campaigned unsuccessfully for Donald Davie and C.H. Sisson.

The last four elections have brought a steady distinction back to the Chair, and a sense of humour: Heaney, Fenton, Muldoon and Ricks, a goodly company. The election is before us again, at the same time as the soon-to-be-vacant Poet Laureateship, an appointment process so arcane that not even the greyest Oxford MAs have a say. There is unrest on Parnassus. Authoritative gossip reports that Roger McGough, Ian McMillan and Carol Ann Duffy have been offered and accepted the Laureateship. One thing is sadly certain: Geoffrey Hill hasn’t.

At Oxford, two poets are front-runners as PN Review goes to press. First in the field was Ruth Padel, fresh from her Darwin sequence, supported by the still powerful Oxford Classical establishment and its graduates, which in the last election promoted the candidacy of Anne Carson. Then, by snail mail from St Lucia, Derek Walcott agreed that his name could go forward.

He has the definite editorial endorsement of PN Review. Readers familiar with his essays - on Larkin, Naipaul, Lowell and others - in What the Twilight Says appreciate the quality of lecture we will enjoy. Those who know the poems, ‘The Schooner Flight’ and The Arkansas Testament in particular, but also the vast patchwork that is Omeros, know the scale of the poet and the distinction he will bring to the Chair.

He may be ahead with nominations, but what matters is the actual vote on 16 May. Votes must be cast in person at the Sheldonian on that day and no other. There are no proxy, postal or electronic votes. Franchised readers who respect this dusty, slightly absurd but still valued anachronism must turn up at their alma mater and make a mark.

The election may also be contested by a particularly rank outsider. 'MICHAEL GEORGE GIBSON, who calls himself “a poet, husbandman and tune maker”’, a press release informs us, ‘intends to enter as a candidate in the election of a new PROFESSOR OF POETRY AT OXFORD’. He is described in bold italics as ‘a poet and performer of English poetry over its whole 1,300 year span’. He has recorded and ‘The Wanderer’. His mission is ‘to establish a clearer idea of what poetry truly is'.

His indignation is emphatic: he’s ‘a member of The Poetry Society with which he has for some years been in serious dispute - notably with Ms. RUTH PADEL, a Chair of the Society. The Poetry Society seeks to ignore and suppress him so far as possible.’ He really, really dislikes ‘such as Mr. ROGER FRY, Mr. JAMES FENTON (a former Professor of Poetry at Oxford), Ms RUTH PADEL (said to be a candidate for the Professor of Poetry at Oxford this time), Mr. DON PATTERSON [sic], “prize-winning poet”, and Mr. MICHAEL SCHMIDT, Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University’. And ‘Mr. Gibson has published an essay on TED HUGHES in which he suggests that Mr. Hughes was not always a true poet.’

Mr Gibson is. And he is ready to prove it. On 11 March at 6 pm at Trinity College he promised a show entitled ‘Beowulf’s Boxer-shorts: 1,300 years of English poetry stripped down to its rhythmic essentials’. His manifesto and activities can be followed on www.michaelgeorgegibson. org. For 30 April he promised a lecture and performance, again at Trinity, entitled ‘The Ghost of Beowulf versus The Tyrannical Neo-Classical “Iambic Pentameter” and its Attendant Rabble of Ambiguous “Feet”’. The list of foes has grown to accommodate ‘Mr Simon ARMITAGE Mr Bernard O DONOGUE [sic], Mr Derek ATTRIDGE, Mr Geoffrey LEECH’. At the end of the evening Mr Gibson ‘will also play some tunes on a wooden pipe and will sing’.

This item is taken from PN Review 187, Volume 35 Number 5, May - June 2009.

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