From 11 o'clock until teatime today, hundreds of Oxford graduates and senior University staff will crowd in and out of the Divinity School in the Bodleian Library complex, solemnly inscribe an illiterate "X" on a piece of paper and post it gravely into a wooden box with a hole in the top.
Coachloads of former English students will pile on to the pavements of Broad Street. Senior figures of stratospheric Parnassian repute will gossip like schoolgirls under the whiskery stone gargoyles outside the Sheldonian Theatre, before disappearing for an agreeable lunch in the Turf Tavern. At around 5.30pm, when all the votes have been counted by the University proctors, the result will be announced with the solemnity attending on the election of a supreme pontiff. And Oxford will have a new Professor of Poetry.
It is hard to convey how distinguished is this academic post. The salary is pitifully meagre (pounds 4,695 plus expenses), the workload of 16 lectures in a five-year tenure is a strain. But in academic and poetic circles, it is a position of Olympian importance.
Since 1951, it has been held by some of the most elevated names in 20th- century literature: WH Auden, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Peter Levi, Seamus Heaney, James Fenton and Paul Muldoon. And, to many people, it embodies and defines the seriousness with which Britain takes poetry - and by extension literature, language and cultural life - in the 21st century. Hence the pungent miasma of ideological battle that hangs over the bookish voters at the Bodleian Library.
Last time the poetry chair was up for grabs, there wasn't a vote. In 1999 the Boston-based Ulster poet Paul Muldoon was elected unopposed. Quite a contrast to 1994, when 451 people turned out to vote, and James Fenton won the gig. Today, however, they're expecting many more voters.
First, they have changed the rules so that anyone with an Oxford BA can vote (the university reckons there are approximately 155,000 roaming the globe, though it is unlikely that the entire tribe of BA Oxons will descend - more like 800 of them). And second, because the contest has become a stand-off between poets and academics.
There are five contenders. Christopher Ricks, 70, is the doyen of modern literary critics, whose work on Milton, Tennyson, Keats and Bob Dylan are the stuff of academic legend on both sides of the Atlantic. Peter Porter, 75, is the Australian-born holder of the Queen's Award for Poetry. A charming, rumbustious man, and a poet of hectic fluency and intellectual pyrotechnics, he has published more than 20 collections, most notably The Cost of Seriousness (about the death of his first wife) and The Automatic Oracle, which won the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1988.
Anne Carson is a fiftysomething Canadian, a distinguished academic and classicist who began her career with Eros the Bittersweet, a scholarly work about ancient Greek which has, bizarrely, become a hot text in American lesbian circles. She won the high-prestige TS Eliot Prize in 2002 for The Beauty of the Husband, a work in "29 tangoes" disliked by some for its prose-poem doggerel and wilful obscurities.
Bringing up the rear are two wild cards: Ian McMillan, 47, the portly "people's poet" who has been poet-in-resident at Barnsley FC and Barnsley police station, and who roams the country bringing his sprightly light verse to small village halls; and Mark Walker, a graduate student at Oriel College, currently studying for a Masters degree in Byzantine history, of whose poetic form nothing is known.
Insiders say it is a two-horse race between Ricks and Porter - but an important race. For Ricks is a top critic, lecturer and scholar who has never, as far as anyone knows, written a line of poetry, while Porter, a favourite poet on the literary circuit, is no academic and never went to a university. So …