The Hounding of a Nobel Poet Has Shamed Oxford ; A Former Professor of Poetry Deplores the Campaign That Scuppered Derek Walcott's Bid for the Post [Edition 2]
Fenton, James, The Evening Standard (London, England)
TOMORROW, the election for Oxford Professor of Poetry will proceed without its most illustrious candidate.
Derek Walcott, Nobel prizewinner and recent recipient of an honorary degree from Oxford, withdrew after it became clear that there was a campaign to revive against him old allegations of sexual harassment.
Frankly, I don't blame him, even though the withdrawal has left his campaigners mortified and his chief rival for the post, Ruth Padel, in what looks like an unbeatable position.
I've run twice in the past in this election -- I lost once, won once and held the post for the statutory five years -- so I know something about the job. It is not for the faint-hearted. It is daunting enough to stand before the university in the role of Professor of Poetry. The thought of facing a potentially hostile audience or of being called upon to justify your behaviour of decades ago, before critics who probably know nothing but second- hand accounts of some crumby book -- who would wish to face such unpleasantness and humiliation? Why be glared at in chilly Oxford when you are a hero on your native Caribbean island? Walcott is 79 and has sometimes been in poor health. Yet only last year he came to Essex, where he was honoured with a degree, spoke to students, gave generously of his time and left everyone (as I was told by one of the organisers) radiant with excitement.
The idea had been to attract him to Oxford for this visiting lectureship (which is what the professorship is, it is not like a full-time teaching post).
Perhaps he would not wish to serve the full five years. Who knew? But at least students, who study his work, would get a chance to hear him read and speak.
The first public opposition on the grounds of Walcott's sexual morality came from a rather startling source, John Walsh of the Independent, a man not known as one of nature's Calvinists.
Walsh referred to the race as a "twohorse Parnassian gallop" (there are, in fact, three candidates, the last being Arvind Mehrotra) and to Ruth Padel as his old friend.
SINCE he then proceeded to ask whether Walcott's fans had forgotten "the shadows of sexual harassment that have swirled around their man over the years" and to revive a claim made in 1995 about alleged events in the Eighties, it takes no genius to construe his article as part of an election campaign. Whether or not Padel knew he was going to write it, whether or not she approved, there it was, in the open.
The next development was underhand.
About a hundred dossiers, postmarked from the London sorting office in Mount Pleasant, were sent, personally addressed by hand, to figures in Oxford University, repeating and developing some of the material Walsh had used, and including photocopies from the book Walsh had mentioned as "a study of priapic academics called The Lecherous Professor". It doesn't sound like a very sober tome, does it? At this point it would have been easy for Padel to dissociate herself both from her old and close friend Walsh's article and from the anonymous dossier. She could have said that none of these …
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Publication information: Article title: The Hounding of a Nobel Poet Has Shamed Oxford ; A Former Professor of Poetry Deplores the Campaign That Scuppered Derek Walcott's Bid for the Post [Edition 2]. Contributors: Fenton, James - Author. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: May 15, 2009. Page number: 14. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.