It began as quickly and unexpectedly as falling down a rabbit hole, or passing through a mirror—an e-mail arrived, out of the blue, from one of the previous holders of the position, the critic Christopher Ricks. The subject line was “An Inquiry,” and it was characteristically brief:
“It came to me that you would be an excellent professor of poetry at Oxford. (Geoffrey Hill has not long to go.) Would this possibility interest you?”
An American poet day-dreams of course about certain prizes, recognition, or positions, however implausible, but the Oxford Professor of Poetry simply is not one of them—it seems such the exclusive purview of British and Irish men. In its 300 years, it has never gone to a woman or indeed as far as I am aware, to anyone outside of the British Isles. It had never crossed my mind.
But I said yes I’d give it a go, and we were off.
All at once, I found myself in a sort of Wonderland, and in a horse race (I would say a caucus-race, but not everyone will be able to demand prizes), as well as a literary-political game of chess. I was standing in a unique election, a mixture of that rarest of things, direct democracy, and one of the most rarefied: only Oxford graduates (and other members of Convocation) may vote. The position was established in 1708 by Henry Birkhead, who founded it on the notion that “the reading of the ancient poets gave keenness and polish to the minds of young men.” It was originally only open to clergymen from Merton.
According to The Guardian, “Soyinka’s backers have been keen to stress that they consider the post more like an honour to be bestowed than a job to be applied for.” I want to say the exact opposite—yet that’s too facile. Maybe instead the office could be described as an honor to be applied for, a job to be bestowed. For all its grandeur and prestige, the post is, in essence, the oldest and first Poet in Residence in education. Certainly I have been applying very hard since the middle of March.
Numerous rules have been changed since the scandal-ridden election of 2009. To get on the ballot used to require only a dozen nominators with Oxford degrees; now it takes fifty. We hunted after the requisite nominators for a couple of weeks (among them Tobias Wolff, Christopher Ricks of course, Adrian McKinty, Chlo Aridjis), followed up on their filling out and mailing of the nominator form (which could not be scanned or faxed), and collated before sending them to the Election office. In an abundance of caution, we ended up with 73.
Perhaps the most significant change to the process, however, is that in the last election on-line voting was introduced. (The use of paper ballots was costly, and one had to vote in person.) Overseas voters were a factor last time, but this time will be, I think, more so. It remains to be seen how social media and the internet will change the nature of the election. I suspect surprises lie in store.
It’s been an intense roller coaster too: reaching out to the press, reading virulent blog posts (note to self—do not read the comments), asking major academics and writers for support. But also exciting, even moving--generous endorsements from publications such as the TLS, and highly-regarded and popular critics such as Mary Beard and Amanda Foreman. You learn who your friends are (and foes) in the literary community. You might tower over the treetops, or find yourself at the bottom of a treacle well, three or four times a day. My immensely supportive husband, John Psaropoulos, who is a Greek journalist (though UK citizen) already run off his feet with the “crisis,” has had to do a lot more cooking than usual and more supervising of long division at homework time. I have been living for months on a diet of jittery adrenaline and arcane Oxford gossip.
The principal job requirement is a lecture a term, though the professor should also do something else—a reading, workshop, meeting with students. But the qualifications (the candidate “must be of sufficient distinction to be able to fulfill the duties of the post”) and job description (“to participate in the wider intellectual life of the English faculty to encourage the production and appreciation of poetry”) are vague; the job is yours to define. Being a poet is not a requirement, and indeed some of the best professors have been critics. The current holder, Geoffrey Hill, a vigorous octogenarian, has been delivering rousing old-testament jeremiads to standing ovations. As a matter of policy, however, he does not meet with students. Seamus Heaney, who was professor when I was in residence, delivered compelling and humane talks; it turns out you could book an appointment to meet with him and discuss your poems, but either I didn’t know it at the time, or I couldn’t work up the nerve. Other professors, Robert Graves and W. H. Auden for instance, would meet students at cafes or pubs. I would aim to be a Professor in that approachable mold. And I would hope that, as the first woman, and maybe almost as important, the first American apart from the naturalized citizen W. H. Auden (Rober Lowell lost to Edmund Blunden in 1966), I would also serve as an encouragement to others.
Most of all I kept thinking, as I wandered through Oxford this past week (I was there to give a reading at Rhodes House), what a curious and curiouser turn of events the whole matter was. As a young and insecure American graduate student twenty years ago, Oxford intimidated me: I felt awkward, that I didn’t belong, I was out of my element. Now I seemed to be collegially accepted, claimed even, staying at the Lodgings of the Principal of my old college, collaborating in the campaign with my former tutor, having a strategic coffee in the Senior Common Room in Christ Church, meeting with students at the Eagle and Child (watering hole of the Inklings—C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, etc.), attending a dinner at high table. Had I made it somehow, a pale anonymous pawn, to the far end of the chessboard?
Walking through the gorgeous gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, in their full glory at the beginning of June, by the banks of the Cherwell fringed with doilies of Queen Anne’s lace, I was ambushed by a bewildering mixture of melancholy and joy, gratitude and wonder. I would sometimes take a turn on the path and feel a stab of—not of nostalgia, since surely a place of brief sojourn in my youth could not be called home—but chronalgia, as if the soul of the young woman aspiring to be a poet, and the soul of the poet I had become, passed right through each other, coming and going.
It’s been disappointing to see that one major English newspaper in particular has made a narrative out of a two-man race—which I suppose is true in the sense that the two front-runners are men. But it is also an exciting and historic time for women in Oxford. The university recently appointed its first female Vice Chancellor (nothing Vice about it—this is the head of the university), in the Oxford’s eight-hundred some-odd years. And St. Benet’s Hall, the last all-male college, just voted to admit female students for the first time. Maybe good things come in threes.
It’s been a wild ride, full of thrills and confusion, bemusement and vexations, anxiety and hope. But anything is possible as we run round and round towards the finish line. With only days to go before the end of voter registration, and only three weeks until the end of the election, right now my odds at Ladbrokes are five to one.
A. E. Stallings, Athens
(ed note: Find out how to register and vote for A. E. Stallings here.)