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Poets - yes, poets -

in an unseemly scandal

SANG TAN / Associated Press
SANG TAN / Associated PressRead more

Scandal ripped the poetry world last weekend, and it all blew up on Monday night. It's one of the worst moments in the history of verse.

Scandal and poetry in the same sentence? Believe it. This was a sockdolager - sex, intrigue, poison e-mails, thwarted ambition, crashes, burnings, screams of pain. Poetry just may have joined politics, sport, and entertainment in finding itself prey to multimedia manipulation, assault, and abuse. Does nothing, no one, stand apart, not even the most rarefied of versifiers?

We take you now to Oxford University, home of the Oxford professorship of poetry. Endowed in 1708, the professorship is a one-time, five-year post, requiring but three lectures a year and a reading every other year. Poets such as Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, and Robert Graves have held it. You get £6,901, or about $11,047, plus £40 ($64) for travel expenses. All but honorary.

While not the top such post in the United Kingdom - that would be the poet laureate - it has grown more and more influential, as poets such as Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon (now at Princeton) expanded its reach and visibility.

Who would take over the post, becoming vacant in October? Many were the names kicked about. Derek Walcott, 79, Nobel Prize-winning poet from St. Lucia, seemed a front-runner.

Others wanted a woman: She'd be the first in the 301 years of the post, an especially wonderful confluence of events, since on May 1 Carol Ann Duffy was appointed the very first female poet laureate. One candidate for the Oxford post, Ruth Padel, 63, is an accomplished poet and, incidentally, a descendant of Charles Darwin.

Jockeying. Politics. Campaigns. Then the stunner: E-mails to two newspapers resurrected charges that Walcott had made inappropriate advances to students when he was a professor in the United States.

John Walsh of the Independent newspaper muttered about "shadows of sexual harassment" over Walcott. Blogs everywhere went blooey. Pages on the charges, from a book called The Lecherous Professor, were posted anonymously to Oxford professors (who would vote for the candidates).

A furious Walcott withdrew just before the winner was announced. He called the whole mess "a low and degrading attempt at character assassination. I do not want to be a part of it."

Who got the post? Padel did. History made!

She reigned exactly nine days. On Monday she quit - admitting she had sent the e-mails that started the whole thing. One of them, to the Evening Standard, drew the paper's attention to six pages in The Lecherous Professor on Walcott's harassment cases, adding that they "might prove interesting copy."

In stepping down, a beleaguered Padel, now being called a "sex mole" in the gleefully tart British press, said she had acted "naively - and with hindsight unwisely." Yet she denied she had engaged in the larger smear campaign against Walcott. She said she was acting at the prompting of concerned students.

The Oxford post has traditionally been very competitive. Muldoon, who was appointed in 1999, says, "I was very glad to be unopposed, because I knew very well from following it over the years that there has been a tradition of mudslinging." He points out that from the eisteddfod tradition in Wales to the Scottish word-contests called flytings, to the rap and slam poetry of today, poets have pitted verse against verse. "The present case is, however, so terrible, very sad," he says.

It has left two poetic reputations in tatters and the Oxford post without a professor-elect. (Walcott refuses to be considered again.) It also leaves open at least three very hard questions.

Question 1: Were the allegations against Walcott valid reasons to challenge his candidacy? Neither case - one in 1982, at Harvard, another in 1996, at Boston University - resulted in legal charges. In the 1982 case, Walcott apologized publicly. The 1996 case did prompt a lawsuit that was settled out of court. In fact, the woman involved in that one, Nicole Kelby, has now risen to Walcott's defense, saying she was "appalled" at his treatment.

Question 2: Leave aside the acid question of whether poets should even campaign for such a post. Evidently they do. If you're worried about a flaw in your competition's background, what's the best way to make your concerns known? Padel now says she should have gone directly to Oxford authorities, rather than make the e-leaks. But wouldn't even that have seemed distasteful, undignified, and ethically suspect?

Question 3: Walcott was undermined via now-familiar back channels: electronic communications, media leaks, old dirt (ever-young on the Internet), and brushfire rumor. Poetry, meet the art of the multimedia attack.

Speaking on the BBC, poet Michael Horowitz lamented "an age where marketing and media manipulation" have become "an infection." He said he was sorry that instead of the "honor among poets," the world had now seen their "careerist" and competitive side. Muldoon says this competitiveness "has been exacerbated" by a reality-TV culture that stresses competition and the shame of losing: "In a strange way, the Oxford poetry professorship has fallen foul of that culture of shame."

Muldoon suggests shortening the appointment from five to three years, and that, to make the system less open to manipulation, "there should be a committee, including non-Oxford members, that settles on a short list."

As it is, now there must be another vote; the post probably can't be filled by October. There are plenty of good poets out there - for example, Canadians Margaret Atwood and Anne Stevenson. But if even the Oxford professorship of poetry can become a referendum on a candidate's moral life, will any candidate be found? Will anyone ever accept if elected?

Stay tuned. Seldom has the poetic world known such suspense, or tasted such bile.