Posted tagged ‘Oxford Professor of Poetry’

Academic poetry

June 20, 2010

One of the most intriguing appointments in the academic world is that of the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University – a post held in the past by celebrated poets such as WH Auden and Seamus Heaney. The appointment is by election, and the voters are the members of ‘Convocation’, which includes all graduates and all staff of the university. Holders of the post have often been involved in controversy. The last appointment was made in 2009, but the winner of the election, Ruth Padel, resigned shortly afterwards amidst claims about a smear campaign against her rival, Derek Walcott.

This year’s winner was announced yesterday, and it is Geoffrey Hill. Hill is recognised as one of the most respected poets (writing in English) in the world. His poetic style is quite accessible – he has not abandoned metre and rhyme as many modern poets have – but the poems themselves are full of complex academic and intellectual matters.

This is how Geoffrey Hill has summarised the nature of poetry:

‘The poem is a struggle between truth and metre. . . . It is a meeting between message, rhythm and syntax, particularly the syntax of enjambment, and it is very rare that this combat leads to a triumph for the poet.’

Poets, if they understand the popular mood and are capable of responding to it, can play a major role in presenting the narrative of society at any given time. Geoffrey Hill is a fine poet, and I hope he will inspire a new generation to appreciate the importance of this art form. It is possibly a role we should also wish to see established in one of the Irish universities.

Living with poetry

May 26, 2009

Maybe this is something that happens to all university Presidents, but I frequently get asked to be a member of a judging panel for this and that. On the whole I like to help where I can, but if I have no special knowledge or expertise I do think twice before setting myself up as a judge of quality. So for example, I always turn down requests to be a judge at garden or flower events, since I always kill absolutely anything I plant myself.

However, a little while ago I was asked to be one of the judges in a poetry competition, and as I like poetry (and have attempted to write some) I accepted the invitation. But then I got the entries, and was left wondering what on earth to do with them. As far as I could see, absolutely every one of them was terrible. They were either bits of doggerel where the poets were wrestling with the compulsion to rhyme everything, often really badly, while knocking over all other fundamentals of poetry in the struggle, including meter, imagery, insight and meaning; or they were really somewhat banal prose with unusual line breaks; or they were pretentious abstractions that never really managed to be poetic. But then I decided I just could not judge them, for who was I to say that these were all bad, when I had never published a poem in my life?

In fact, what do we really think poetry is? Is it a verbal or linguistic mechanism that needs to satisfy certain formal requirements to qualify? Does it need to have, or must it not have, any particular function in terms of what it communicates? Indeed, should it communicate in a verbal sense? Is what we regard as poetry mainly a product of our particular culture – in the sense for example that Eastern poetry is different from that of the west? Some questions along these lines are interestingly put on this website. If we were choosing the Oxford Professor of Poetry, what criteria would we employ?

Poetry may be influenced by culture, but it is also something deeply personal. We are affected by it in different ways, and expect different things of it. As for me, I have started to re-read the poems of Philip Larkin, who was in his professional life the Librarian of my former university, the University of Hull; but he is much better known as one of the most recognised English poets of the 20th century. There is something about this man, who was a misanthrope in his personal life but who produced some really deep insights in his verse. If you have never read anything by him, my own favourite poem of his is ‘Church Going‘ (not a religious poem per se, as Larkin was an agnostic).

Of course, you will have your own favourite poets. But for most people, there is a need at some point in our lives to see the poetry in what we experience or long for, and that need is probably something set apart from our rational and objective self. So on the whole, I was probably wrong about all those poems I was asked to judge. Let us all express and appreciate poetry in whatever way works for us. And let us support the poets, whoever they may be. After all, as I have mentioned previously, I greatly admire the work of that wonderful, unique, terrible poet, William McGonagall.