Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 3

In the latest issue of Standpoint, in an article he wrote while the suggestion that he might be willing to put himself forward for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, Clive James seems to be insisting he was not interested in the post.

 The suggestion that he was interested

… started happening a few days before the election, when I was being interviewed, nominally about my latest collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, a book I mention here because it wasn’t mentioned in the interview even once. My interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, was charming, so when she asked me a question I did the thing I always do when asked a question by a charming woman. I opened my mouth to its full extent and put my foot in it up to the knee. The question was about the Oxford Poetry Professorship election debacle. “Would I like the job?” (Those might not have been her exact words, but that was the main thrust.) My answer (and these are far fewer than my exact words, but this is the thread) was: “I would love it, but not if I had to run in an election.” She used only the first bit — that I would love to have the job — and the Guardian editors flagged it as “Clive James throws his hat in the ring”. 

In reality, Clive James had already made it clear that he would rather throw himself off a cliff. But the thing had been said, the Australian papers had the story next day, a Spanish paper, bizarrely, had the story the day after that, and within a week my supposed candidature in the postponed election was being discussed, with at least two pundits in the British broadsheet weekend press allowing that I might not be a bad choice, in the absence of William McGonagall, E. J. Thribb or Baldur von von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who wrote a terza rima encomium to Adolf Hitler.

But a Robert McCrum – a declared supporter of James for the post – shrewdly observes in today’s edition of The Observer, James has not gone so far as to rule himself out categorically.

And I do indeed find the Oxford Poetry Professorship just about the most attractive cup of its kind in existence. I would imagine that any poet who has spent his or her lifetime at the craft can only feel the same. The botched election might have made it a poisoned chalice, but what a chalice it is. You have only to think of the string of poets since the Second World War — Day Lewis, Auden, Graves, Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Heaney, Fenton, Muldoon — and think of how much you would have liked to hear them speak, summing up their knowledge, opening up whole fields of interest with the merest aside.

Having set out a very persuasive set of reasons for saying why the present system for choosing people for the post no longer works, and never really worked, James suggests that occupant should “agreed on by a panel of people whose chief concern is poetry, and who rank poets by their achievement and vocational wisdom”

How this board of experts should be constituted is beyond me. But before he was ever Oxford Professor, Seamus Heaney was a visiting professor at Harvard, an office to which he was not elected, but appointed, to the vast benefit of both Harvard and himself. So Harvard must know how to make a board system work. For the Oxford post, drafting all the surviving holders might not be a bad start, and then you could add in some critics and literary editors who know what they are talking about. Who those might be would itself be a matter of expert choice, so I can already see that there could be a welter of in-fighting and no clear course to a workable result. But we can be sure that the current system no longer works at all. Another election along the lines of the one we have just had will be a kamikaze convention, and we might as well have Ant and Dec presiding over the phone-in.

I myself have a a gut feeling that James himself would like to think he had a chance of being chosen by the kind of board he proposes, if not for his “achievement”, which he’s always had the good gracke to be modest about, the certainly for his “vocational wisdom” which I suspect he sees no good reason to be modest about.


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