Monday, 1 June 2009

Professor of Poetry


I do not get poetry, especially modern poetry. I struggle with it; rather I would struggle with it if I were to read it. The little, and it is very little, of modern poetry that I have read, has not seemed like poetry at all. It just seems like ordinary language only with peculiar, syntax-defying, arrangements of words, or lists of crossword puzzle clues. Whenever I have attempted to read modern free verses (not very often), the only question that comes to my mind is who set them free. Very occasionally, I feel bad about my lack of ability to appreciate poetry, but, at the end of the day, I am damned if I want to do anything about it. Indeed, I am not sure that I can do anything about it. Understanding and appreciating poetry, like creating it, is a gift, and not everyone is blessed with it. You have to take it on the chin and move on. Some time ago, I attended a literary programme where Stephen Fry spoke. As it happened, he was peddling what at the time was his most recent ware—Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet within. Fry spoke for about half an hour. As was only to be expected, the garrulous narcissist spent the whole time telling the audience how clever he was and how well read he was and how exceptional his memory was and how many rare words (which nobody had used since 1708) he knew. Occasionally, during this paean to his exceptional talent, Fry seemed to remember why he was there, and put it to the audience, smirking condescendingly under his crooked nose, that writing poem was awfully simple, anyone could do it, really, and spat out words like iambic and trochee, which probably put most in the audience off writing poetry. But I digress. Poetry is an indelible part of the literary life of a society, and most would agree that those who produce such works of creativity should be suitably rewarded. And what higher accolade could be bestowed upon them than the professorship in as august a university as Oxford? I had never heard of it before (the professorship of poetry, that is; I have heard of Oxford, obviously) but as already acknowledged, I am an ignoramus when it comes to poetry (and not just poetry). The post of Oxford University Professor of poetry has, like most things in Oxford, a great history and tradition behind it. I have it on reliable information that the role goes back three centuries, and, its first incumbent, one John Trapp, could recite works of Shakespeare in Latin. This tradition apparently continued until the middle of the nineteenth century when the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold finally convinced the faculty members that reading lectures in English rather than Latin might be an idea worth giving a go. The salary, at 7000 pounds a year (plus 40 pounds travel allowance), would have been considered meagre by the mean, money-minded materialistic, selfish ex-bankers when they still had their jobs, but the worth of not everything can be measured in money. In addition, the job, which involves giving three lectures a year and an oration every other year, is not exactly backbreaking. Some have described the post as one of the most influential positions in poetry, which, to me, sounds a tad hyperbolic. Nevertheless, the post has attracted, over the years, some of the big guns from the world of poetry, W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney amongst them, the latter a Nobel Laureate.

This year, after Professor Christopher Ricks—an academic who is an expert on American poetry and is known to speak for hours on the lyrics of Bob Dylan—stepped down after completing his term of five years, three poets, one each from America, Britain and India, put forth their nominations. They were, in no particular order: Derek Walcott, the 79 year old St Lucia-born poet who won the 1992 Nobel prize for literature; Ruth Padel, the 63 year old great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin (from her mother’s side) and a descendent of the great British surgeon John Hunter (from her father’s side), who, according to her personal website, is a prize-winning British poet (she won a national poetry competition in 1997); and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra whose age was not known, neither was his contribution to poetry other than that he had ‘much to say of value . . .on issues . . . that are pressingly important in today’s world’, according to one Peter D McDonald (about whom, too, is not much known other than he lives somewhere in Oxford). Mehrotra was a late entry and it is doubtful that he was a serious contender. It was thought to be a two-horse race between Walcott, a man of immense stature (according to his supporters, which included the 2004 Booker winner Alan Holinghurst and Hermione Lee) and Padel, a woman of immense connections (according to her detractors, all of whom are coming out of woodwork). A week before voting— members of the convocation vote to elect the professor—anonymous letters were sent to more than 100 Oxford professors, majority of them women, who had voting rights. The letters, postmarked London, referred to the allegations of sexual harassment made against Walcott in 1982, by a student of the Harvard University. Accompanying the letters were photocopied pages of a book published in the 1980s, titled Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus, which contained details of the claim and subsequent investigation carried out by the Harvard University. The student had complained that, while discussing her work with Walcott after the class, Walcott invited her to imagine him making love to her; he also wanted to know, among other things, how she made love and whether she would make love to him if he asked her to. When informed that the student was unable to imagine having a sexual congress with him (perhaps because she found him repulsive, but this is a guess) and would not sleep with him even if he begged her to (perhaps for the same reason—this is a guess too), Walcott gave her a C grade in his class, which, apparently, is the Harvard equivalent of a failure. Walcott denied propositioning the student; his defence was that his teaching style was ‘deliberately personal and intense’—he wasn’t a dirty old man chasing frocks; he was following his unique way of poetry teaching, which contained the obligatory module of sleeping with female students decades younger than him—and that he had sensed no reluctance [in the student] to pursue the topic of sexual relationships. Walcott was reprimanded and was made to apologize to the student. What the anonymous correspondence did not contain were details of another sexual harassment case against Walcott, brought out by another female student from Boston University, in the mid-1990s, who sued him for half a million dollars (Walcott reached out of court settlement with the woman). Following this, Walcott withdrew from the race, claiming that the election had ‘degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination’; he was disappointed that such ‘low tactics’ were being used (almost as low as the ones he used, some might point out, to get his female students to sleep with him). At this stage, Nicole Kelby, the woman who sued Walcott in 1996 for sexual harassment and with whom he came to an out-of-court settlement, probably feeling left out—her name was not mentioned in the anonymous letters circulated—decided to join the fray, and, bizarrely, came out publically to Walcott’s defence. Writing in the Times, Ms Kelby described Walcott as ‘the greatest living poet’, and urged his critics to consider that poetry is a ‘passionate art’. She went on to give the following insight—no doubt gained during the prolonged negotiations in 1996 that resulted in her receiving hefty sums of money for not dragging Walcott through the American penal system—into Walcott’s alleged behavior, over the years, towards his female students: ‘it is his [Walcott’s] way to be sexual, to push the envelope of both decorum and good taste’. Walcott then extended his support to Padel, described her as a gifted poet, and predicted that she would become a great professor of poetry (so generous of him). There were murmurs that the hugely ambitious and moderately talented Padel, Walcott’s only serious rival for the post, was behind the smear campaign. Padel denied the rumours and declared that she had ‘absolutely no wish to see Walcott humiliated’ and that she was ‘very very sorry’ that he had pulled out. She, nevertheless, felt obliged to clarify that she did not intend to withdraw from the race—ignoring the public exhortation from the pompous A.C. Grayling, the professor of Philosophy and one of her supporters for the post, to do so (‘To win because anonymous and malicious persons witch-hunted Walcott out of the race would be a hollow and tainted thing,’ wrote Grayling in blog in the Guardian)—even though she was ‘deeply disappointed’ to find herself in the position of winning as it were by default. ‘All along, we should have been talking about poetry and the role of poetry,’ she said. ‘This is not what poetry is for.’ It was, she demurely indicated, her sense of duty that drove her on; and the satisfaction she would get from fulfilling her role as the Professor of Poetry would help her to cope with the deep disappointment of winning the position. The reaction of her remaining rival, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, was not known (probably because no one bothered to find out), so we can’t be certain whether he, too, was deeply disappointed that Walcott had withdrawn from the race.

This is what happened next. Oxford decided to go ahead with the election, which Padel duly won, beating the little known Indian poet by what the election analysts like to describe as a comfortable margin, the only surprise being Mehrotra managed to attract more than hundred votes. Padel described herself as honoured and humbled to accept the professorship. Feminists, lesbians, and lesbian feminists were overjoyed. May 2009 was described as a landmark month, which saw the election of the first woman professor of poetry at Oxford and the first woman poet laureate (Carole Ann Duffy). Their joy lasted for about a week, at the end of which the humble professor looked set to eat a humble pie. Padel, it turned out, was not the innocent bystander she had all along claimed to be to the ‘Walcott Character Assassination’ plot. It was revealed that she had sent e-mails to journalists alerting them of Walcott’s naughty behavior all those years ago. The Evening Standard published details of an e-mail she sent to one of its journalists in which she referred to the sexual harassment claims made against Walcott, helpfully pointing them in the direction of the book Lecherous Professor if they (the journalist) wanted to know what Walcott ‘actually’ did for students. Her e-mail, littered with typos, was as follows:

'Hi Olivia [‘The Evening Standard’ journalist], ON the CHair, there is still no other nomination except (so extraordinarily) Derek W and me. But thye close on 29th April so another or others may well turnup... ‘THere is aupposed to be a book called The Lecherous Professor, which has 6 pages on Derek Walcott's two cases of sexual harassment, which might provide interestigfn copy on what Oxford wants from its professors.. ALl best, Ruth.’

There were predictable gasps of horror from the academics, including Padel’s supporters (for her campaign), who could not now wait to dissociate themselves publically from her. Padel claimed she was disappointed (again). She admitted to sending the two e-mails to journalists, but felt aggrieved that what she had done in good faith was being construed as an underhand, dirty trick to undermine Walccott and derail his campaign. ‘The papers today quote from email in which I passed on, in good faith, the concerns of a student who believed a professor's relations with women students were relevant to her university's appointment of a professor,’ Padel wrote in an e-mail (one hopes, with less typos) to a broadsheet. She (Padel) wanted these concerns to be heard. ‘The details I passed on were in the public domain and were a source of genuine unease to her [the student], and I communicated them to two journalists who had asked to be kept informed.’ It made little difference. The chorus of ‘Padel must go’ became shriller; A.C. Grayling and Melvyn Bragg became even more blusterous and self-righteous. (‘The professorship is a very serious thing," Grayling reminded the audience at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. ‘This is dirty tricks and character assassination.’) Padel was –pardon the awful pun—up the proverbial creek without a pedal. She saw and accepted the writing on the wall and stepped down from the post to which she was elected just nine days earlier. In her resignation speech, Padel tried a different approach. She was ‘naive and silly’ (and not a knavish, malignant, deceitful, unscrupulous bitch) when she sent the e-mails. It was, we were to understand, a bad error of judgment. ‘I can of course see that people can misconstrue these two isolated emails of mine as part of a larger campaign I had nothing to do with,’ was her defence. The lesbian feminists were incandescent. They smelt a rat. This surely was a male conspiracy against Padel, the first woman to become professor of Poetry at Oxford. Lesbian novelist Janette Winterson fumed: ‘It's a pity she [Padel]has been backed into a corner. What she has done is so much more -trivial than her contribution to poetry. This feels malicious and nasty. We ought to be able to look beyond the woman to the poetry. This is a way of reducing women; it wouldn't have happened to a man. But then Oxford is a sexist little dump.’ (If you are not sure which side to support in a controversy, I’d suggest you wait for Jeanette Winterson to contribute her whining, malevolent, risible, and illogical two pence worth of tripe, and then you can safely come down on the other side.) Lesbian poet Jackie Kay agreed. ‘This was the first time that we had a woman as Oxford professor of poetry – and she has had to resign over two emails. The old boys have closed in on her. It would not have happened to a man, and I am very sad,’ she said. Reaction of the fellow academics was outwardly of sadness (and, no doubt, inwardly of schadenfreude). The reaction of the rest of the great British public was one of indifference—there were more pressing matters that needed their urgent attention (rather than what a bunch of naval gazing, back-stabbing academics from Oxford got up to) such as whether Susan Boyle, the latest sensation on Britain’ s Got Talent, whose looks and physiognomy belied a great voice (appreciated even by Simon Cowell—the voice, that is, not the looks), was, in addition to being a spinster, a virgin, and, if she was, would anyone dare to sleep with her? A reporter finally made a long-distance phone call to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (remember him? He was the third contestant) to get his reaction. Mehrotra opined (his reply could not be heard clearly, as the connection was not good and the noises from the street of Allahabad interfered): ‘From India where I live, these extra-literary goings-on appear more unfortunate than amusing.’ (Obviously, such instances of skulduggery and backstabbing are unheard of in the land of Krishna.)

The state of play at present is as follows. The post of Professor of Poetry is empty. Both Walcott and Padel have announced that they would not run the next election, the former because he does not want to be associated with ‘that awful business’, the latter because ‘no one would believe me now’. Mehrotra will ‘cross the bridge’ when it comes (which means he is interested, because he thinks that he stands a chance.) Clive James has indicated that he is interested in the job.

Let’s get back to Padel’s insistence that she was not associated with the smear campaign in any way. Indeed, she claimed in an interview that the so-called smear campaign against Walcott could have been instigated to ‘undermine her’! There was a conspiracy all right, but it was against her, not against Walcott! Let’s not go into what intellectual pyrotechniques Padel performed in order to arrive at this conclusion. If we believe in the conspiracy theory, then whoever was behind the smear campaign wanted both Padel and Walcott out of the race. (If you suspect that the story is beginning to resemble an Agatha Christie mystery, the suspicion is justified.) Who could have benefitted from both Padel and Walcott being out of the way? Arvind Krishna Mehrotra! So, did the wily Indian, sitting in his den in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India, plan the intricate and subversive plot that claimed two high-profile victims? But hold on! The person who benefitted from the smear campaign was Padel, not Mehrotra! The smear campaign ensured that Walcott was conveniently out of the way, and his exit paved Padel’s way for the coveted job. What forced her to resign was not the smear campaign but the revelation that she had sent e-mails to journalists, alerting them to Walcott’s sexual misdemeanours. Doesn’t it strike you a tad curious that she did not think it was necessary to inform the public about the e-mails she had sent, when she was expressing her ‘deep disappointment’ at Walcott’s humiliation and premature exit in the wake of the poisonous letters sent to Oxford Professors, the content of which was identical to her e-mails? We can conclude that Ms Padel’s conjecture that the smear campaign was aimed at damaging her credibility, while it might convince lesbian feminists, does not hold water for the non-deluded, non-partisan, non-gullible heterosexuals.

Should we believe Padel’s claim that she had nothing to do with the smear campaign? This is probably an opportune time to introduce another character who played a vital part in the ‘Walcott character assassination’ plot (if there was one). He is John Walsh, and he is a columnist for the Independent. It was his drumbeating column in said broadsheet in April 2009 that publically set cat amongst the pigeons. Walsh declared himself a supporter of Padel and attempted a demolition job on Walcott’s reputation worthy of Iraqi looters. In the article he spieled about Walcott’s reputation as the dirty old man, quoting extensively from—you have guessed it— the 1984 book Lecherous Professor (was this book on the bestsellers’ list, or what?), although the book is not about Walcott, there being many other priapic academics with extensive experience of deflowering nubile female students; he is mentioned on a couple of pages. A professor of poetry, who shall remain unnamed, initiated and circulated a story that Padel, a close friend of John Walsh, had provided him with the details. Padel responded by labelling the claim as ridiculous. ‘I used to know John 10 years ago and I see him once a year at parties,’ she said. She must have got to know Walsh really well, as he is said to have made free with Padel’s (middle aged) loins ten years ago. Indeed, according to a piece in the Sunday Times, a poem by Padel, titled Home Cooking, which ends with a fuck on a kitchen table, is about her affair with said Walsh. What was the chronology of these events? Walsh’s piece in the Independent appeared a couple of days after Padel sent her e-mails to the journalists (not to Walsh, though), and the anonymous letters to Oxford academics were posted a day after Walsh’s article appeared. So, is it possible that Padel did not have anything to do with the smear campaign? It is possible in the same way that it is possible that the roof of the room in which I am typing this piece will collapse and kill me. Many things are possible. Even if one gives Padel the benefit of doubt and agree that she may not have been directly involved in the smear campaign, it seems undeniable that she was orchestrating her own smear campaign with roughly the same aim. John Walsh’s column in the Independent sought to do the same thing to Walcott’s reputation what the anonymous letters sought. If one accepts Padel’s assertion, improbable as it may seem, that she had nothing to do with Walsh’s piece either, there is still the matter of e-mails she sent to journalists, which, for all appearances, had the same design as Walsh’s column and the anonymous letters: influence, albeit indirectly, the voters by making them aware of Walcott’s history of predatory behaviour towards his female students. She says that she sent these emails in good conscience, has absolutely no idea who sent the anonymous letters, and has nothing to do with Walsh’s deplorable column in the Independent in which he took the hatchet to Walcott. So, here we have a woman who is either honourable and straightforward, and most unfortunately the chain of events conspired to make her look like a sneaky, ruthless, calculating, machinating, vicious harridan, who, together with her despicable cabal (which included a former lover) plotted to bring down a man who is considered to be one of the most outstanding poets of our generation; or she is a sneaky, ruthless, calculating, machinating, vicious harridan, who, together with her despicable cabal (which included a former lover) plotted to bring down a man who is considered to be one of the most outstanding poets of our generation; she is also a barefaced liar capable of breathtaking hypocrisy, not a word of whose is to be trusted (including ‘and’ and ‘the’). Take your pick. I know what I am thinking.

Whither goest Padel from here? The clever woman she is, she will no doubt have gleaned the single most important lesson: do not leave your fingerprints anywhere near the crime scene. The bard said it centuries ago:

Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them; and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.

(Macbeth)

Who will be the next Professor of Poetry at Oxford? My money is on Clive James: he is tanned, rested, and suitably mediocre.

Why are academic disputes so vicious? Woodrow Wilson thought it was because so little is at stake.

Book of the Month: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (Liz Jensen)


The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is Liz Jensen’s fifth novel. The former sculptor and BBC television producer declared that it was her first grown-up book. It is also her most commercially successful novel, which, by her own admission, brought her financial security.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a novel about a bright, precocious, and accident-prone nine-year-old Louis Drax. There are two narrative voices in the novel, one of which is Louis himself. The novel opens with Louis narrating the facts of his life. We learn that he lives with his mother; that all is probably not well between his mother and pilot father (his father lives separately); that he is a deeply disturbed child—he is known as ‘Wacko Boy’ in his school—who is seeing a child psychologist; that he has some bizarre preoccupations; and that he is deeply, almost pathologically, attached to his mother. It takes a while before the reader realises that Louis in fact is in a coma, after he fell off a cliff while picnicking with his parents. The accident-prone Louis, who has had a series of near misses in each one of his first eight years, every time saved by his mother in the nick of time, has finally found himself in a situation that would send him hurtling down a cliff and consciousness, while his mother is too far to save him. However, is it an accident? According to Natalie Drax, Louis’s mother, Louis was pushed off the cliff by his father, Pierre, following a violent argument between her and Pierre in which Louis got dragged in. Her version of the events cannot be confirmed, however, as Pierre has disappeared and Louis is in coma. Certainly, detective Charvillefort has not excluded Natalie as a suspect. When it becomes apparent that Louis is not going to regain consciousness any time soon, he is transferred to a residential clinic in the Provence where he is admitted under the care of the Neurologist Pascal Dannachet, who is the second narrative voice of the novel. Dr. Dannachet, who is having a midlife crisis of his own, predictably, falls for the vulnerable, traumatised and emotionally needy Natalie, and soon their relationship is hurtling down a path, which, he knows in his saner moments, is going to end in a disaster. To add to the intrigue, both he and Natalie receive letters asking him to back off (insinuating unpleasant consequences if he did not), in a handwriting that is a child’s and in a language that is characteristically Louis’s. While everyone assumes that the letters were sent by Pierre, Dannachet is convinced—even though his rational self is telling him that it cannot be—that Louis himself somehow effected the letters. Then Pierre’s dead body is found in a natural cave off the same cliff Louis fell from, and the only way he could have ended up there was if he jumped off the cliff or was pushed. It is also clear that he was alive for quite some time in the cave and probably starved to death. The needle of suspicion once again points towards Natalie. Dannachet, who till now has been indignant on behalf of the falsely-accused Natalie, begins to do his own investigations: he makes a trip to see Louis’s former psychologist; speaks to dead Pierre’s mother (who has never got along with Natalie for whom her son has deserted his first wife); and comes to know certain facts about Natalie’s past life which she has either not told him or has given a version that is very different from those of others. Dannachet then plans a daring experiment that defies logic to get to the truth, which propels the novel towards its dramatic, if somewhat unconvincing, finale.

In The Ninth Life of Louis Drax Liz Jensen tries her hand at a different genre (or perhaps more than one genre) from those of her earlier novels, which were about comedy of manners, contemporary satire, and Orwellesque dystopian future. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is a psychological thriller, a mystery story with more twists than a maze maker on acid. Jensen also makes forays into the neuropsychology of mind (the clue is in the epigraph of the novel, which is a quotation from Paul Brok’s Into the Silent Land). This exploration into the unconscious mind that veers into paranormal, while integral to the plot, assumes an ability on the readers’ part to suspend belief, and those who are unable to do that may find the premise a straw man. Of the two narrative voices in the novel, Louis’s is the more convincing, entertaining, and ultimately very moving. The narrative discourse of Louis is spot on—Jensen has superbly captured the idiolect of preadolescent boys, which adds to the pleasure of reading. Danachet’s views, on the other hand, about what is happening to Louis, appear more to belong to a columnist of paranormal magazines—Ghosts, spirits, afterlife, EVP, UFO, and the comatose boy who practises mind-control—than to a maven of brain pathology. The credulity and naivety of Danachet, who is supposed to be a reputed neurologist, is astounding, as is his capacity to unload seemingly fathomless cargo of clich├ęs. (His dealings with Natalie Drax ought to get him struck of the medical register.) This is is one confused Neurologist in the middle of a midlife crisis more serious than an African republic in the midst of a coup d’etat. Similarly, the portraiture of Natalie Drax as a deeply psychologically scarred (and flawed) person is not convincing. The reader gets no worthwhile insights into Natalie’s cardboard character.

The inspiration of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, according to Liz Jensen’s personal website, came from a family tragedy in Switzerland in the 1930s, when one of her uncles, after a violent argument with his mother, Jensen’s grandmother, left the house. A few days later, when he had not returned, Jenesen’s grandmother jumped off a cliff. The uncle was never found either. In an interview, Jensen said that rather than recreating the family tragedy in a fictional form, she attempted to recreate the emotions surrounding the tragedy. On the available evidence, she has made a success of it. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax may not be a psychological masterpiece, but it is an entertaining, easy read.