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'Self-schooled poet' Simon Armitage bids to become Oxford professor of poetry

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Simon Armitage has thrown his hat into the ring to be the next professor of poetry at Oxford University, a prestigious position seen as second only to the poet laureateship. In a statement, the bestselling poet, who is based in the Yorkshire Pennines, said that “if Oxford saw fit to appoint a self-schooled poet who views poetry from a hill above a Yorkshire village, then I would be greatly excited and deeply honoured to take on the challenge.

“After so many years in the field, I feel I have plenty to say on the subject and a desire to talk and write about it. It’s for that reason and at this time that I have put myself forward for the position of professor of poetry,” said the poet and translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He has been professor of poetry at Sheffield University since 2011.  

Armitage, who has also been tipped by many as the next poet laureate, is up against Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka for the five-year role, which is voted for by Oxford graduates. Three more candidates are also in the running: US poet AE Stallings, novelist and critic Ian Gregson, who is currently professor of creative writing at Bangor University, and the poet, publisher and psychotherapist Seán Haldane.

Armitage was nominated for the role by 54 Oxford graduates, including the literary critic John Carey. Candidates need to be backed by at least 50 graduates, with Soyinka put forward by more than 90. The Nigerian Nobel laureate, whose supporters include Melvyn Bragg and Robert Macfarlane, has yet to provide a statement about his plans for the professorship.

Alicia Stallings, an American poet who studied classics at Oxford and the University of Georgia, and who has published three collections of poetry, is the only female nominee. The role was briefly held by Ruth Padel in 2009, but she resigned after less than two weeks.

Stallings, who lives in Athens, said that if elected, she would speak on topics including “the problems and possibilities of translation, poets in other languages (such as modern Greek), the classical tradition, the gears and springs of technique, the resonance between poems, and on new poets and poets fallen out of fashion”. She told the Guardian that it was “an honour to be in a field that includes Wole Soyinka and Simon Armitage”, but added: “It’s strange to think that in the 300-plus years of the post, no woman’s voice has been heard.”

Haldane, who ran for the professorship in 2010, coming third and losing to current incumbent Sir Geoffrey Hill, said in his statement that he had resolved long ago “never to make a living from poetry or by teaching it, and that any earnings from my poems would go towards publishing poetry by others”. Two years ago, he founded poetry publisher Rún Press, in Ireland, and also has a part-time practice in London in neuropsychology supervision and psychotherapy, as well as publishing poetry and novels.  “If elected, I shall finally be breaking my resolution not to teach poetry, but shall square that by channelling part of the [£12,000] stipend into publishing it,” he wrote.

Gregson’s statement lays out how he would address “how poetry has suffered, in recent decades, a catastrophic loss of cultural prestige and popularity”, and how “it is being relegated to the status of a geeky, minority pursuit”.

The Oxford poetry professorship can almost be looked on as an alternative power base to that of the poet laureate. In recent years Sir Geoffrey Hill  has taken Carol Ann Duffy to task, and criticised her for praising the potential of texting in poetry, saying: “When the laureate speaks of the tremendous potential for a vital new poetry to be drawn from the practice of texting she is policing her patch. And when I beg her with all due respect to her high office to consider that she may be wrong, I am policing mine.”

In his final lecture as Oxford professor of poetry this year, Hill, who is regarded as a “difficult” poet, said: “If I were to offer anything to the conventional young poet (apart from the proverbial revolver and a bottle of brandy) I would say: Don’t try to be sincere, don’t try to express your inmost feelings, but do try to be inventive.

“The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering; relevance and accessibility strike me as words of very slight value. I have written elsewhere that accessibility is a perfectly good word if the matter under discussion concerns supermarket aisles, library stacks or public lavatories, but has no proper place in discussion of poetry or poetics. Poetry of the new millennium is as it is because of what English poetry has been during preceding centuries and a degree of humility when faced with that fact would not come amiss from our latest celebrities.”

Oxford graduates can vote on their choice of poetry professor next month, with the winner to be announced on 19 June.


Background: Mr Armitage goes to Washington






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John Coopey

Wed 27th May 2015 23:13

"Hill" - such a little word for such a big ego.
(He is on the right lines about "accessibility", though; personally, I have always thought it should be banned except in connection with wheelchair ramps and crotchless panties).

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Greg Freeman

Tue 26th May 2015 11:41

You can read one of the best, certainly one of the longest, and possibly the most enjoyable article I've seen about Simon Armitage in the Guardian here You'll note that the interview was done in and around Marsden, Julian - poetry centre of the universe!

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Julian (Admin)

Tue 26th May 2015 11:10

I beg to differ, M.C. There is humour aplenty among open-mic/open-floor poets, in most of the many events I have attended in the past few years. I would agree that there is a tendency amongst some modern poets to eschew humour but the best deliver their serious messages in a deceptively humorous package. I love this from Billy Collins:

Introduction to poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

As I mention in my review of Armitage's gig in Washington, we would all have been proud of his dry humour interspersing the serious messages within some of his poetry.

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M.C. Newberry

Sat 23rd May 2015 17:43

Jonathan Humble - a delightful riposte and a true heir to
the wit and wisdom of Spike Milligan. Like most comedy
films - however gifted and rewarding - this poetic equivalent will not be gaining any prizes in competitions, but it has more than that going for it: the priceless
ability to connect with us and make us all
too rare occurrence in poetry today.

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Cynthia Buell Thomas

Thu 21st May 2015 09:44

May God give me strength! - a pointed pen against self-important academia - and a travesty of Aristotelian intent.

I almost want to puke.

Go Simon!

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M.C. Newberry

Wed 20th May 2015 16:38

The view of Sir Geoffrey Hill about accessibility and
supermarket shelves etc. is an arrogance that offends
common sense and human interaction. If you seek to
produce puzzles that challenge understanding, using a
great art as some sort of mental hoop-la, you are merely
playing games. It regrettable but it's unlikely that much
contemporary poetry will stand the unforgiving test of time. It needs affection and relevance to make it
worth the effort.
Gray's "Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard" will
continue to resonate with each generation simply
because it connects with human experience on so
many levels. Sir Geoffrey's views remind me of the
The intellectual seeks; the wise man has found.

Travis Brow

Wed 20th May 2015 07:07

A storm in a thimble, never mind a tea cup.

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Graham Sherwood

Mon 18th May 2015 18:18

Perhaps the Oxford position should follow on from being the Laureate every five years. It would certainly throw up some interesting names. However, I do believe it is considered cool, trendy, relevant, call it what you will, to appoint foreign names to these prestigious posts

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Chris Co

Mon 18th May 2015 16:55

Geoffrey Hill can try to stipulate all he likes but poetry and for that matter poets will not be defined by his narrow criteria. Whoever Oxford choose, it will be for the better.

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