'Self-schooled poet' Simon Armitage bids to become Oxford professor of poetry
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.
PHOTOGRAPH: GREG FREEMAN / WRITE OUT LOUD