Popular British poet selected for prestigious post ahead of strong field including Wole Soyinka
Friday 19 June 2015
The British poet Simon Armitage has seen off an international field to be chosen as Oxford’s latest professor of poetry.
Speaking to the Guardian after the announcement, Armitage said he was “delighted and very excited and suitably daunted as well”.
“It’s been such a long process,” he said. “In the time it’s taken we’ve had a general election, Sepp Blatter has come and gone and come again, and we’ve nearly got a new leader of the Labour party.”
He said he would try to give students an insight into “what is occasionally quite a muddy world, and a muddy art form, remembering that the audience are primarily students, and not to see it as a platform for professorial grandstanding”.
“For me, it’s a chance to say something a little bit more contemporary,” he said. “Often it’s been professors talking about previous generations. I feel as if I’d like to bring thing up to date. To look at poetry today, in dialogue with the poetry of the past.”
The award-winning author of more than 12 collections of poetry, Armitage has been hailed by fellow poet Sean O’Brien as “the first poet of serious artistic intent since Philip Larkin to have achieved popularity”. Combining linguistic inventiveness, streetwise flair and contemporary subjects, he has reached an audience far beyond the literary ghetto with poems, novels, translations of medieval verse and scripts for radio and television.
The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, welcomed the announcement, calling Armitage “a fine, vocational poet and a brilliant communicator for the modern age who never forgets the roots and ancestry of poetry”.
“Oxford is lucky to have gained his time and commitment to this post and should prepare itself to be shook, rattled and rolled,” she said.
Five candidates were competing for the position, a post second only in prestige to the poet laureate which was first established in 1708. Candidates “of sufficient distinction to be able to fulfil the duties of the post” – which include a lecture a term – must assemble nominations from at least 50 Oxford graduates.
Armitage was joined on the shortlist by the Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, the American AE Stallings – the only woman in the running for a position which has been held by men for all but two weeks of the last 300 years – Ian Gregson and Seán Haldane. Armitage received 1,221 of the 3,340 votes cast, with Wole Soyinka in second place on 920 just ahead of AE Stallings on 918.
Armitage was backed by 58 names, including John Carey and Melvyn Bragg. Bragg had previously supported Soyinka, but later publicly switched his allegiance to Armitage, telling the Sunday Times of his concerns that the 80-year-old might not “bother to come to Oxford” if he were to win. Soyinka hit back, saying: “How curious that anyone would even speculate that I would allow busy and committed people – friends, colleagues and total strangers – to waste their time nominating and campaigning on my behalf for such a prestigious position if I were not serious about contesting.”
Speaking to the Guardian after the announcement, Bragg said he was “delighted for him, and for Oxford, and for poetry”.
“This is one of the few posts in this country which recognises the value of poetry on a national scale,” Bragg said, “even though it comes from just one university. It has become a post that’s nationally recognised, and we should applaud recognition of poetry on this scale.” Armitage is “a very fine poet”, Bragg continued, who “has a direct connection with a very large, young audience who like poetry, and feel he speaks to them. And I feel he’ll take it very seriously, and be available for undergraduates,” he said.
Bragg added that he backed Soyinka initially because he wasn’t aware of Armitage’s candidacy. “As soon as I registered that, I changed my mind,” he explained. “And one of the things you learn at university is that when you think about things, you are allowed to change your mind.”
The election is not the first race for the professorship to have been dogged by scandal: in 2009, Ruth Padel was elected by Oxford graduates to the post, but remained in position for less than two weeks, resigning in the wake of charges that she had leaked to journalists the allegations of sexual harassment which had been made against her rival, the St Lucian writer Derek Walcott.
The first ever professor of poetry at the university was Joseph Trapp, in 1708, with names including Matthew Arnold, Seamus Heaney, WH Auden and Robert Graves also filling the role. English poet Geoffrey Hill is the current incumbent, and will step down at the end of this academic term.
In a statement provided by Armitage laying out his hopes for the professorship, the poet and translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight said he had decided to run because “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” poetry.
He would, he said, use the platform “to discuss the situation of poetry and poets in the 21st century, to address the obstacles and opportunities brought about by changes in education, changes in reading habits, the internet, poetry’s decreasing ‘market share’, poetry’s relationship with the civilian world and the (alleged) long, lingering death of the book”.
And he would, he ended, be “greatly excited and deeply honoured” if Oxford graduates “saw fit to appoint a self-schooled poet who views poetry from a hill above a Yorkshire village”.
“A former Oxford professor of poetry, Robert Graves, once described poetry as a continual, lifelong apprenticeship, and to that end it would be an adventure and an education,” said Armitage, who has held the role of professor of poetry at Sheffield University since 2011.
In his 2013 poem The Unthinkable, Armitage imagines a “huge purple door” washing up in a bay, “its paintwork blistered and peeled from weeks at sea”. The poem ends with a glimpse of an unnamed “non-swimmer”, “last seen sailing out, / riding the current and rounding the point in a small boat / with tell-tale flashes of almost certainly purple paint”. Students at Oxford university can look forward to seeing if their new professor of poetry sinks or swims later this year.