We can all rest easy now as poetry itself continues to rest firmly in the hands of a male poet after a mewling and quite boring campaign for the Oxford Professor of Poetry Chair. We shall be inundated with Sperm Whales and good solid poetry that does not challenge or question the three hundred years of traditional media and establishment bias that led us to this pass. In its three hundred year history there has been one woman poet in the chair and that lasted nine days. In 2010 another woman withdrew from the race. It could be said that there is nothing more hierarchical or male-dominated than this chair, that it has become a bishopric for the established male poet.
That the Oxford Professorship is an indication of the importance of poetry in the national narrative is a given. In its 300 hundred year history, almost unbroken by the scent of an Oxford woman poetry professor, we can see how important the male voice is to the perception of poetry, and I am sure that the Times Literary Supplement is having a wee garden party to celebrate the fact of Armitage’s election.
I like to look at how the media presents the idea of “poetry” to the non-poetry reading public. Firstly there has been the tiresome laddish campaign that tried to make poetry relevant to the bored public (guardian.co.uk) Anthony Holden spent his national media time filling his page with tales of woe and adding some little black and white photos of tweeded, addled looking poets. The reader would hardly know that Alicia Stallings was a candidate in the 2015 race, but for a brief sentence at the base of his piece,
AE Stallings has published three books of poetry including the award-winning Archaic Smile (1999) and a verse translation of Lucretius. She lives in Athens. 5/1
Stallings got short shrift in the Telegraph, this does not surprise me much, after all Allan Massie has been using Telegraph pages to take pot-shots at Carol Anne Duffy for some time now, and the paper is somehow considered intellectual, yeah right. Anita Singh suffers under the delusion that the Oxford Professor of Poetry race was between two men, and here is the nub of the issue. Journalists cannot be arsed looking at the politics of debate on issues like androcentrism in literary publication, even when they are women journalists. Singh’s article was poxy. I am tired of the Telegraph’s old boy network and general writing to rote. That a woman journalist participates in sexism doesn’t surprise me either, we have them here in Ireland.
Now that Armitage is safely installed and happily going to fix onto the unbroken male list of poets, the Guardian ventured into an actual discussion on his win that included the other nominees. This time there was no need now for a hard sell on the booze and brawls that tainted their pre-election coverage. The Guardian mentioned A. E. Stallings in the article and not as an afterthought at the very end. I presume that the change was advised by their first sentence,
The British poet Simon Armitage has seen off an international field to be chosen as Oxford’s latest professor of poetry.
Yeah whatever, your boy did good because he saw off an international field which you neglected to mention in your previous report here.
The TLS has been called on its perceived sexism which arises from the deep bias towards the review of books by women authors. Indeed, in its five years of counting, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts has seen no appreciable change in the TLS figures which look something like this most of the time. The TLS has often outdone itself, however, and there are current tweets about their overweening emphasis on male poets. Despite low review and publication rates for women authors the TLS bucked its own trend by supporting Stallings, and even adding her picture to their article on the Oxford race.
General coverage of the Oxford debacle has reduced the sole woman candidate to a shadow on the page, barely examining her work and her interests. The Spectator being an honorable exception,
Among the other candidates, there is a strong case to be made for A.E. Stallings. Not only does she write graceful, melancholic and ingenious poems, she’s also a natural communicator who can give a mean TED Talk. Further back in the field, Seán Haldane says he will try to emulate the ‘provocative’ style of Robert Graves, who held the post in the 60s. Haldane also reveals that early in his career he made a lifelong pledge ‘never to make a living from poetry or by teaching it’. Most of the poets I know have achieved a similar record without even trying.
In practically every single article that I saw there was not a single image of the woman candidate, or the 9 day previous holder of the chair (Ruth Padel). I absolutely and without a doubt blame the media for lazy bias, for stupid attempts to make poetry fashionable and, you know, slightly edgy. There was no decent and unbiased reportage around this election at all.
So, here’s the rub. Congratulations Simon Armitage. Commiserations A.E. Stallings, Wole Soyinka, ian Gregson, and Seán Haldane. I would like to see something different at the next election. I would like to see the media discussing women poets and the benefits that they can bring to the chair, and how their role can influence emerging women poets. I feel that this can be achieved by speaking to women candidates with intelligence and not utilising them as filler material in your ossified view of what poetry is.
This is the list of poets who have occupied the chair, note the extreme lack of women.
Christine Murray is a graduate of Art History and English Literature (UCD, Belfield, Dublin 4). She is a qualified restoration stonecutter (OPW). Christine blogs at http://poethead.wordpress.com which is dedicated to the writing, editing, and poetry translation work of women writers. Poethead carries two indices dedicated to women poets.
Her chapbook, Three Red Things, was published by Smithereens Press in June 2013. A collection of poems, Cycles, was published by Lapwing Press in Autumn 2013 . A dark tale, The Blind, was published by Oneiros Books late in 2013. Her second book length poem, She, was published in Spring 2014 (Oneiros Books). A chapbook, Signature, was published in March 2014 by Bone Orchard Press.