Poets, Academia: A Couplet in Conflict

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When Ruth Padel resigned last week as Oxford’s professor of poetry after only nine days on the job, it put an end — for now, at least — to a tale that began with past charges of sexual harassment against Ms. Padel’s primary competition for the position, the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, and grew to include discreet tip-offs, fervid editorials, and Ms. Padel’s eventual admission that she had helped publicize the allegations against her rival.

Ugly stuff, in other words, and mightily entertaining. But behind much of the frothy speculation and accusation was an older, subtler and more intractable conflict between the myths of poetry and the realities of the modern university. What we may be willing to put up with from a poet — in Mr. Walcott’s case, and perhaps Ms. Padel’s as well — is different from what we’re willing to put up with from a professor, which can be quite a problem when the poet is expected to profess.

The tension between these expectations, and the close relationship between poetry and academia that gives rise to that tension, are relatively recent phenomena in both the United States and Britain. As a biographer of Robert Frost, Jay Parini, notes, “In a time when most colleges have a poet on campus, if not several, it seems difficult to imagine how odd it was for Amherst College to have hired Robert Frost in the winter of 1917.”

Frost was one of the first poets-in-residence, but he was rapidly followed by legions of younger writers, like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and almost every American poet alive today. British poets kept their distance a little longer. As late as 1970, Philip Larkin (who never taught English or creative writing) complained while on an Oxford fellowship that “fat hangs on me like a Roman toga.” Oxford, he said, “seems to consist of eating, drinking and toadying.” Yet today the two most recent British poets laureate, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy, are professors of creative writing at, respectively, the University of London and Manchester Metropolitan University....

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