God knows poet squabbles don’t get much coverage in our celebrity-obssessed age, but over at Oxford a storm is brewing that is worthy of any US Weekly cover. The position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford is something of a laureateship – highly prestigious and ultimately the only kind of steady paying job any poet can rightfully expect. The current holder of the position, Christopher Ricks, is coming to the end of a five-year tenure, and the election of his replacement is scheduled for Saturday.
Three names quickly emerged as the shortlist: Derek Walcott, Ruth Padel and Arvind Mehrotra. Now, if you’ve heard of any of these three figures, it’s likely the St. Lucia-born Walcott, who won a Nobel prize a few years back and who I would say is the most-anthologized of the three, and indeed, he was the favoured candidate – that is, until he dropped out of the race yesterday.
So why did he drop out? Well, he was the target of what the literary press, who can be a bit pearl-clutching at times, calls a “smear campaign.” A hundred or so professors were anonymously sent photocopied pages from a biography of Walcott. The pages detailed some sexual harassment allegations from awhile back which occurred while Walcott was teaching at Harvard in the early eighties.
The student alleged that Walcott asked her to, “Imagine me making love to you. What would I do? … Would you make love with me if I asked you?”, and claimed that after she turned him down, she was given a C grade in his class.
(via.) Now, another former student – who actually went on to sue Walcott and settled, I think, though I can’t seem to find the record on the web so feel free to correct me – has actually also come forward and said that she doesn’t think he ought to step down, despite what seems to be something of a sexual harassment habit. Those in the know of this kind of academic gossip think Padel is behind the whole thing, which gives the whole affair just the kind of air of seventh-grade lunchroom antics that are usually the staple of the Real Housewives of New York City. Then again, I learned long ago in a brief career in student politics that academics are just as ridiculous as anyone else, given enough rope to hang themselves.
The question that all of this raises for me is an old one but it comes up frequently because I love books, theatre and movies. Moreover, there remains in my battered, crusty and embittered heart a soft spot for a romantic view of the creative soul, and when Walcott and others like him turn out to be toeing some of the same old misogynist lines, it’s difficult to avoid crushing disappointment. Because let’s make one thing clear; in all the articles I have read on this subject, Walcott does not seem to apologize for having been a frequent sexual harasser. His outrage, rather, is limited to this campaign of “character assassination,” as he calls it, and from my vantage point, he appears unable to understand that the person who assassinated his reputation here is he himself.
Oh, I know, colleges are sexually charged places and I too as an undergrad knew more than one young lady who had no issues with innuendo-ing around with the professor in order to get a better grade. It’s not that I don’t understand him setting himself up as the professor in Oleanna; harssers and misogynists are experts in denial.
But what’s confusing to me generally about artists who have this sort of background problem (say, like Arthur Miller and his Downs’ Syndrome son) is how one becomes the kind of person who can see and depict the world in such a nuanced way and still have such an abhorrent attitude to those in your immediate circle. I’m not talking about the kind of hatred I have for Updike, or Mailer, for the record, because in those cases it is plain to me that their personal mores seeped into their work in very direct ways. It curtailed their imaginative scope. But look at this passage from Walcott’s “The Sea is History,” which I’ve always admired:
Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation -
jubilation, O jubilation -
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,
fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,
and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
And you have to wonder. What in that leads to smarmy pick up lines like “Imagine me making love to you?”