Hooray hooray for the month of May! Another first – Oxford University have finally elected a woman as Professor of Poetry! Ruth Padel, great-great-grandaughter of Charles Darwin (and cousin of my fellow Glamorganite, Emma Darwin). Her election comes somewhat soured by the late withdrawal of Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott, but you can read about that on your own. This post is entirely a hurrah for Ruth Padel!
The role of Oxford Professor of Poetry is quite an odd one – a five year term, not always confined to poets, and only paying around £5,000. And despite being refered to as “the most important academic poetry position in the UK”, there are few actual requirements other than three public lectures per year, and an expectation that the incumbent will ‘encourage’ poetry at the University. And it is a genuine election too – any and all graduates of the university may vote, but must do so in person. The turnout is usually around 500. (For those of you who like to know the numbers, Padel received 297 votes to Indian poet/critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra‘s 129.)
One thing I’m particularly looking forward to is her stated desire of bringing poetry and science together. There are of course a number of poet-scientists (recent visitor to Christchurch, Iggy McGovern, being one), and poets like Jo Shapcott and Lavinia Greenlaw have been combining the lexes of science with sensual lyrical poetry for a while now. Poetry and science have more in common with each other than most people realise – both disciplines deal with uncertainties in areas where the layman feels certain, and require their adherents to constantly challenge their own beliefs and assumptions. And both vocations are considered geeky and weird! Being a poet married to a scientist (and having a science background of my own), I can only applaud the enterprise.
Confession time: I have to admit that I don’t cheer for Ruth Padel because of her poetry. Not because it isn’t good writing. It is. (I’ve heard her referred to as a modern Metaphysical poet, which feels about right.) But no matter how good her poetry is, where she really shines is as a commentator. Her two books, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and The Journey are simply astounding. Intelligent, accessible and passionately engaged readings of a wide variety of different poems. Read them. Truly, if you take one bit of book advice from me, make it this. She’ll open your eyes. (The Christchurch Public Library has copies of both.) I’d use them verbatim for teaching if I could. And the essay at the beginning of 52 Ways is worth the price of the book on its own.
I can’t think of a better person for the job. Yay Ruth!