Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Delightful Old Tradition

Once upon a time, British poets were chaps who'd 'come down' from Oxford and gone straight to their Oxbridge contacts in London to arrange to have their slim collections published. These collections were then read by the vulgar masses (or was it, rather, by other Oxbridge graduates?). Sadly, those days are over. Its interesting though, to know that the old ways still persist in some of Britain's quainter tourist enclaves: that there's still a post called "Oxford Professor of Poetry", and that it has just been filled by a certain Professor Geoffrey Hill (78). In continuation of a delightful old tradition, Prof Hill is paid a 'stipend' to deliver a 'Creweian Oration' every other year, and to speak in a sonorous voice in an oak-panelled 'lecture theatre' once a term.


John B-R said...

Is it photographed in sepia?

Alan Baker said...

Yes, I believe photography has gradually replaced oil-and-canvass. Even worse, in the 'swinging sixties' the trendies decided that the Crewian Oration should no longer be given in Latin.

Ed Baker said...

implausible, credible muse
whom I assuage by night

just read some of his work that you link to..

sure is nice to "see" proper use of English Language... and as counterpoint in a "sonorous voice"

possible to hear him read or did I miss that link to (...)?

Kathz said...

It should be said that the lectures are open to and attended by the public - not just students and dons - with the possible exception of the Creweian, which is part of the honorary degree ceremony. W.H. Auden was the last to give lectures in Latin and they are wonderfully provocative - see "Making, Knowing and Judging". Back then Auden's decision to lecture in Latin was seen as highly eccentric, but it came out of his fascination for language and translation practices - an appropriate interest for a poet (and I'm not averse to poetic eccentricity). Auden and Hill may not be the sort of poets you like but they care about language and poetry - and, given how few roles for poets there are, it seems a shame to complain about anything that encourages debates about poetry. Hill v. Horowitz may be a bit old-fashioned but it was still a debate.

I thought it a shame that Arvind Krishna Mehrotra didn't stand again but at least I came across his poems because of his candidacy in last year's election.

The Oxford post exists because somebody left money for it at the beginning of the 18th century when universities taught theology and classics - English literature wasn't a degree subject in England till the 19th century (and in Oxford it was controversial even in the 1920s - the Media Studies of its day). So for most of its existence the Professorship of Poetry has been teaching something that wasn't otherwise available in the university.

While Oxbridge poets can seem pretty elitist, the history of poetry isn't mostly an Oxbridge matter - and Oxford hasn't always been too happy with the poets who studied there; Byron was tolerated (despite the bear in his room) because of the title but Shelley was expelled for promoting atheism. When Louis MacNeice was applying for academic jobs, his Oxford reference indicated that his poetry should be seen as a disadvantage.

I would like more poets (of all kinds) in more universities - wouldn't you?

Alan Baker said...

Hi Kath

Thanks for the background information on the professorship; very interesting, especially your point about it being a radical innovation in its day. My reason for making fun of the institution is that it's one of the few things to do with poetry that makes it into the mainstream media; but that it's also rather archaic, and so reinforces the lay perception of poetry as an archaic artform. I regard some of Auden's poetry very highly. As for Hill, I have mixed feelings about his work - as detailed in my blog posts on him - mainly related to his patriarchal, High Modernist approach. But I'd rather have his poetry than that of the Armitage's and Duffy's of this world.

Far from encouraging debates about poetry, the OPP has tended to shore up the status quo and is part of the poetry 'establishment', though that may have changed had Paula Claire got the job. However, Hill is an interesting case, and being neither mainstream nor non-mainstream, is a unique figure. I disagree that he's "the finest living poet in English today" (as OXford Uni's offocial journal called him, *before* the election). Such is the scope and variety of post-modern poetry (not to mention the varieties of English), that it seems impossible to give that title to one person.

I would indeed like to see lots of practising poets in universities, but (as you know) we already have that, and as the situation now is different to that of 1708, the Oxford Professorship is an anachronism. Incidentally, a woman has never held the post, and the only woman candidate out of 10 this year, withdrew, alleging "serious flaws" in the election process and the partiality of the university authorities towards Hill (as mentioned in previous para).

I like your story about MacNeice - reminds of Bunting's "what the chairman told Tom".


Alan Baker said...

Ed, he's rather camera shy. This appears to be the only footage of him on youtube:

Ed Baker said...

Hey Alan,
thanks for the link to his read.
not a wasted breath... and every word/pause...doing it s job. This is (about) as good-as-it-gets

everyone should read their own work just as they wrote it...sitting down.

in 1967 a friend of mine went to Oxford on a Cecil Rhodes scholarship

so, upon my way back from Greece I stopped in for a brief visit ... and
ALMOST matriculated into Oxford...
you have to be VERY smart to go to Oxford so
I returned to the States and went to Johns Hopkins.

one of my greatest regrets: not buying a complete set of The Oxford English Dictionary

I also visited Cambridge

and was amazed at the two different "cultures"

I betcha that today The OED is an on line "thing"

another thought..
Geoff Hill is ONLY about 8 years OLDER than me: ...shit!

Kathz said...

Poetry isn't taken as seriously in universities as you may think - English departments often see criticism as THE important job which is served only incidentally by the existence of poets - living ones are a bit of embarrassment as they don't often conform with - or even agree with - critics' theoretical approaches. Indeed, poets often go on about practical matters relating to craft which critics tend to find less interesting than and less than useful to their own sweeping evaluations.

I have all sorts of disagreements with Hill (many similar to yours) but with any luck his lectures will be unpredictable. At least he makes me angry because he's a real poet. After Christopher Ricks' tenure, it's good to see the chair going to a practising poets.

I didn't discover till after the election that I could have voted on-line - I didn't and I have doubts about internet voting.

Alan Baker said...

I take your point Kath, though I was thinking of Creative Writing Departments. But it does make sense to have a practising poet like Hill giving lectures on more theoretical aspects of the art.