Darwinian Struggle: A Poet Felled by Scandal

Darwinian Struggle: A Poet Felled by Scandal

“I hope wounds will start to heal,” said Ruth Padel, blinking earnestly as flashbulbs popped. Her statement may not have contained the startlingly original imagery that propelled the poetess to prominence, but to her critics it represented a kind of poetry — poetic justice.

On May 16, Padel was named Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry, following in the footsteps of such literary giants as Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day-Lewis, W.H. Auden, Robert Graves and Seamus Heaney. Yet even in this illustrious company, there was something that distinguished Padel from the crowd: she was the first woman to win election to the five-year post since its creation in 1708.

She has now achieved another first, standing down only nine days after her victory. “I wish to do what is best for the university,” she said at a hastily arranged press conference at the Hay literary festival in Wales, where she is promoting her latest book of verse, Darwin: A Life in Poems. Even before Padel, the naturalist’s great-great-granddaughter, wove together fragments of Charles Darwin’s writings to create her acclaimed poetic biography, she cited his ideas as an inspiration. “Darwin loved form; he’s always saying he loved the rich, complex forms of what he looked at. And that’s so like poetry, and that’s what I like about poetry too,” she told an interviewer.

Her tooth-and-claw campaign for the poetry professorship might also be described as Darwinian. The front runner, West Indian poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, withdrew his candidacy four days before the poll after the resurrection of 1982 allegations that he sexually harassed a Harvard student. Appearing in the British media, those charges found their way to Oxford academics in anonymous letters. Walcott’s withdrawal left two hopefuls, Padel and the Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra, to compete for the support of Oxford’s senior staff and graduates, all of whom are eligible to vote for the professorship. There had been, said Walcott, a “low and degrading attempt at character assassination.”

Padel denied any involvement in the poison-pen letters but tendered her resignation after admitting that she had “naively — and with hindsight unwisely — passed on to two journalists … information that was already in the public domain.” Her departure proved as polarizing as her election. “What she has done is so much more trivial than her contribution to poetry,” said the novelist Jeannette Winterson. “We ought to be able to look beyond the woman to the poetry. This is a way of reducing women; it wouldn’t have happened to a man. But then Oxford is a sexist little dump.”

As the university prepares once more to solicit nominations for the poetry professorship, some potential contenders may be deterred by the scrutiny the contest is likely to attract. Sexual politics look certain to play as key a role in the new election as in the last. “I wish the next Professor of Poetry the very best,” said Padel, concluding her press appearance at Hay. “And I hope she’s a woman.”
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