Controversy has dogged elections held every four years to the prestigious post of professor of poetry at the University of Oxford – ask noted Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra – and this year is no exception.
It is Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, who is now at the centre of a row. He is among five candidates in the election, the others being Simon Armitage, Ian Gregson, Seán Haldane and AE Stallings.
Mehrotra was nominated as a candidate in 2009 (each candidate needs the support of at least 50 members of the university’s Convocation), but polled the second largest votes in an election that sank into chaos amid allegations of mud-slinging and conspiracy.
Soyinka, 80, is now facing criticism that he is too old and ‘grand’ for the university role, but has hit back. He has been nominated by a large number of Convocation members (former Oxford graduates), including some Indians.
According to broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, Soyinka would not bother to come to Oxford if he were elected to the post: “Soyinka is a grand man…I also query his age”.
Soyinka responded by telling The Guardian: “How curious that anyone would even speculate that I would allow busy and committed people - friends, colleagues and total strangers - to waste their time nominating and campaigning on my behalf for such a prestigious position if I were not serious about contesting”.
Soyinka has also been criticised for not submitting a statement for the election, but his supporters have defended him.
Lucy Newlyn, a poet and professor of English at Oxford, said his decision not to submit a statement for the post was in no way unusual for a would-be poetry professor, and nor was his advanced age.
She said: “Geoffrey Hill, the current professor of poetry, did not submit a statement. He, like Soyinka, is over 80, and his tenure has been a great success. Soyinka is a candidate of absolutely outstanding distinction, energy and enthusiasm. If elected, he will be totally committed to the post. Candidates are permitted to submit statements if they wish, but this is entirely optional.”
The result will be declared at a meeting of the onvocation on June 19.
Previous holders of the post include John Keble, Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Christopher Ricks.