If as Peter Tosh sang, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” then, the lawns of Oxford must be littered with shards after the withdrawal of Derek Walcott for the candidacy of Oxford poetry professor.
And it’s a shame.
For the whole point of being an Oxford poetry professor was to place the poet in a community of poets and scholars, and out of that dialogue, Walcott (if he had won) would have been contractually bound over the next five years as Dr Nicholas Shrimpton explained, “to give grand public lectures, not to teach students in examined courses.”
But an extra-literary smear campaign
forced Walcott to resign from one of the most important positions in academia and within the community of poets. As Walcott put it: "I withdraw from the election to be professor of poetry at Oxford. I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself," he told the Evening Standard
. "I already have a great many work commitments and while I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it."
Now while I will not defend Walcott’s alleged personal behavior—which I hinted at in a response to William Logan’s snarky review of The Bounty—nor do not believe that “artistic license” gives anyone the right to behave in a destructive manner towards others, I agree with the line of reasoning posed by Oxford English professor Elleke Boehmer to her colleagues: “How many male professors of poetry of a certain age and generation can safely hold their hands up and say that they are entirely clear of any history of sexual harassment?" It does not excuse their actions, but anyone who has read the novels of Phillip Roth or Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is well acquainted with the behavior of these men, especially Caribbean men, who are “of a certain age and generation.”
In our age of greed
(AIG, anyone?), lust is not the only vice
as Dante’s Inferno
reminds us--something that my father, an accountant and also a member of that “certain age and generation,” in his own way taught me in a backhanded compliment for one of his co-workers: “ I can leave X with a million pounds and come back in ten years and not even a farthing would be missing.” But then, he quickly added, “I wouldn’t leave your sister with him for a second.”
Hermione Lee, in confirming Walcott’s withdrawal, stated: "Oxford loses the opportunity to hear lectures on poetry for the next five years from one of the great poets of the world, a Nobel prize winner, an honorary doctor of Oxford University and a writer who is on the Oxford syllabus."
It’s not only Oxford, but the world.
(5/14/2009) Update from Walcott's former accuser, Nicole Kerby: Walcott is the Greatest Living Poet