Ruth Padel & Derek Walcott: The Clinton Vs. Obama Of Poetry?

In what one columnist has compared, perhaps erroneously, to the battle between Clinton and Obama, British poets Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott find themselves at the center of a scandal that includes allegations of racism, sexism, and sexual harrassment.

The situation: Padel and Walcott were both candidates for the prestigious position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Walcott, a 79-year-old poet born in St. Lucia, was the frontrunner, until members of the Oxford faculty received anonymous letters detailing past sexual harassment allegations against Walcott. Walcott stepped down, and Padel was chosen. Then The Sunday Times revealed that Padel had sent two journalists emails drawing their attention to the allegations. Now Padel has stepped down, saying, “I acted in complete good faith, and would have been happy to lose to Derek, but I can see that people might interpret my actions otherwise.”

One of Padel’s nominators, Professor of Philosophy A.C. Grayling, said,

It would have been really marvellous actually to have a women professor of poetry at Oxford, had it been a straightforward, clean fight. So it’s deeply, deeply disappointing that things worked out this way and that this kind of scurrilous…campaign was run against Derek Walcott.

But it’s also disappointing that any discussion of Walcott’s history of sexual harassment — and he has admitted to propositioning one student — is now tainted by Padel’s appearance of self-interest. Padel’s involvement has sunk the issue into the realm of identity politics, leading Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent to compare the conflict between the two poets to “the fierce contest between race and gender represented by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.” Like Clinton, Alibhai-Brown argues, Padel has come in for harsher criticism because of her sex:

the shockwaves set off by her emails suggests that ambitious women are not allowed to play hard. Men can and do use any weapons they have when battling against competitors, but not so the gentler sex. How many male professors across the land can honestly say they have always played fair to reach where they are?

And like Obama, “Walcott was judged by uniquely high standards and I do wonder if that was because of his race.” But the fact that both Padel’s emails and Walcott’s harassment might have been excused if perpetrated by white men doesn’t mean that either action is acceptable. Padel has made unbiased discussion of Walcott’s misdeeds impossible by injecting her personal ambitions into the conflict. And these misdeeds themselves are hardly any less reprehensible because they are common. Alibhai-Brown writes,

When Walcott stood down, he must have felt he was being “punished” for something that is widespread in higher education, even today when universities have anti-harassment policies. When in Oxford in the early Seventies, we all knew who the letch tutors were, so too the obliging wenches who happily gave themselves to the lotharios. I walked into the office of my “moral tutor” to find him and a young woman certainly not engaged in matters of the mind. His large 18th-century desk was clearly good at multi-tasking.

If it’s true that, as Alibhai-Brown says, this “tradition […] is alive and well today,” this is all the more reason why Oxford shouldn’t be fostering it by honoring professors with records of harassment. Unfortunately, the debate over what Oxford should have done in this situation — and what it should do with future candidates who stand accused of similar infractions — is likely to fade amid arguments over Padel’s motives.

Oxford Poet ‘Sorry’ Over Vote Row [BBC]
Oxford’s First Female Professor of Poetry Resigns [New York Times]
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: A Male Poet Wouldn’t Have Been Blamed For Rough Tactics [The Independent]
[The Movement to Stop Derek Walcott’s Election as Oxford Professor of Poetry] [The Suburban Ecstasies]
Walcott Set to Take Britain’s Second-Highest Post in Poetry [The Suburban Ecstasies]
Derek Walcott – Possible Inaugural Poet []

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