Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The First Stone

I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels a considerable disquiet over Derek Walcott's removing of himself from the running for Oxford Professor of Poetry. In many ways this is less of a ceremonial role than the laureate, as the lectures that the poet gives are frequently the most important critical pronouncements of that poets career. It can only be with great regret that we now will no longer have Derek Walcott's Oxford lectures.

And the crime? There can be few statutes of limitations as long-minded as the anonymous smearer who still has a problem with a little local difficulty that Walcott had in 1982. This is not to denigrate sexual harassment, but to wonder whether all sense of perspective has deserted. There are murderers from that year who are now free to continue there lives unmolested. The social nuance of 1982 is very different 27 years later. Yet universities, those places of learning, can sometimes learn absolutely nothing. It is Coetzee's "Disgrace" or Roth's "The Human Stain" made real. The truth is, none of us really know what the truth or intent of that admitted scrape actually was. Our last laureate had a very public issue with one of his students - consenting adults or not - and those of us privy to even the slightest gossip on the poetry scene hear that certain male poets are notorious for their lasciviousness. Yet men will be men, and women will be women, and he or she without sin may cast the first stone. Walcott, having withdrawn with dignity, will appreciate that lesson. It is Oxford's loss not his. Whoever gets it in his place should resign immediately and ask that Walcott is appointed instead.

We are currently hearing of corruption on a scale of epic banality from our political classes, and yet it is the disgrace, the human stain of a remarkable poet who we besmirch. I am no apologist for bad behaviour between the sexes, but it's often a two-way street; and if the reported version is all there was, then there's no criminal offence, even if there's a moral one. And then again, our poets are now supposed to be sexless? We are supposed to believe that male lecturers have never tried it on with their female (and male ) students? We are treating poetry and poets according to some ridiculous morality test that all of us would somehow fail.

I am more appalled by Ruth Padel's poetry than I am by Derek Walcott's behaviour with his students in 1982, and this is not any moral stance, but a belief that we cannot know, we cannot know what that was all about, but we can know about the poetry. I'd hoped we'd got over the days of a fake puritanism, the condemning of Eliot or Larkin or whoever for the sins of their secret selves... yet we're still there, not noticing the irony, that our poets flaws are what make their poetry interesting.

1 comment:

Flat Out said...

'I am more appalled by Ruth Padel's poetry than I am by Derek Walcott's behaviour with his students in 1982'


well said

great post to start the day