The dead (and live) poets' society

November 12, 1999

Is an Ulster mafia behind the appointment of Paul Muldoon (right) to Oxford's poetry professorship? No, says Valentine Cunningham.

What a dizzying roller-coaster is Oxford University's relation with modern poetry! One minute the Oxford University Press is bringing the whole world's opprobrium down on the university's head for giving its poetry list the bum's rush. The next Oxford is acclaiming its graduate Andrew Motion for netting the laureateship and giving a cuddly welcome to Paul Muldoon, the boy from Portadown, the latest more-than-decent practising poet to hold its professorship of poetry.

Muldoon's inaugural lecture last week - first of 15 proposed outings on "The End of the Poem" - featured Yeats's ghostly Oxford Poem "All Souls' Night" (November 2 was All Souls' Day). A poem of ghosts, it had Muldoon peopling a packed Examination Schools with waves of Irish ghosts in his idiosyncratic interpretation of the text. The vice-chancellor welcomed Muldoon as a "leading Irish poet". Irish persons cheered him to the rafters.

Muldoon's reception had the warmth reserved for favourite sons. He was elected as poetry professor on a shoo-in, no one was put up against him, and he ran in unopposed. Which is a great rarity. It is the highest accolade the place affords. He succeeds James Fenton (the post is for five years), who succeeded Seamus Heaney, who succeeded Peter Levi - and so on back into the dark backwards and abysms to the days of Roy Fuller, and Robert Graves, and W. H. Auden and so on.

It is a kind of great tradition, this modern practice of getting in notable living poets to stand up for the current practice of poetry, to encourage the local youthful rhymesters, to put down an Oxonian marker for the right poetic stuff. And Muldoon will feel poetically quite at home during his tenure. Oxford is the proverbial nest of singing birds, simply stacked with good poets and versifiers. David Constantine (who teaches modern languages), John Fuller, Tom Paulin, Craig Raine, Jon Stallworthy, Bernard O'Donoghue (who teaches English): so many, it is almost indecent. Where, one is driven to ask, would the modern canon of English verse be without all those poets who have been through these quadrangles - T. S. Eliot, Graves and Edward Thomas, Auden, Spender and MacNeice, Betjeman and Keith Douglas, Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, John Heath-Stubbs, Alan Brownjohn, Anthony Thwaite, George MacBethI not to mention Laureate Motion.

Heart-warming thoughts. The trouble with such emotionalism, though, is that it lulls one into forgetting other stubbornly brutal truths about poetry - not least the callously philistine way the delegates of the OUP slung out their poets with brays and cat-calls and obloquy - a vandalism unmitigated by the huge face-saving sums of money they were eventually shamed into paying Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press to cart away a rump of the list and continue it as Carcanet Oxford Poets. A shoddy exercise by their spokesmen. Michael Schmidt is, of course, another good Oxford-produced poet, and his Manchester-based Carcanet Press started life in a shed in South Hinksey on Oxford's edge and has become one of the glories of British poetry publishing. But Oxford Poets, Manchester? It lacks all conviction.

And while remembering the bad days of the OUP, it is hard not to remember too the rebuking fact that much of the strength of the Oxonian poetry scene has happened against the grain of similar local hostilities.

For much of our century Oxford's syllabuses have been closed to modern verse. Oxford's many undergraduate poets have often had to cultivate their poetic garden against the wishes of their tutors. It was Auden who introduced his tutor Neville Coghill to the works of Eliot. And very many of Oxford's best-known poetic names have left in some dudgeon - Betjeman degree-less, Auden with a third, Larkin with a curse at having had to spend time on Anglo-Saxon ("ape's bum-fodder"). Earlier this year when the master of University College welcomed HM the Queen, Univ's visitor, to the 750th anniversary celebrations of the college, he was pleased to mention "your Majesty's new laureate", Univ's former undergraduate and graduate student, as a literary glory of the place. He did not mention the OUP's then recent poetic Kristallnacht, nor the all too common postures of hostility towards current poetry that it might be held to represent. Just so, last week's warmth towards Muldoon does not erase for many of us the memory of the hate campaign conducted by Enid Starkie against Robert Lowell when he stood for election as poetry professor, (we did not need "an American loony" was the line of thought).

But for all that, this ex-pat Irishman did make it as professor of poetry, and with acclaim, as did the awkward-squad Irish republican Seamus Heaney before him. And, quite clearly, what is going on is a quiet cultural revolution - the repressed Irish Other of English literature coming in from the dark, much as Muldoon had his lecture hall bustling with long-lost Irish presences.

The Irish poet Tom Paulin recently defended Muldoon's election against charges in the TLS gossip column that it was an Ulstermen's fix. Ulsterman Muldoon jobbed in by a cabal led by Paulin, the "Ulster poet from Leeds". There is, says Paulin, "for the record ... no Ulster mafia at work in the University of Oxford". Probably not. What there is, though, is a rising consciousness of Irishness - at least in literary terms. Muldoon's nominators were indeed led by Paulin. And Muldoon's supporters' lists featured the local Irish with distinct prominence. There was the Irish president of St John's (the college where John Kelly teaches English and the Yeats letters industry is centred). And there was Roy Foster's name and Bernard O'Donoghue's. And so on. Before one's eyes, a veritable clan was rising.

Scandalously, the Oxford English course has never had an Irish writers paper, even when almost everyone else did. Irish writing in English had to slink in, as it were, in drag, as pretend English stuff. Irish literature in Irish has always had to lurk obscurely in the skirts of traditional Celtic studies. Such prejudices abounded. Tom Paulin once asked me whether I thought he was not getting some Oxford post or other "because I'm Irish". I thought that he might have a point. When Richard Ellmann arrived in the early 1970s as Oxford English's first Jew, he also trailed his Irish specialisms along with him - two kinds of outsiderliness at one stroke. But still the Irish remained among Oxford's backward races. But not, evidently, any more.

When Andrew Motion was mooted for the laureateship he was steadily abused, and by fellow poets too, as an establishment running dog, and mainly because he was an Oxford product. And unquestionably he is now the Laureate of Her Majesty, who is indeed the visitor of her Laureate's old college. And Oxford's literary studies will probably never entirely shed the marks and scars that come from their establishmentarian history. But like the religious dissenters once excluded from Oxford whose academies formed the likes of Keats (celebrated by Motion's fine biography) and Hazlitt (celebrated in Paulin's recent book); indeed like modern poetry which insists on its presence in Oxford's literary consciousness despite all the old tutors' deprecations and the modern Press's depredations, our newly audible Irish voices, led now by the mellifluous, if slightly crazed wit of Muldoon, tell a story with a rather different, and quite anti-establishmentarian strain.

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