By Michelene Wandor.
LONDON – DEREK WALCOTT HAS won this year’s T. S. Eliot prize (£15,000 and great prestige) with his collection, White Egrets (North American readers here). It is hugely deserved. Walcott is a major international literary figure. From the West Indies, via a literary education steeped in the literature of Greek myths and Shakespeare, his poetry has always resonated with free-form majestic rhythms, weighty imagery and the savours of his birthplace, helping to lay the foundations of later generations of Caribbean and post-Caribbean poets. One of these, Bernardine Evaristo, was on the panel of judges for the awards, and Walcott’s poetry is likely to have resonated powerfully with her.
Meanwhile, cultural contexts still hover. Virtually all the coverage of the award so far has reminded us of the scandal which marred (well, let’s be honest, made it more fun) the election for the Oxford professorship of poetry in 2009. The post is voted for by Oxford MAs, so canvassing must be a real headache. Such minority (elitist) audience participation may, indeed, be one of the inspirations behind TV reality shows which eliminate contestants as a result of audience votes. (Only joking. I’m sure the TV companies thought it up all by themselves.)
Documents were circulated claiming that Walcott had been accused of sexually harassing women students. (No names, no lawyers.) Apparently, some of the claims had been published in a book, so presumably they had been cleared for libel. Walcott dropped out from the contest, and the poet who then won (Ruth Padel) resigned after nine days, admitting that she had had some responsibility for alerting journalists to the claims.
Shock. Horror. Poets can be less than pure. While they are lauded for legislating for personkind, they might be getting up to all sorts of hanky panky and back-stabbing behind the scenes. (No names, no lawyers.) Geoffrey Hill benefited from that fracas, and, arguably, perhaps he should have been one of the top runners for the professorship anyway.
THERE ARE TWO SERIOUS, and generally very unresolved issues here. The first is whether we can separate the personal from the work achievement. The second is about the extent to which sexual relationships between academics and students can be seen to be, or actually to be, an abuse of power.
I had very close involvement (as a mature student) with a higher education arts institution. (No names, no lawyers.) Among students, it was common knowledge which ‘professors’ picked off the first-year women students. One told me about her night with one of these (not much of a shining knight, as it turned out), and when I suggested she might report it, she said, ‘Well, I agreed, didn’t I?’ Another student put up with her teacher (instrumental teaching is one-to-one) standing much too close to her, touching her, and, when he did finally make explicit sexual suggestions, she had the courage to complain. All that happened was that she was assigned to another teacher. It’s worth adding that while these activities were mostly targeted at the women students, there was one woman ‘professor’ who regularly kept company (hard to keep finding euphemisms here) with young male students.
Walcott couldn’t be at the awards event, preferring to celebrate at home in St Lucia. The other senior poet on the short list, Seamus Heaney, equally deserving, was also absent, as was Simon Armitage. That left the others, who doubtless enjoyed the soaring glass roof over the high open courtyard of the Wallace Collection in London. And while I’m on the subject, I do wonder how some of the short-listed books got onto the short list in the first place. No names, no lawyers.
Michelene Wandor last covered the Strictly Come Dancing results for the Fortnightly Review here. Her two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets.