Oxford elects poetry professor by email vote

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Geoffrey Hill was announced yesterday to have won the election for the post of Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Hill, who won by a large majority, is the 44th man to hold the post, but the first one to have been elected by an email-based voting system.

Oxford University building, The Radcliffe Camera, built 1737-1749, holds books from the Bodleian Library's English, History, and Theology collections.
Image: Diliff.

Hill, a graduate of Keble College, has won many awards for his poems and other writing. He was described by The Daily Telegraph as "one of the most distinguished contemporary English language poets" and by the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion as "one of the two or three best poets writing in English". He obtained 1,156 votes with his nearest rival, Michael Horovitz, receiving 353. In all, 2,500 votes were cast for the ten candidates.

Cquote1.svg "... simply delighted that a poet of Geoffrey Hill's eminence has emerged victorious. Cquote2.svg

—Dr Seamus Perry

Speaking after the result was announced, Dr Seamus Perry from the university's English Faculty Board said that he was "simply delighted that a poet of Geoffrey Hill's eminence has emerged victorious." He added that Hill was "pleased" with the result, particularly as it came on his 78th birthday. Motion applauded Hill's success, saying that Oxford was "lucky to have him." Horovitz said that Hill would "probably give great lectures but they won't be anything different", and suggested that Hill, "like his poetry, won't be that accessible."

The 2010 election follows the controversy of 2009, which saw candidate Derek Walcott withdraw before the contest after anonymous letters were sent to more than 100 Oxford academics giving details of an allegation of sexual harassment made against him in 1982. The eventual winner, Ruth Padel, resigned after a few days when it emerged that she had briefed student journalists about the allegations. Perry said yesterday that Hill's election showed that "the chair did emerge intact from the scuffle."

This year's election was not without incident either. An eleventh candidate, Paula Clare, withdrew from the process complaining about pro-Hill coverage in the Oxford Gazette, the official journal of the university. She said that the process was "seriously flawed" and favoured Hill. The 2010 election was the first to allow voting by email: previously, voters had to visit Oxford and cast their votes in person. The 2,500 votes in this election compares to less than 500 cast in the 2009 contest, as against a total potential electorate (all the graduates and academics of the university) in the region of 300,000.

The post of Professor of Poetry dates from 1708, and former holders include Seamus Heaney and W. H. Auden. It is said to be "the most prestigious" job in poetry after the poet laureate. The professor has to give three lectures during the year and to deliver every other year a speech giving thanks to benefactors during the ceremony for the presentation of honorary degrees. There is no obligation to write poetry for the university during the five-year tenure of the post, although past holders have taken steps to encourage student poetry. Hill will be paid £6,901 per year.


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