Oswald will be the first woman to serve in the role, established three centuries ago
By: Richard Lea in theguardian.com, Fri 21 Jun, 2019.
Alice Oswald has won the race to be Oxford’s latest professor of poetry. She will be the first woman to serve in the position, established more than 300 years ago.
Speaking to the Guardian after the announcement, Oswald said that after a “distinctly unsettling process” she was “very pleased, daunted, grateful to my nominators”.
“I look forward to thinking about all forms of poetry,” she said, “but particularly the fugitive airborne forms.”
Celebrated for their exploration of nature and myth, Oswald’s nine books of poetry have already brought her prizes including the TS Eliot, Griffin and Costa poetry awards. The former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has hailed her as “the best UK poet now writing, bar none”, while Jeanette Winterson has called her Ted Hughes’s “rightful heir”, a poet not “of footpaths and theme parks, but the open space and untamed life that waits for us to find it again”.
Oswald’s dreamlike visions of the countryside are rooted in acute observation of animals, plants and the landscape, while her reworkings of ancient stories are filled with humanity and compassion.
Born in 1966, she studied classics at Oxford, working as a gardener alongside her burgeoning career as a poet. Her debut, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, won the Forward first collection prize in 1996, and her polyphonic evocation of a river, Dart, took the TS Eliot award in 2002. She teamed up with the illustrator Jessica Greenman for Weeds and Wild Flowers, which won the Ted Hughes prize in 2010, and examined war and death in 2011 with her filleting of Homer’s Iliad, Memorial. Oswald withdrew from the TS Eliot award that year in protest at the private investment management company sponsoring the prize, then took the Costa award and the Griffin prize with her 2016 collection, Falling Awake.
The former poet laureate Andrew Motion, who was one of the 167 people to nominate Oswald, declared himself “extremely pleased”.
“Pleased because she’s one of the best poets writing at the moment and richly deserves the honour of the position,” Motion said, “because it’s beyond high time that the post was taken by a woman, and because she has some very interesting and energetic ideas for the role.”
Established in 1708, the Oxford position is one of the UK’s top accolades for poetry, with former professors including Seamus Heaney, Robert Graves and WH Auden. Candidates must win the support of at least 50 Oxford graduates and be “of sufficient distinction to be able to fulfil the duties of the post”, which include one lecture a term during an appointment lasting four years. The poets Andrew McMillan and Todd Swift also appeared on the shortlist. Oswald received 1,046 of the votes cast, with McMillan taking 210 and Swift trailing with 58.
The contest was marred by controversy surrounding Swift, who founded the independent poetry imprint Eyewear Publishing in 2012. Last year the Bookseller reportedthat the firm’s contracts included clauses forbidding authors from contacting the Society of Authors, with the imprint’s behaviour on social media also attracting criticism. The poets Claire Trevien and Aaron Kent wrote to Oxford University suggesting Swift should be removed from the contest, arguing that he was “unsuitable for the role of Oxford professor of poetry, and the level of prestige it offers”.
This year’s election was not the first to become embroiled in scandal. The poet Ruth Padel became the first woman ever elected to the position in 2009, but was forced to resign within two weeks after it emerged she had contacted journalists with allegations of sexual misconduct surrounding fellow shortlistee Derek Walcott.
Oswald now promises to create a stir of a quite different kind, focusing on spoken poetry and expanding the role to embrace the city of Oxford as well as the university. Writing in a statement to support her candidacy, the poet outlined plans for “Extreme Poetry Events” including all-night readings, a carnival of translations and a poem circus modelled on John Cage’s anarchic community piece Musicircus.
“A book is a wonderfully quiet place,” she wrote, “but I’ve always thought that poetry, if offered the right occasions, will rise to meet them and that one of our tasks as poets is to invent such occasions for ourselves and for others. I’d be delighted if I could tempt schoolchildren to take part in some of these.”
Poetry is “an ancient memory system”, Oswald continued, that “asks to be heard out loud or at least read in the manner of a musical score” and “promotes imaginative over rational understanding”, but the medium is currently undergoing radical change.
“I see no reason why Instagram poems shouldn’t prove as rewarding as Concrete poems or the visual poems of classical Chinese,” she wrote, “and I’d welcome the chance to invite young poets to engage in discussion about what poetry has been and is becoming.”