…on this whole Oxford Poetry fiasco, and then I’ll stop (or maybe, not). But apparently our nominee AK Mehrotra had this to say:
“From India where I live, these extra-literary goings-on appear more unfortunate than amusing. I hope that some lessons are learnt from this, not least that the private lives of poets should, occasionally, be allowed to stay private.”
Sexual harassment = a man’s ‘private life’?
I quoted Hermione Lee on my blog and I quote her again in my CiF piece, saying: “We are purveyors of poetry, not chastity.” As if it were just a sexual peccadillo.
Funnily enough, to the girl who was told that, unless she slept with him he would prevent her play (written for his course) from being produced, it probably didn’t seem like it was just about sex. It was more like being directly about her academic record. And if I’m not mistaken she only went public with it in the end because she heard about two other girls who had had the same treatment; one of them became depressed and the other had left the course entirely.
I’m sure Professor Lee, the great feminist biographer, would have expected to be taken more seriously than that when she was a student.
A culture that can’t even distinguish “sex” from the adjective “sexual” that modifies, in this case, the noun “harassment” isn’t anywhere near being ready even to debate the vexed question of whether this should debar Walcott from what is essentially a guest lectureship, not a pedagogic role.
The worst part is that Padel’s unfortunate behaviour has made people forget that the charges against Walcott were serious, and whether he should have been debarred or not was a serious question. It’s a question worth engaging with, because it cuts to the heart of what we expect from poets and public figures, and what we think of the relationship between ethics and poetry.
Instead, now Walcott is wronged hero, Padel is humiliated vamp, and all the real issues can go right back where they belong — under those university carpets. Plus you have some poets making vapid, dismissive statements about the whole issue like ‘who cares?’ or ‘what matters is that Poetry has suffered’ as if poetry exists in some sort of vacuum unaffected by (and un-affecting of) the real world. As if what happens in the real world, including sexual harassment, were not important to poetry at all.