Tuesday, May 26, 2009

London and Controversy

This blog having just been named as one of the top 100 poetry blogs by Online University Reviews, I feel I ought to post something today. It was good to see other blogs I read mentioned as well—Ed Byrne’s, Mark Doty’s, Paul Lisicky’s, Sandra Beasley’s, for example, and I’ve begun to explore others on the list that I didn’t know about. Also, I don’t see why they omitted Joan Houlihan’s or Terry Hummer’s, and even Reginald Shepherd’s, despite the fact that Reginald died in September. It has been carried forward some time after his death by his partner and, anyway, what he wrote there before his death is worth rereading.

I arrived in London last Wednesday and first off saw James Byrne in his new Hampstead digs, and then a few days later again at a dinner party he gave with Sandeep Parmar. Somehow unpacking and jet lag haven’t prevented me from seeing people and attending events. Mimi Khalvati and I attended the celebration of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai at the National Portrait Gallery, the participants including Elaine Feinstein, Ruth Padel, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Sillitoe, Danny Abse, Yvonne Green (the organizer), and Hannah Amichai, widow of the late poet. She was impressive and attractive—warm, level, direct. This emerged during questions after the readings. One that interested me was the relationship between Mahmoud Darwish and Amichai. Darwish admired Amichai’s poetry and said so. They were associates for a while until Amichai interpreted one of Darwsh’s poems as being against the State of Israel. After which, Amichai said he couldn’t appear on the same platform. This puzzled me because Darwish never denied the legitimacy of Israel’s statehood. Just because you are for the Palestinian people doesn't mean you can't be for the continuance of Israel. What Darwish opposed was the refusal of right of return to those who had to to leave their homeland during the disruptions of the transition, and the reduction of large numbers of Palestinians to second-class status in the new state. Not to mention the harassment of checkpoints and the bulldozing of houses and the imprisonment of anyone even suspected of dissidence. As for the ensuing war, the most general kind of humanitarian guidelines as established by international law, irrespective of where war occurs, couldn’t possibly condone what happened. Heads of state and military officers make decisions that ultimately the civilian has to pay for. At this point it’s futile and destructive to try to say who is right and who is wrong. Blockading an entire region is wrong and from time to time depriving it of water, electricity, and food is wrong; firing rockets on civilian targets is wrong, the same as saying you intend to destroy a sovereign state; making settlements on land not recognized by the U.N. as belonging to you is wrong; suicide bombings are wrong; using phosphorus weapons is wrong; preventing the wounded or ill from getting to a hospital is wrong; shutting down peaceful gatherings is wrong; and refusing to negotiate is wrong. The only important issue now is how to bring the violence to an end and to establish viable, peaceful government. That issue should override any prideful clinging to punctilio and protocol. Clearly the people at large want the strife to end. If no move is being made to end it, then it’s the leaders who have to accept the blame. Because the peace and safety not only of the Middle East but the entire world depends on speedy resolution of the conflict, then the world at large should exert pressure on the leadership to put a stop to rhetoric and get down to negotiating.

I seemed to have arrived in the U.K. during scandal season. The misdeeds of MPs who misappropriated public money for private purposes has been so much discussed that there’s nothing to add here. On the other hand, the scandal surrounding the Oxford Poetry Chair is still recent enough to bear examination. I was angry when I heard that Derek Walcott had withdrawn his candidacy for the position because of a history of suits involving sexual harassment in years past had been cited as a reason not to appoint him. I don’t like the following analogy, but it is all I can think of to point up the issues. Compare Walcott to the convicted offender who serves his time and is released. Once he has “paid his debt to society,” this person should be allowed to make a new life for himself. If he isn’t allowed to, he will either harm himself or others. If we don’t believe in rehabilitation, then we have to hand out life sentences only. The smear campaign against Walcott was like convicting someone in advance of a crime not yet committed. Note, too, that the Chair of Poetry doesn’t involve courses and evaluation of students but only public lectures. It’s fair to say that Walcott in one of the three most important living English-language poets. Add to that the non-negligible fact that he has African ancestors—non-negligible in an era when Britain is trying to make up for the injustices of the colonial period. He would have been a brilliant choice. (I can’t help wondering, incidentally, if African ancestry didn’t turn against Walcott here. Overt or subtle, sexual predation of students among white professors is as common as student cheating on exams. But a black professor who attempts this is going to be called to account much more quickly and severely.)

Certainly Ruth Padel is one of the leading poets in the U.K. There were many good reasons for appointing her Oxford Professor of Poetry quite apart from the fact that she was a candidate who hadn't been involved in sexual harassment suits. It’s not a minor consideration that she would have been the first woman to hold the post. Her recent book about the life of her ancestor Charles Darwin would have made the appointment timely not only because of purely calendrical facts but also because we live in an era when fundamentalists are challenging Darwinian theory. Any reminder, any prestige conferrable, any fact that can weaken the fundamentalist case, wherever we find it, is welcome.

But her candidacy has come a-cropper because she at first denied she had anything to do with the smear campaign. Two emails to newspapers now show that she did. To overly aggressive lobbying tactics we have to add a public lie. I think this is intensely sad. First, because it attests to a lack of confidence that personal merit alone was sufficient reason for being appointed. (And in a tradition where women have been discouraged from believing in themselves, we can understand how this might be.) And, second, because it has been the source of pain and perhaps career damage for two poets.

And what happens now? Will the Chair be offered now to Walcott? If offered, will he accept? Will it go to another poet, and if so which poet? Should be interesting to see.

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