Football, sex and poetry

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Derek WalcottThe British newspapers have suddenly become interested in poetry. It's not a passion for scansion that's occupying them, however, but the much more reliable subject of sex and celebrity. It proves that sex scandals can make celebrities out of the most unlikely figures, even poets.

In the last few months Derek Walcott and Ruth Padel had been vying for the position of professor of poetry at Oxford University. It is a role second only to the laureateship in terms of status, and much less onerous. The professor gives a series of public lectures on poetry, is treated to a round of port and beef from the colleges, and escapes having to write the kind commemorative verse which blights those poets anointed by the Crown.

Previous holders of the Oxford professorship include Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney, but in its 300-year history the post has never been held by a black man or a woman of any hue. But, like the American Presidency, this latest election seemed destined to make history with one of those choices.

Walcott, a 1992 Nobel Prize Laureate from St Lucia in the Caribbean, had been the frontrunner. But last month, as university members were preparing to cast their ballots, accusations emerged that he had sexually harassed two students in the USA.

In 1982 a student at Harvard alleged that after she rejected a sexual advance from Walcott he gave her a low grade. She complained to university officials, who ordered Walcott to apologise.

A second instance was cited from Boston University, where in 1996 Walcott was sued for sexual harassment. The claim was later resolved out of court.

Walcott withdrew his name from the race, refusing to comment on the allegations but condemning the 'low and degrading attempt at character assassination'. On 16 May Padel was elected the new Oxford professor of poetry.

But, much to the delight of the tabloids, the scandal was not yet over. It was revealed that Padel had emailed journalists alerting them to the accusations made against Walcott.

Last Monday Padel resigned with an apology and the obligatory media mea culpa via a press conference, albeit with something of a politician's disingenuousness in claiming, 'Nothing I have done caused Derek Walcott to pull out of the election and I wish he had not'. The prestigious position now stands vacant.

Besides the grim comedy that sex scandals in the UK involve Nobel poets while ours feature footy players, does comparison between what happened to Walcott and what happened to Matthew Johns offer any insight?

One of Walcott's most prominent supporters, both before and after the accusations became public, is Professor Hermione Lee. Formerly Goldsmiths' Chair of English Literature at Oxford and currently President of its Wolfson College, Lee is a renowned critic and biographer, notably of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton.

Lee asked the Oxford student newspaper, 'Should great poets who behave badly be locked away from social interaction? ... You might ask yourself as a student body whether you wanted Byron or Shelley as a professor of poetry, neither of whom had personal lives free from criticism.'

Is this so different from the argument that it is unreasonable to require young men who are champion football players to be 'warriors' on the field and 'gentlemen' off it? Does great work excuse bad behaviour?

Bad behaviour comes in many different degrees, and there is a great difference between what Johns has admitted happened in a Christchurch hotel room and what Walcott still refuses to comment on. But you would never sense that from Walcott's critics. It seems that sexual sanctimoniousness reigns in academia.

Modern sexual harassment laws were developed largely in the context of the university: theoretically, in the schools of gender politics, and practically, in the resulting Codes of Conduct. This is not surprising, for once women began to be admitted into the hallowed halls from which they were so-long excluded, there needed to be recourse from the instances of sexual intimidation and even violence to which they were subjected.

But as Helen Garner explored at length in The First Stone, a fantasy of ideological purity now often accompanies attitudes to sexual behaviour in what are claimed to be bastions of intellectual freedom.

Consider the anonymous dossiers (for which Padel denies responsibility), sent to more than 100 academics in the week before the election, urging them not to vote for Walcott. These included pages from a 1990 study on sexual harassment with the Rothian title of The Lecherous Professor.

This kind of campaign seems fuelled by the righteous certainties of youth. Take these blog comments posted by 'a group of women students at Oxford University':

'Quite the opposite of Professor Lee's assertion, we feel that electing a proven campus sexual predator... would shame not honour Oxford. We find it scandalous, almost unbelievable, that it is a woman educator who is Walcott's chief supporter in Oxford and in public.'

A 'sexual predator'? To show support for whom is 'scandalous, almost unbelievable'? This is strong language, both to describe a 79-year-old man who has been accused of making two passes over his teaching career, but also for dictating what views a 'woman educator' is permitted to hold.

I know I shall be accused of sexual harassment snobbery, of holding that there is one standard for footy players and another for poets. Actually, I think there are many standards for good behaviour, which none of us meets all of the time. And I am certain that Soviet-style show trials, which remove a person's every act and statement from its time and context, recognise nothing of our human complexity.

What does, in contrast, remind that life is more that a ledger book of acceptable and villainous behaviour? What will endure beyond the judgements of the tabloids and anonymous bloggers? Let's leave that to a poem written by the professor Oxford might have had:

You ever look up from some lonely beach
and see a far schooner? Well, when I write
this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;
I go draw and knot every line as tight
as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
my common language go be the wind,
my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.


Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a writer, and a producer with Philip Adams' ABC Radio National program Late Night Live.

Topic tags: matthew johns, nrl, rugby league, group sex, Hermione Lee, Ruth Padel, derek walcott, oxford

 

 

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Existing comments

Sanctimoniousness or sanctimony

Where there is unequal power and a woman is subject to sexual advances which are unwanted then it seems to me that here is no debate................ neither poet nor footballer has the right to harrasment or violation.
Judy | 02 June 2009


I am disappointed that Sarah Kanowski has merged many issues together as though they are the same. Black/white issues,morality,gang sex in football and power issues in staff/student relationships.

I am not an unbiased observer, as i was driven from my church by the sexual abuse by a minister. Sarah has done what these abusers want us all to do - to see these behaviours as moral transgressions. The abuser can then do the mea culpa, I have sinned, return to their ministry/teaching/doctoring/legal practice etc. and with any luck, their victims will be blamed for the transgression and the sympathy stay with them.

What many fail to see is the fact that the perpetrator is always in a more powerful relation to the target and the ramifications for the victim is much greater. The woman/teenager/child is most likely the one who is ostracised and the perpetrator has the sympathy - as in this article. People rally to write how wonderful they are, and what brilliant teachers etc and how overly moralistic their opponents are. If Sarah has an open mind and investigative leanings, I suggest she spend time with the counsellors of those who have been the victims and see for herself the inbalance in the result.
Anonymous | 02 June 2009


Well said Sarah. Who amongst us would want our professional work judged not on its merits but on our personal misdemeanours (and neither Walcott or Johns are 'criminals'). Ultimately it's power misused that is the problem here.
Anna | 02 June 2009


Until the day dawns when the ultimate artform is a life which blesses others and does not harm anyone, then 'great art' will be restricted to poetry, painting, music and so on. The era is coming to an end when bad behaviour on the part of "great artists" of any ilk was excused because they were 'great artists.'

To be honest, I never thought we'd come even this far in my lifetime where these questions would be seriously raised.
Anne Hamilton | 02 June 2009


Well said, Sarah. Who among us would want our professional work judged not on its merits but on our personal misdemeanours (and neither Walcott or Johns are 'criminals'). Ultimately it's power misused that is the problem here.
Anna | 02 June 2009


There is criminal behaviour and there is inappropriate behaviour. I trust the judiciary to maintain oversight of the former and that public discussion, such as this forum, moderates and advances the other. I liked this article very much, precisely because it does not begin from a position but follows a reflective line of thought. Great work Eureka St and Ms Kanowski.


FN | 02 June 2009


There is criminal behaviour and there is inappropriate behaviour. I trust the judiciary to maintain oversight of the former and that public discussion, such as this forum, moderates and advances the other. I liked this article very much, precisely because it does not begin from a position but follows a reflective line of thought. Great work Eureka St and Ms Kanowski.


FN | 02 June 2009


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