The Times January 30, 2010
– Ginny Dougary
Oxford’s first female Professor of Poetry resigned amid a allegations of academic back-stabbing. So what on earth brought on her ‘moment of lunacy’ ?
How totally unboring it must be to be Ruth Padel, and that’s quite apart from the recent hoo-ha that prompted her resignation, last May, from her short-lived stint — what should have been a five-year triumph reduced to a mere nine days — as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.
Her interests are so varied and extensive — she is as passionate about the natural world, both exotic (alligators, tigers, now cobras) and commonplace (the domestic habits of the urban fox), as she is about filling the “poetry-shaped hole” she believes we all have.
But she also fizzes with enthusiasm about music, singing, art, Charles Darwin (her great-great-grandfather), the “soap-opera” wonderment of DNA and clothes (a guilty secret, she confesses; her sombre pinstriped jacket reveals a startling inner plumage of scarlet and puce) — leaping from subject to subject like a demented grasshopper.
The biography at the front of her new first novel, Where the Serpent Lives — ostensibly what we are here to discuss — is amusingly, if self-consciously, diverse: “she has taught Greek at Oxford, opera in the Modern Greek Department at Princeton, excavated Minoan tombs on Crete … sung in an Istanbul nightclub and the choir of St Eustache, Paris”.
Something about her arresting, feline appearance — slight build, black hair, green fuzzy gaze, heart-shaped face — could be construed as sly. There are some contradictions: she doesn’t appear tough but you know she must be to survive as a poet, wheeler-dealering — a bit of journalism here, a residency or a lecture there — to make a living.
We meet in Somerset House, where last year Padel was writer-in-residence. Despite the breadth of her interests, she has a tendency to revisit certain themes in her work. Three of her collections of poetry explore the complications, highs and lows, of a six-year affair with a man who entered her life with rather too many strings attached elsewhere. She laughs heartily when I say that she’s minxy in her scattering of clues about the identity of her lover in Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, published in 1998, and The Soho Leopard, in 2004.
It is she, not me, who brings up the risqué Bessie Smith–influenced poem — Home Cooking (from Voodoo Shop) — that was publicly linked to the journalist John Walsh, her old friend (and alleged former lover). It was he who wrote the controversial first article about Derek Walcott’s “shadows of sexual harassment allegations”. Walcott had been the clear favourite for the Professor of Poetry post until the piece appeared.
Then, soon after Walsh’s article and just before the election, 200 anonymous letters — detailing accusations of sexual harassment made against the St Lucia-born Nobel Laureate in 1986 and 1992, by former students of his at Harvard and Boston (he had to apologise and was reprimanded; there was also an out-of-court settlement) — were sent to Oxford academics. This dossier also included a photocopied chapter from The Lecherous Professor, a book about sexual harassment on university campuses, including the Walcott cases.
Walcott withdrew from the contest, saying that he did not want to be the target of a “low attempt at character assassination”, leaving Padel as the new front-runner, and the less well-known Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra in the frame. Padel was subsequently awarded the professorship.
“On the Saturday morning, when I was being elected, an anonymous guy rang The Sunday Times and told them about a poem of mine — Home Cooking — a sexy little poem of a kind that male poets write … but it’s a woman looking at a man,” she says.
“Of course the paper jumped on it and it was very, very clever because what it ensured is that when Oxford announces that it has elected its first woman Professor of Poetry in 300 years, the poem that was flashed around the world as representative of her work is this sexy little jeu d’esprit which I had actually put in to lighten the collection, which was about my father’s death.”
Are you ashamed of the poem? (It ends with the line “a f*** the length of our kitchen table”.) “No, I wasn’t ashamed of it, but it was a way of saying, ‘She’s complaining about sex and — guess what? — she does sex, too’.”
The problem is, of course, that Padel had also behaved badly herself. “I admire Walcott and deplore what happened,” she said, before her own part in the debacle emerged, forcing her to resign. “But it does not seem to me to detract from what I can do [as professor].” And “[The appointment] has been poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with … I have fought a clean campaign. These acts have done immeasurable damage to people and poetry.”
But it was Padel, it emerged, who had started the dirty campaign against Walcott by alerting two journalists to the harassment allegations in e-mails that came back to bite her. Days before Walsh’s article appeared, Padel had e-mailed two journalists, putting the boot in about her rival’s age — 80 — his ill health and homes in the Caribbean and New York (so “how much energy is he going to expend on Oxford students?”). Then she mentioned the six pages in The Lecherous Professor and couched it most disagreeably: “what he actually does for students can be found in …”— the coup de grâce being, “Obama’s rumoured to have turned him down for his inauguration poem because of the sexual record. But I don’t think that’s fair.”
It’s that last line that is particularly weaselly — if you’re going to besmirch your competitor, don’t try to pretend that it’s nothing to do with you.
Her first statement after the e-mails were made public was also unsatisfactory: “Those e-mails were naive and silly of me. I do not believe it was wrong but it was a bad error of judgment.” (Where she was certainly naive was to proclaim her innocence, thinking that the journalists — who were not personal friends, like Walsh — would not reveal the contents of the e-mails.) I ask her what on earth she was thinking. She wrote the e-mails when she was in New York — she still insists that she had nothing to do with the subsequent anonymous letters — was she drunk or deranged with jet lag?
“I’ll tell you what happened. Right from the moment I announced I was standing those two particular people [journalists] had come forward and said, ‘Tell me everything about it’. One said she was writing a piece about poetry in Oxford and I entered into the dialogue — this was before Walcott came in — because I really wanted to get a public debate going about what poetry could do in a university because I think that’s so interesting.
“And then from the moment Walcott announced that he was standing, people kept coming forward to me saying they were really, really upset — because of the university record. So it wasn’t anything to do with me and I had nothing to do with it, but I was beginning to feel kind of torn. Because on the one hand, I really admire Walcott. I mean I’ve written about Omeros and I took my daughter to see him when she was doing her A levels.”
But … “and I’m not in the business of undermining other writers. On the other hand, I was listening to all these people saying, ‘It’s outrageous — why won’t someone do something?’. Then I brought Darwin [her biography of her ancestor through poetry] to America and when I was interviewed by New York journalists they had quite a different take. They were amazed that the Brits were doing this and one of them said to me, ‘The Brits just don’t know what we know over here’. So it was in that context.”
But you’re the last person who should have sent those e-mails. “I know that. It was a moment of lunacy … but I never dreamt it would be seen as making allegations. The trouble is that it was taken out of context.” That’s what Conservative politicians say! “No, the context was that this is what I can do for students, that was it. It was a sort of balance.” But the way you put it was so unpleasant: the implication being that what Padel can “do” for students is educate them; what Walcott can “do” for students is harass them. What balance is that?
Now, I don’t think sexual harassment is a trivial thing, particularly when the outcome of a student’s grades depends on whether or not she plays along with her professor’s sexual fantasies. And an abuse of power is not diminished just because it took place 20 years ago. The role of Oxford’s Professor of Poetry is second in this country only to that of Poet Laureate, and so it is only right that the person on whom that honour is bestowed should be subject to intense scrutiny. Past poet gods (never godesses) include Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney. And I agree with Padel that the argument that you wouldn’t have turned down the likes of the priapic Lord Byron won’t wash because, as she says, “Byron hadn’t got a track record in a university”.
But in a perfect world, if Padel so disapproved of Walcott’s track record shouldn’t she have made a public statement about it and even withdrawn from the race? “Oh, I wish you had been advising me, then I would have done that,” she says. (She says that friends did say to her, ‘What on earth were you thinking of?’) But honestly, this won’t do. Can you not see, yourself, that what you did was sneaky and underhand? “Yes, and I can’t say it loud enough. I feel very, very bad about those e-mails and I deeply, deeply regret it and it was wrong of me, and actually it’s not really very representative of how I go about things.” That is the closest the poet has come to an apology.
Her eyes water but this may be a contact lens that is irritating her. When I ask her whether she’s upset, she says, “I don’t think so”. Would you say that you are a robust person? “Yeah, I think so. I mean when it was happening, when suddenly everything went … I felt as though I had walked out the door to buy a pint of milk and found myself on a mountaintop in a blizzard. That’s what it felt like.
“But, you know, because I was reading poems all the way through it — at Hay and the Edinburgh book festival and lots of other things — the audiences really just react to the work and make up their own minds. It was a great thing for a writer to find out, really. That you are judged on your work.”
Oxford has just announced the search for its next professor of poetry. I don’t suppose Padel will be thinking of reapplying? “Oh no, I wouldn’t. No, no, no.” Have you talked to Walcott? “No.” Do you think it would be a good idea if you did? “It would. I think he is coming to Britain this year.” If you admire his work so much, perhaps he would forgive you, do you think? “Yes, I hope so. Hmmm.”
It’s hard to know what to make of Padel. She’s a highly intelligent woman who is sophisticated but also apparently unworldly. This comes to the fore when I ask her whether she had ever been anxious about people trying to guess the identity of her lover. Her work is riddled with concrete details that may help to anchor them as poems but are also highly revealing. “No, I don’t think so,” she says. “Once you’ve made a poem, it’s like having made a chair. You trust the poem and what matters is — ‘Is that adjective too soft?’ or ‘Should I take that adverb out?’”
It’s clear that she was desperate to secure the professorship and, yes, she is ambitious but mainly for the right reasons. When she was at Somerset House, Padel plastered poems — “other people’s, not mine” she stresses — in the loos, the cafés, everywhere, so that passers-by could be “enticed or disturbed, hooked, emotionally drawn in”.
She loves teaching and, since we must assume that male professors don’t have the monopoly on lechery, says: “I have never been in a situation where I have been attracted to a student, so I don’t know what it’s like.”
It is easy to see that she would have made a terrific professor, with her strenuous commitment to prove that all students — not only the English undergraduates but the scientists and the engineers, too — should be exposed to the instructive power of poetry. She must have convinced herself that it was a goal worth fighting for, by whatever means possible. It also seems clear that there is a strong element of self-delusion about the role she played; strange but not unique for the daughter of a psychoanalyst.
What is so sad is that for the first time in 300 years, the three candidates for the Oxford professorship were not the usual suspects but a black man, a woman and an Asian man — and, yet, the contest ended in such disarray. “Yes, it’s bad,” Padel says. “Everybody feels bad about it.”
Meanwhile there is her novel to promote — set in London, Devon and the jungles of India — as well as a book of poetry lectures, and an introduction to the poems of Sir Walter Raleigh. She is also working on an intriguing project, combining music, poetry and science — “Music from the Genome”, comparing the DNA of a choir with that of non-musical people — for which she has written 23 new poems around the idea of cells.
When we were talking about the Walcott issue, I mention a nonfiction book by the Australian novelist Helen Garner, The First Stone, which, like David Mamet’s play Oleanna, looked at a campus sexual harassment case, and examined all the ambiguities that such incidents may involve. I was struck by what Garner said about writing: “It’s my way of making sense of things that I’ve lived and seen other people live, things that I’m afraid of or that I long for.”
Is that how it is for Padel? “Yes, it’s like what the poet Michael Donaghy said, ‘I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror in the morning if writing poems was not a process of discovery for me’.” You write to make sense of the world? “We write while making sense of the world. Every poem is a journey. You don’t know where it is going to go — that is the exciting thing.”
There’s another line that occurs to me when thinking of Padel’s muddled emotions over the Oxford professorship: “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” She told me that she hardly ever thinks about that episode (not sure I believe her) but, knowing her taste for the autobiographical, my guess is that one day she will write a poem about it that will reveal as much to her as to the reader.
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Where the Serpent Lives by Ruth Padel is published by Little, Brown on Feb 4 at £12.99. To order it for £11.69 inc p&p, call 0845 2712134, or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst