Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Should Professors of Poetry at Oxford be without sin?

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A friend of mine, a Jamaican man, told me many years ago that he disliked going to bars in England, where he’d been a student. Why? Because if a man put his hand up under a woman’s skirt, he was likely to find that two other hands had got there ahead of his. The level of slackness disgusted him, and he was no prude.

Against this background, I am compelled to express my great joy at finding that England is suddenly full of chaste men and women! Who knew? They must be everywhere, for they’ve turned up in the most unlikely place – a university, and no less a one than the venerable Oxon, to boot!

Glory to God!

Except of course these are the last days, and we’ve been warned. If anyone says, “See the Lord there!” or “Behold his miracles here!” we should be wary.

And so, millenarianist that I am, I’m suspicious of the great moral renewal that appears to have swept over that ancient institution of learning. Such is its newfound probity that two righteous women, of no known identity, launched a campaign of detraction against Derek Walcott, Nobel laureate and frontrunner in the race for Oxford Professor of Poetry, based on accusations of sexual harassment in 1996 and 1982. It has resulted in his withdrawing his candidacy for the post.

I’m no fan of sexual harassment, and if one is to believe even some of the comments on seth abramson's blog, Walcott did hit on his female students continually and make things very difficult for them. But that was long ago and in another country, and besides… the man is old! As Professor of Poetry, he would have delivered lectures over the next five years – and that’s it. And media is now such that anyone who needed to would know about the man’s proclivities and could meet him for coffee armed with their mace and small snub-nosed pistol. (See “The Story of Nellie” in my last collection of poetry, THE TRUE BLUE OF ISLANDS.) I am serious. I am.

Walcott is almost eighty, as is his fellow Caribbean poet, Kamau Brathwaite, Griffin prizewinner and himself a likely contender for the Nobel. They are poets of large gifts, and also men. That Brathwaite is no innocent himself is a matter of record by his own pen. See, for instance, his ZEA MEXICAN DIARY.

Also, I hate to have to say it, but the real problem here is that Walcott got taken to task for doing something that has always gone on and is, indeed, going on as we speak. That problem won’t be addressed by stopping him from being Oxford’s Professor of Poetry. And if right sexual conduct is a criterion, and rigorously applied, the University is not likely to ever have another Poetry Professor. If I thought for a minute that this attempt to punish an irresponsible professor for his misconduct would make some difference to how men who teach at universities behave, I might say, “Right on!” But like capital punishment, that isn’t how it works.

My grandmother used to warn us not to “cut off our nose to spite our face”. I fear that’s what this campaign has achieved. Sure, there may be a nice irony in the fact that powerless students have got their own back and, so many years afterward, had their dish of revenge served, albeit not cold. But there was little chance of any student encountering the septuagenarian professor in compromising circumstances in this role, except by her own choice. And there was something decidedly nasty about the instigators of the campaign not identifying themselves, and something decidedly ungenerous about pillorying a man for behaviour that, one must hope, he now regrets.

And we will never hear those lectures, which would have been, no doubt about it, grand.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.

Go to Pamela Mordecai’s Author Page