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Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 15:46 UK

What does Oxford's professor of poetry do?

The Magazine answers

Having claimed the scalps of two distinguished poets in less than a fortnight, the job of professor of poetry at Oxford University is once again vacant. But what does the job involve and why is it so sought after?

The post of Oxford University's Professor of Poetry has earned many column inches in recent weeks. First the veteran poet Derek Walcott, the initial favourite, withdrew from the running after an alleged smear campaign against him.

Ruth Padel
Ruth Padel stood down after allegations of a smear campaign

Now Ruth Padel, who took the role after winning a vote among staff and students, has stepped down after admitting a part in the alleged campaign. The hunt for a new professor has begun.

But what does the professor of poetry actually do?

As job descriptions go, the outline for the professorship is pretty thin - three lectures a year and one reading every other year. But in career opportunity terms it is a role suited to a "self starter" - someone who can make of the job what they wish.

The role dates back 300 years. It was conceived by Henry Birkhead, a Berkshire landowner who believed "the reading of the ancient poets gave keenness and polish to the minds of young men". Endowed in 1708, its first incumbent was the poet Joseph Trapp, a man fond of reciting the works of Shakespeare in Latin.

Open election

The Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold made the first great shake-up when he was elected in 1857, discussing more contemporary literature and reading lectures in English rather than in Latin.

Three lectures a year
One reading every other year
Beyond that, the job is open to interpretation

Until the 1950s the role was held by academics rather than poets - the outgoing professor, Professor Christopher Ricks, is regarded as a scholar rather than a published poet. The professors who helped raise the post's profile included WH Auden and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

The professorial post may have an air of dreaming spires Oxford, removed from the "real world", but the selection of the poetry professor is grass-roots democratic. Anyone may stand for the post, with the winner elected by members of the convocation - any former Oxford student who gained a degree, other than an honorary degree.

The professor is elected for a term of five years and cannot stand again. While professor they must hold three lectures a year, plus every second year read the Creweian Oration, which is a traditional thanks given to the university's benefactors. There is no obligation for them to put quill to paper and write any verse - no odes to Freshers' Week, nor memorials to cramming.

For this, they are paid a stipend - currently £6,901 - and a further £40 travel expenses for carrying out the Creweian Oration.

But if money isn't the enticement, is the attraction of the job that of influence?

Part-time lecturing

Neil Astley, the editor of poetry publishers Bloodaxe Books, says the row over the alleged smear campaign is exaggerating the role's importance.

Oranges in supermarket
"Find a rhyme for this and the job's yours"

"I do think the post has been blown out of all proportion by all the stories about it," he says. "One report referred to it as one of the most influential positions in poetry. It's not - it's part-time lecturing."

The post has achieved significance because of the leading figures who have held it, he says.

"The poet who really made a difference was Seamus Heaney, who held it in the early 1990s. His lectures were influential because they talked about the public place of poetry.

"People do go to the lectures, but it's very much an Oxford thing, rather than having a national profile, let alone an international one."

Oxford don and cultural critic Tom Paulin is one of those "insiders" who has attended the professor's lectures.

"It is really prestigious. It's a very big audience - there are usually 500 people for the lectures."

While the role only requires three lectures a year, "Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Christopher Ricks were very good at seeing students, organising other readings", he says. Ambitious professors can bring as much as they want to the role, he says.

While the lectures are mostly devoted to works of English literature, Mr Paulin attended one of Mr Ricks' lectures which dealt with the lyrics of Bob Dylan (Ricks is a noted scholar of the American singer).

Mr Paulin - a noted poet himself - hasn't applied for the role.

"I still teach in the English faculty, and I think that's enough."

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