A comfortable election victory means Simon Armitage, ‘a self-schooled poet who views poetry from a hill above a Yorkshire village’, will succeed Geoffrey Hill in one of Oxford’s most prestigious chairs.
In results announced at Convocation House at 4pm on Friday (19 June), the former probation officer received 1,221 votes, putting him comfortably ahead of his two closest rivals.
Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, garnered 920 votes. Almost tying with him, with 918 votes, was award-winning American-born poet A E Stallings, who holds an MSt from Oxford in Latin Literature (Lady Margaret Hall, 1991). Sean Haldane, who took a first in English here (University College, 1961) and is a professional neuropsychologist and psychotherapist, received 221 votes. Ian Gregson, who writes poetry alongside novels and literary criticism and teaches at Bangor University in Wales, received 75. All candidates received at least 50 nominations by members of Convocation.
In all, 4,030 people registered to vote in this election and 3,340 voted — a substantial increase from 3,311 and 2,522 respectively in the 2010 election. Interest was partly stoked by headlines over the defection of arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg from the Soyinka camp in favour of Armitage.
The new Professor-Elect told the Guardian newspaper he was ‘delighted and very excited and suitably daunted as well’.
Seamus Perry, Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, said: ‘We are delighted with Convocation’s choice of Simon Armitage as the next Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Mr Armitage is a distinguished poet and we expect a full house at his inaugural lecture next term.
‘We would like to thank Geoffrey Hill for his fascinating and entertaining lectures during his five years in the post. He will be a hard act to follow.’
It is a considerable shift in gear. Hill’s poetry is sparse, stark, and uncompromisingly difficult. Armitage’s is popular, demotic, prolific, and ubiquitously available in print, in performance, and in other media. He told the Oxford Union in May: ‘I used to have a purist view of poetry, that the page was all there was. I don’t think that any more. A poet is the entire package. Poetry goes back to the campfire, the theatre, and the temple.’ In his candidate statement for the Chair of Poetry, Armitage said: ‘If Oxford saw fit to appoint a self-schooled poet who views poetry from a hill above a Yorkshire village, then I would be greatly excited and deeply honoured to take on the challenge’.
As for his formal termly lecture, one of the requirements of the role, he promised to provide ‘close reading of past and contemporary work, right up to the present day’ and that his ‘watchword would be craft’.
He added: ‘I'd also use the platform to discuss the situation of poetry and poets in the twenty-first century, to address the obstacles and opportunities brought about by changes in education, changes in reading habits, the internet, poetry’s decreasing “market share”, poetry's relationship with the civilian world and the (alleged) long, lingering death of the book.’
He further threatened to employ PowerPoint and perhaps to ‘burst into song’.
Armitage was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, worked as a probation officer in Manchester until 1994 — by which time he had published four collections of poetry. Many more have followed, along with translations of the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Death of King Arthur, as well as two novels. Other projects have included travel writing, pamphlets, plays, and anthologies of modern poetry. He has been Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield since 2011.
At Oxford, Armitage will hold office for four years from the first day of the coming Michaelmas term. The Professor of Poetry is appointed every four years and the responsibilities of the post include giving a public lecture each term and the Creweian Oration at Encaenia, the University’s honorary degree ceremony every other year.
Previous holders of the post include John Keble, Matthew Arnold, W H Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Christopher Ricks. Arnold was the first incumbent to deliver his lectures in English rather than Latin.
The election, which closed on 17 June, was open to all members of Convocation, which comprises members and retired members of Congregation (the University’s ‘parliament’) as well as all those who have had an Oxford degree formally conferred.
Photograph of Simon Armitage by Paul Wolfgang Webster via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence.