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Derek Walcott Drops Out
The big poetry news this week (besides the bizarre “poetry jam” over at the White House) is Derek Walcott’s withdrawal from the Oxford poetry race due to an anonymous letter-writing campaign detailing sexual harassment claims against him.
The campaign brought to light allegations from the Nobel-laureate’s time at Harvard. According to the New York Times:
The charges of sexual harassment date back nearly 30 years and were detailed in the book ‘The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus,’ by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner — excerpts of which were sent in the anonymous packages. They describe how, in 1982, Mr. Walcott was accused of saying a number of provocative things to a woman who was a student in his poetry workshop at Harvard, including ‘Would you make love to me if I asked you?’
When she rebuffed him, the student said, he gave her a C grade.
Concluding in 1982 that the complaint had merit, Harvard reprimanded Mr. Walcott and changed the student’s grade from C to ‘Pass.’”
Walcott offered this statement to the Evening Standard:
“I withdraw from the election to be professor of poetry at Oxford. I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself. I already have a great many work commitments and while I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it.”
Oxford has declined to postpone the search, leaving Ruth Padel and Arvind Mehrotra still in the running.
The Independent weighed in: “To anyone shocked by the ruthless campaign that has forced a candidate for the role of Oxford Professor of Poetry to withdraw, we would say: don’t be. Few can rival composers of verse for their willingness to stoop to conquer.”
And The Guardian report on the story featured this quote from Oxford English professor Elleke Boehmer:
“‘How many male professors of poetry of a certain age and generation can safely hold their hands up and say that they are entirely clear of any history of sexual harassment?’”
All of which has led many to ask, as Mary Fitzgerald did today, “Should Derek Walcott have been Oxford Poetry Professor?”