When my friend Susie’s husband wandered out of their 35-year marriage and began a new life with a woman half his age, her friends gathered round her like a pack of wolverines. They howled at the cliché, fixed her up with melancholy widowers and surrounded her with gifts of Merlot and time. I was 3,000 miles away, so I sent a poem called Love After Love. It begins ‘The time will come/when, with elation,/you will greet yourself arriving/at your own door, in your own mirror,/and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here, Eat’.
Critics who analyse poetry for a living may read something else into this, but I see it as a poem of homecoming, a return to the self after a long absence. The poet uses the optimistic future tense ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self./Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart/to itself, to the stranger who has loved you/all your life, whom you ignored/for another, who knows you by heart’.
It’s one of those poems that starts a fire, providing warmth and light. It is also the first poem by Derek Walcott I ever read, long before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. The pleasure his poetry has given me over the years made me certain he was an inspired choice for Oxford’s chair in poetry.
Not that that celebrated appointment looms large in my life. The only proof I have that it exists is my copy of The Redress of Poetry, a collection of the lectures delivered by Seamus Heaney while he was Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1989 to 1994. It’s evident from the still-clenched binding that I never read a single one.
But what a mess this prestigious poetry chair is in now. The celebrations that followed when Ruth Padel was chosen to be the first woman to hold the 301-year-old post lasted a mere 10 days before she admitted that she had sent emails to two journalists last month, alerting them to allegations of sexual harassment.
Funnily enough, I’d only just bought my first book by Miss Padel, called Darwin A Life in Poems, a memoir of her great-great-grandfather in verse. Telling a life in verse seems dated nowadays, but I read it, with pleasure, straight through.
So who is the guilty poet in this drama, the Caribbean poet and Nobel Laureate accused of sexual harassment, or the English woman who emailed journalists about an incident described in a novel written 20-odd years ago?
I confess I’m on the side of Mr Walcott, in part because he’s the better poet (they aren’t in the same league), but also because I have a thing about the ‘sexual harassment’ industry. In my day, the dawn of liberation, we dealt with tutors who made provocative or seductive overtures either by ignoring them or falling madly in love with and, sometimes, marrying the professor. Ignoring them was the better career move.
Writing a book and waging a lifelong campaign over a very insignificant incident seems a wasted life to me. I deplore this descent into professional victim-hood that the sexual-harassment mania has produced. Damnit, women should be tougher.
I’m sorry the Sisterhood is annoyed that the first female holder of the post has had such a brief tenure (Mr Walcott would have made history as the first black Professor of Poetry), but Miss Padel didn’t aid her cause by sending one of her emails to a former lover, journalist John Walsh, who then published an inflammatory piece on Mr Walcott in The Independent. But the real losers are all of us who love poetry.
Few poets lead such blameless lives think Byron, Coleridge, Dylan Thomas, even Philip Larkin that they would pass today’s politically correct scrutiny. It’s the poems that count. As Mr Walcott put it: ‘What’s poetry, if it’s worth its salt/but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?’