Ian Jack on steering clear of poetry

And, sometimes, poets too:

One of the now-abandoned traditions of the literary magazine, Granta, was that it never, or hardly ever, published poetry. In my dozen years as editor, I think I published three poems — by Michael Ondaatje, Les Murray and Vikram Seth. My predecessor as editor, Bill Buford, had one or two in his early editions and then imposed a complete ban for 15 years, broken only by a poem from Salman Rushdie. I once asked Bill what he had against the form. “I quite like poetry,” he said, “It’s the poets I can’t stand.” I felt I didn’t know enough about either, and proved this to myself in 1997 when I made the mistake of publishing a 13-word poem by Vikram Seth called “Sampati”, about the eponymous character in the Ramayana who, like Icarus, flies too near the sun. We added this information in an epigraph and footnote to the poem, without telling the poet, and Vikram was so furious that he made us publish the poem again in a later edition minus its informative dressing. This took up more space than you might think for a thirteen-word poem, because every word had a line to itself apart from “un-done”, which took up two.

Jack, discusses the recent Oxford Professor of Poetry election fallout in the rest of the column and ends it with a suggestion:

But the method of choosing Oxford’s Professor of Poetry surely needs a radical rethink. Would you appoint a visiting professor of nuclear physics by totting up votes from a tiny self-selecting sample of graduates? Or of theology, or economics, or French? Of any subject at all? If poetry matters as much as its devotees insist, then the professor in the subject should get the job in the same way as everyone else: through selection panels and the judgment of his or her peers. It isn’t a perfect process, but at least it reduces the risk of public humiliation — and it might save the reputation of one of the world’s oldest and oddest professorships.

Take a look!


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