Oxford's poetry revolution

Forty years ago, inspired by the 1968 revolts in Paris, I tried to get the glamorous Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko elected as Oxford's professor of poetry. Though our campaign failed, it somehow managed to suck in all the cultural currents of the time
January 20, 2008
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Occasionally an event, in itself trivial, captures the essence of a historical moment: the Boston tea party, the first performance of The Rite of Spring, the incarceration of Paris Hilton. In England, such episodes often take place in Oxford: John Henry Newman's passage from Anglicanism to Rome in the 1840s; the king and country debate at the Union in 1933; the dons' rejection of Margaret Thatcher for an honorary degree in 1985.

The non-election of Yevgeny Yevtushenko as professor of poetry in Oxford in 1968 was one such incident that somehow fused the cultural switchboard of its time. As I played a minor part in stage managing this mixture of opera buffo and grand guignol, it falls to me to act as—an admittedly prejudiced—recording angel. Yevtushenko's candidacy was my idea. A history undergraduate at the time, I had read a little of his poetry in translation and also his Precocious Autobiography. He struck me as a raw, individualist voice speaking boldly from within the confines of a conformist society. Some of the lines buzzed in my head. But I confess that my main motive for initiating his candidacy was political, though at the time I strenuously denied it to my fellow campaigners, to the press—and to myself.

I recall the precise moment, in early October 1968, that the thought of Yevtushenko's nomination occurred to me. I was gazing distractedly through the front window of Blackwell's in Broad Street—in that far-off time still the world's foremost academic bookshop rather than a café with a sideline in popular literature. Suddenly I noticed, from behind the book display, a pair of gimlet eyes glaring in my direction. It took me a few seconds to realise that, because of the play of light on plateglass, their owner could not see me, and a few more to recognise him as Maurice Bowra. The warden of Wadham College, classicist, and, it has recently been revealed, indecent poetaster, Bowra was at the peak of his influence. He had been poetry professor from 1946 to 1951, and it was no doubt the sight of him that switched on my mind to the subject of the poetry chair.

That ancient office was and remains one of those Oxonian anomalies that serve little function, yet add a mite to the gaiety of mankind. The professorship was endowed in 1708 by a benefactor who held that "the reading of the ancient poets gave keenness and polish to the minds of young men as well as to the advancement of more serious literature both sacred and human." The scope of the professorship was not restricted to English literature: one of the early incumbents had lectured on Hebrew poetry. The list of past holders included a number of mediocrities, but also Matthew Arnold as well as FT Palgrave, editor of The Golden Treasury. The job was far from being full time: its duties comprised delivery of three lectures a year, the biennial recitation in Latin of the Creweian Oration at Encaenia (the annual university festival) and adjudication of two poetry prizes. The professor was also said to have "a moral duty to give good parties and to be… talkative."

The post was unlike any other academic position in the university in that it was filled by election for a five-year term. The electoral college consisted of the members of Convocation, a body that never met and that included all the MAs of the university. Since that degree could be had by any person who had earned the BA, dependent only on payment of a small fee and consumption of a college lunch, Convocation consisted of about 30,000 people. But most were not resident in Oxford and since voters had to appear in person, the resident dons constituted the most influential voting force.

When, in the spring of 1968, the incumbent professor, Edmund Blunden, suddenly retired owing to ill health, the way was opened for what the Times called "that combination of indirect Byzantine politics and the Grand National by which the university gently pulls the legs of the outside world every few years."

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The student stirs of 1968 had rather passed Oxford by. The Clarendon building, the university's symbolic centre, home of the proctors (chief disciplinary officers) and their fearsome "bulldogs" (bowler-hatted constables), was briefly occupied. Balliol College's outer wall was transformed into a palimpsestic street newspaper. All Souls College, then as now a research institution with no students, was picketed by student enragés. Otherwise, nothing much happened.

In late June, a few of us had gone to Paris in the hope of joining in the événements. But by this point all that was left of the May revolution was the continued student occupation of a few university buildings in the Latin quarter. We returned home disappointed. Then came 21st August and the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. For those of us who had dreamed that the Prague spring might herald some form of convergence between reformist communism and social-market capitalism, it was a rude awakening. In the Soviet Union, very few, apart from Andrei Sakharov, dared to speak out against the invasion. But another voice was raised in a telegram to Leonid Brezhnev: "I cannot sleep. I do not know how to live my life after this. I understand only one thing, that it is my moral duty to express my opinion to you. I am profoundly convinced that our action in Czechoslovakia is a tragic mistake…" The telegram was dispatched by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, then 35 years old.

Yevtushenko had sprung to fame in the early 1950s as a fresh and popular voice of youth. His poetry readings attracted audiences of thousands. At first cautiously party-line, his verse gradually became more outspoken after the death of Stalin. On 21st October 1962, on the eve of the outbreak of the Cuban missile crisis, Pravda printed his poem "The Heirs of Stalin," warning that Stalin was awaiting his opportunity to rise from the grave. In December that year, in a fam-ous public confrontation, Yevtushenko directly challenged Khrushchev. At a meeting with artists and writers, the Soviet leader reprimanded cultural deviants, crudely citing an old Russian proverb, "Only the grave can correct a hunchback," whereupon Yevtushenko retorted, "Really Nikita Sergeievich, we thought the time was past when the grave was used as a means of correction." Yevtushenko's telegram about Czechoslovakia was leaked to the western press at the end of September 1968.

A few days later, as I stared into Bowra's unseeing eyes, it occurred to me that it was time to wrest control of the poetry election from men like the warden of Wadham. If election there must be, then surely it should be held on the basis of universal suffrage. Students as well as MAs should have a right to vote. Suffused with the self-righteous arrogance of youth, I did not realise that this notion was not original. Stephen Spender had proposed it two years earlier and it had been seconded by Bowra himself. Perhaps he even transmitted the idea to me by some form of telepathy as we glared at each other.

Who, then, should be the students' candidate? Self-evidently somebody who could speak for youth, who would cut through establishment cant, who could bridge the gap between east and west. Yevtushenko's name leapt to mind.
But how to get him nominated? The first step was to assemble an "action committee" of undergraduates. Its members were far from being radicals. The chairman was Jonathan Long (later a banker); other members included "Count" Paul Jankowski (a déclassé descendant of the Polish petty nobility), Martin Walker (who had been covering mercenaries as a cub reporter in Africa, and later became the Guardian's Moscow correspondent) and myself. Our statutory woman was Anna Somers Cocks (later Walker's first wife), who supplied glamour and a cut-glass telephone voice, in those days still de rigueur for publicity purposes. Since the enterprise was subsequently accused of serving sinister left-wing ends, it is worth mentioning that the composition of this committee happened to coincide precisely with that of the executive of the Oxford University PG Wodehouse society.

A student committee could not, however, nominate a candidate. For that, two MAs were required. A first was quickly identified: Richard Cobb, history fellow at Balliol, tutor to all four male members of the committee, and known as an idiosyncratic pricker of pompous Oxonian balloons. He was also notoriously fond of the bottle. Our approach to Cobb was blessed by a happy conjunction of the stars. He had just returned, rather the worse for wear, from a reception held by the bishop of Exeter at Merton College. It was the work of but a few minutes to persuade the don in his cups to sign the forms—and to secure a fellow oenophile to second the nomination. The nomination letter, inscribed in Cobb's idiosyncratic, shaky handwriting, was received in the university registry and found to be in order. "Frankly, I don't remember anything about it," Cobb later confessed. But to his credit, he did not disavow his signature.

By the time nominations closed on 11th November, an unprecedented 11 candidates were in contention. They included Jorge Luis Borges and Al Alvarez (although neither had the backing of an electoral machine). Caradog Prichard, a Eisteddfod bard and bibulous Fleet Street newsman, whose slogan was "against hooliganism in poetry," also entered the lists. His chief asset was his Celtic harp-playing, miniskirt-clad daughter Mari, an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall.

An outer fringe of joke candidates included Barry MacSweeney, a 20-year-old "anarcho-socialist" from Newcastle, who promised that, if elected, he wouldn't deliver any lectures at all. (MacSweeney's nomination evoked widespread ridicule. Bernard Levin wrote to the Times jocularly putting his own name forward: "My qualification is that I once wrote an improper limerick about Mr Tariq Ali.") The prime minister's wife, Mary Wilson, in her spare time an unpretentious poet, whose spurious diary was a regular column in Private Eye, was nominated by one of the magazine's writers, John Wells, an Oxford MA. The nomination was ruled valid, but to the university authorities' relief, an official at 10 Downing Street declared that Mrs Wilson had declined to permit her name to go forward.

A group of MAs decided to nominate a computer—then still an exotic technological marvel—"on the grounds that it had written some interesting poetry." They pointed out that there was nothing in the university's statutes requiring the professor to be a human being.

Two other competitors were altogether more formidable. The first was the boisterous and flamboyant Enid Starkie, fellow in French literature at the then still all-woman Somerville College. It was Starkie who, with help from Bowra, had created the professorship in its modern form by insisting that the professor must be a poet rather than a critic, though that did not stop her, a non-poet, running. Unknown to most people, Starkie was suffering in the late 1960s from an advanced and incurable lung cancer. Upon Blunden's retirement, she tried to persuade Samuel Beckett to allow his name to go forward, but he refused. Against her better judgement she succumbed to the advice of friends, among them Robert Graves, who urged her to stand.

The second major candidate, Roy Fuller, was a part-time poet and full-time chief solicitor to the Woolwich Equitable Building Society. Said to resemble a major-general in appearance, Fuller, who had never attended university, was the candidate of the serious literary establishment. He enjoyed the support of the poet laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis, as well as of WH Auden, John Wain, Christopher Ricks and the Jesuit priest Peter Levi, all past or future holders of the chair (Ricks currently holds the post). Fuller brought the caution of the building society boardroom to his poetry and his campaign pronouncements. He told the student newspaper Cherwell, "My policy would be more or less to carry on what had been carried on before."

The nomination of Yevtushenko and the colourful array of other candidates attracted the attention of the world's press. Foreign correspondents descended on Oxford and took temporary residence among the natives like a swarm of William Boots on assignment in darkest Africa. Among them was Frank Hardy, Australian communist, former member of the Realist Writers' group in Melbourne, and author of the muckraking political novel Power without Glory (1950), a scandalous bestseller in his native continent. He appeared as the representative of the Sunday Times, then in its glory days under Harold Evans. Hardy had met Yevtushenko a few years earlier during the poet's tour of Australia and the two had formed a political and personal bond that was sealed with countless magnums of Australian champagne.

Although he arrived in the ostensible capacity of reporter, Hardy quickly made it known to us that he was ready to bring the vast resources of the Thompson newspaper empire (at that time owners of the Times and the Sunday Times) to bear in support of Yevtushenko's candidacy. Hardy became, in effect, a sixth member of the campaign committee and his apparently bottomless expense account took over from the depleted treasury of the PG Wodehouse society the formidable task of funding executive committee meetings at the Elizabeth, then Oxford's premier restaurant. As we weighed the comparative merits of Mouton Rothschild '47 and '59, Hardy recalled the high moments of his adventures with the Russian poet in Russia and Australia.

We proposed that Hardy hire a special train to bring committed supporters of Yevtushenko up from London to vote. The idea was not as outlandish as it sounds. In earlier elections for both the poetry chair and the chancellorship of the university, private trains and buses had been mobilised. In the event, the only candidate in 1968 to resort to such a measure was Prichard, one of whose nominators provided a luxury coach boasting closed-circuit television and a running cocktail bar to ferry friends from London.

The candidacy of the "blue-eyed Siberian," as the Observer described him, whose "brilliant smile makes every woman in the room blink," excited considerable enthusiasm—and not only among students. Special deliveries of fan mail from Yevtushenko's female admirers fully bore out Solzhenitsyn's comment in Cancer Ward: "This long, lanky Yevtushenko fellow crops up… All he has to do is wave his arms about and yell and the girls go wild." Nor was Yevtushenko's appeal limited to the sexually liberated. Magda Koc, secretary of "Yevtushenko House," a convent in Blackpool, wrote to pledge support and asked for posters.

But Yevtushenko's candidacy also aroused fierce opposition, particularly from a claque of right-wingers, most notably Kingsley Amis, Bernard Levin and the political scientist Tibor Szamuely. Amis had first encountered Yevtushenko in Cambridge in 1962. He remarked on the Russian's "directness of gaze," "personal magnetism" and "delightful grin." He was surprised to discover that they shared an admiration for Kipling. Yevtushenko's poetry reading at the Cambridge Union convinced Amis "that the man before us was not a charlatan." Yevtushenko, he wrote, "was the first completely good reason I had met with for liking the USSR."

By 1968, however, as Zachary Leader has shown in his recent biography, Amis was already well advanced in the process of transmogrification from angry young man to harrumphing old codger. The poetry election appears to have marked a significant stage in Amis's political evolution. When Yevtushenko was first proposed, Amis, recalling the encounter in Cambridge, "was all for this." But "reflection and a little investigation" changed his mind. Appointing himself manager of the anti-Yevtushenko campaign, he claimed that the poet "had become a servant of the regime" and accused him of having denounced the imprisoned literary dissidents Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel.

On television and in the Sunday Times, Frank Hardy defended Yevtushenko vigorously against these slurs, affirming the authenticity of the telegram to Brezhnev and denying that Yevtushenko had betrayed the dissidents. In response to those who argued that it was unclear whether the poet would accept nomination, Hardy quoted verbatim a telephone conversation with him in Moscow: "Then you will accept nomination?" "Yes. It would be a big honour, not only for me but for Russian literature and every Soviet poet." Hardy rebutted the claim that Yevtushenko knew no English, attesting, with persuasive circumstantial detail, that he had "mastered the English language in less than three years." After the cultural attaché at the Russian embassy said he could see no obstacle to Yevtushenko's taking up the post, the objection that he would be unable to go to Oxford disappeared—though the diplomat's intervention afforded new material for dark speculation about official Soviet sponsorship of his campaign. On the day nominations closed, a telegram was received in the university registry stating, "HONOURED TO ACCEPT NOMINATION POETRY PROFESSOR ELECTION = YEVGENT VEVTUSHENKO [sic] PER FRANK HARDY." As the last three words revealed, the cable did not emanate directly from Yevtushenko. Nevertheless, the university authorities, perhaps fearing student protests, applied a looser test than to other nominees and allowed Yevtushenko's candidacy to proceed.

Our committee wrote to Alvarez, Fuller and Starkie, pressing them to withdraw in favour of the students' choice. All three courteously declined. Soon after, a student poll was sponsored by the Oxford Union and Isis, the student magazine, which had recently been taken over by Robert Maxwell, at that time a Labour MP as well as a publisher. The poll was conducted according to the single redistributive voting system. Nineteen redistributions had to be conducted before Yevtushenko emerged the clear victor, with 210 out of 488 votes cast. Alvarez came a distant second, and Ted Hughes, who was not a candidate in the official election, third. Fuller and Starkie both received only a handful of votes.

The official campaign reached its climax in mid-November. Ladbrokes quoted odds of 5 to 1 against Yevtushenko, Fuller was offered at 3 to 1, but Starkie was the favourite at 5 to 4 on. Oxford's walls were emblazoned with "Back Yevtushenko" posters. ITN and a crew from German television filmed a reading of Yevtushenko's poetry in the subterranean Lindsay Room at Balliol—which, according to the Oxford Mail, "with the TV lights and a strong smell of incense, soon gave a fair impression of the Black Hole of Calcutta." Christopher Hitchens, chief ideologist of the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students movement, declared for Yevtushenko, though ORSS later perched astride the barricades and pronounced itself neutral. On the other hand, the Russian Club expressed its "disfavour at the nomination of Yevtushenko" on the ground that it "could only do more harm than good to the poet in his own country."

The spirits of the Yevtushenko camp were raised, however, by a report that Anna Somers Cocks was planning to mount a white horse and ride at the head of a pro-Yevtushenko procession through the city: "Girl to gallop for the Russian candidate" was the screaming headline in the Oxford Mail. The story was a canard, perhaps inspired by the example of the pop singer Suzi Creamcheese, who had performed the same feat, naked, a few months earlier, leading a noisy congress of fans along the Cornmarket and into? Littlewoods department store.

Polling was spread over two days on 21st and 23rd November. Voters were required to present themselves, wearing gowns, in the Sheldonian theatre. There, in the splendour of Christopher Wren's first major building, they bowed to the enthroned vice-chancellor, confirmed their credentials and cast their ballots. Outside the building, "bulldogs" kept order among the queuing MAs and the throng of the world's press. When Caradog Prichard's coach arrived, 30 merry London bankers, journalists and barristers emerged. But only nine, it turned out, were MAs. The rest, unqualified to vote, proceeded direct to the Randolph for their free lunch.

The result of the election was announced by the vice-chancellor in front of BBC cameras. The turnout of 1,086 was a record. There was no nonsense about complex voting systems; it was first past the post. Fuller was the victor with 385 votes, Starkie came second with 281 and Yevtushenko third with 206. No other candidate received more than 100 votes.
Cobb was not downhearted as he passed round the whisky; he suggested the university might give Yevtushenko an honorary degree instead. We phoned Yevtushenko to break the news. He took it stoically and commented, "Perhaps it is better this way. It is more difficult to make progress wearing a heavy black dress." We puzzled over this remark, concluding that he meant he might have tripped over his academic gown.

Le Monde reported Fuller's victory as "victoire pour les littéraires conservateurs."

Fuller's inaugural lecture in February 1969 gave ample testimony to his conservative predisposition. Entitled "Philistines and Jacobins," the lecture criticised rebellious students for their "crumbiness of appearance" and "rash erotic alliances." The new professor also excoriated working-class Liverpool poets, James Bond and unnamed female novelists. There were no protests, although one student reportedly called Fuller "a middle-aged moaner."

In the aftermath of the election, the controversy over Yevtushenko refused to die down. William Styron and Arthur Miller, both friends of the poet, leapt to his defence. Styron said the attacks on him had been "scandalous, cowardly in general and false in its particulars." Miller said that, "from his first disputes with Khrushchev, when nobody knew what the penalties might be, through his challenge to antisemites in his poem 'Babi Yar' to the present day, Yevtushenko has been a voice of conscience among his colleagues."

Whether Yevtushenko was a hero may be debated. But nobody now questions the authenticity of the telegram to Brezhnev. The setting of Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar" by Shostakovich in his 13th symphony (1962) endures as one of the significant politico-cultural monuments of post-Stalinist Russia. In August 1991, at the Soviet Union's moment of truth, Yevtushenko stood shoulder to shoulder with Yeltsin outside the Moscow White House against the anti-democratic coup.

Yevtushenko's detractors maintained that the Soviet regime sought to use his fame in the west as a propaganda tool to sweeten its own reputation. Perhaps. But the converse was no less true. If the Soviet system was manipulating the writers, they too were finding ways of manipulating the system. As David Burg and George Feifer put it, "In cases as disparate as Yevtushenko and Joseph Brodsky… whatever their 'offence' and status, writers with international reputations were persecuted less severely than those who were not known abroad." Yevtushenko has repeatedly expressed his sense of the reinforcement he felt at home from those who "upheld his honour" abroad, particularly Miller and Styron.

Today, in his mid-seventies, Yevtushenko remains a crowd-puller. Moscow's Olympic Stadium has been reserved for his 75th birthday celebrations this December. His readings retain their electric, sometimes hypnotic, effect. He has been likened to latter-day troubadours such as Vladimir Vysotsky, Wolf Biermann and Bob Dylan. His literary reputation has had its ups and downs. I can judge only through the distorting prism of translation, but his best work still strikes me as that of an earnest, if sometimes naive, enemy of cynicism, a cosmopolitan swashbuckler with an impish sense of humour and an underlying humane impulse. Forty years on, his former champions feel no regrets.

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