In April, I asked Denise Riley if I could put her name forward as a possible Oxford Professor of Poetry. To my delight, she agreed; not because she wanted to win, or believed she would (we soon learned that Alice Oswald was in the running), but because, despite her strong reservations about the culture of literary competition, she thought that it would be good to present a field of female candidates. She didn’t want to run ‘against’ Oswald; but perhaps, if several women were to stand for this election, it would provoke a conversation about the nature and status of poetry, and about some of the triumphal language with which this recalcitrant art has come to be burdened. But Riley’s name did not appear on the ballot. Like several other potential candidates, including Michael Horowitz, who has spoken publicly about his disqualification, and Anne Carson, whose name was in several people’s minds early on, Riley turned out to be ineligible because of her age.
How could such a thing be possible? The post is seemingly designed with experience in mind: to lecture, once a term, for four years (it used to be five), on any aspect of poetry the professor chooses. It’s a position with enormous licence, and enormous prestige, previously held by a whole procession of men in their later years, including Geoffrey Hill, who lectured into his early eighties. But Hill was elected in 2010, and since then Oxford has introduced a compulsory retirement age, to be applied across the university. All senior academic and academic-related staff must retire ‘not later than the 30 September immediately preceding their 69th birthday’. Riley was born in 1948.
Not many people, even among those teaching at Oxford, were aware that the compulsory retirement age had been applied to the professorship. I learned about it from someone who’d heard it discussed at an English Faculty event, and eventually found the information buried at the end of the official job specs in a PDF. For the Professor of Poetry, you would expect – demand, even – that experience be valued, not discriminated against. And not only the experience that comes with age. No woman has ever held the post. Nor has a poet of colour. Applying a maximum age limit does nothing to address either of these oversights. Instead, it constructs an additional barrier to women and minorities, whose publishing careers often take off later than their male/white counterparts’. They also tend to take longer to attain the necessary profile to be considered for a position like the Professor of Poetry. No one would argue that Hill, or Christopher Ricks, should have been excluded from the role on grounds of age. So why should anyone else now?
When I told Riley that she was ineligible, she reacted with the utmost composure. But she did share one, ironic memory in response: forty years ago, as a single mother of two small children, she found herself barred from applying for college research fellowships because she was ‘too old’. She was 31. This is how we continue to treat even our most talented women: with obstacles put up at both ends of their careers, enabled – and created – by the blanket application of institutional policies that don’t recognise their value. Oswald will probably win the Oxford professorship – the result will be announced this afternoon – and that is a great thing. But we could have had Oswald and Riley, and Carson, and who knows how many others, all sharing a platform together – in the running, as they ought to be.