The electorate numbers more than 250,000 – all Oxford graduates who have bothered to collect their degree. The duties – one lecture a term for five years – are almost as paltry as the annual salary of £12,000. So the five-yearly contest to be elected Oxford University’s professor of poetry may seem an unlikely provoker of tabloid headlines, but over the years it has witnessed what one eminent, outraged academic called “indignities more suited to the Miss World contest”.
Previous occupants of the hallowed Oxford chair, regarded as second only to the poet laureateship in British poetic prestige, include such grandees as Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day-Lewis, WH Auden, Robert Graves and Seamus Heaney. But 20th-century nominees also included a computer, a county hall caretaker, Muhammad Ali, Mao Zedong and the then prime minister’s wife, Mary Wilson. In 1968, an undergraduate rode naked through the streets of Oxford in support of her own unlikely candidate, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, during an unprecedented student ballot, which made no difference, anyway.