A controversy among British poets has elicited some alarming characterizations of sexual harassment.
Ruth Padel, chosen two weeks ago for an esteemed chair in poetry at Oxford, admitted on Monday that she had helped take down her chief competitor for the honor, Derek Walcott.
A month ago, Padel got in touch with two reporters to call their attention to Walcott’s history of sexual harassment. A book called The Lecherous Professor details his overtures (putting it mildly) to a poetry student at Harvard in 1982; Walcott allegedly told the student, “Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?” The student rejected Walcott, he gave her a C, the university intervened and the grade was changed to a “pass.”
Padel pointed to a second incident, as well, when, in 1996, a Boston University student brought a lawsuit against Walcott after the poet demanded sex in exchange for his helping her produce a play.
After being tipped off, a British newspaper published an article on the allegations, setting off a scandal that eventually led Walcott to bow out of the contest. During the fiasco, and even after she won, Padel expressed disgust with the smear campaign and regret that
her victory had been “poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with.” She added, “Those acts have done immense damage to people and to poetry.”
The scandal is troubling on a few levels. Bringing up Walcott’s past the way Padel did seems cowardly and inappropriate. The facts are not clear. Who knows if Walcott really said what The Lecherous Professor claimed? Furthermore, smear campaigns, fueled by hearsay, public scintillation, and hungry media outlets, are notoriously poor forums for justice. On top of that, Padel’s dishonesty about her role in the scandal brings her motivations into question.
These are all valid critiques of the way this played out. But some in the British media have adopted a different defense of Walcott. Rather than challenging the nature of the attack on Walcott, they’re defending sexual harassment itself as just another artistic eccentricity:
Michael Deacon in The Telegraph cited Lord Byron (“womanizer”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“drug fiend”), John Keats (“smackhead”), Rudyard Kipling (“imperialist”), T. S. Eliot (“lines that could be construed as racist”) and Dylan Thomas (“drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends”), among others, and concluded, “Not one of them, were they alive today, could hope to land the Oxford post — they just don’t meet the exacting moral standards set by people who conduct smear campaigns.”
Deacon also says that Walcott “may or may not have said something insalubrious a long time ago” and also calls Walcott’s acts “flirting with students.” If the allegations against Walcott are true, what he did was much more deliberate than flirting. He tried to barter grades and his influence for sex. The picture painted by the accusations is unequivocal: a man who understood his power and didn’t hesitate to use it to try to coerce women into having sex with him. This is not complicated; it’s the epitome of sexual harassment. It’s not consensual and it has nothing to do with the promiscuity of Lord Byron. It’s certainly not comparable to alcoholism, opium use, or being politically controversial. The British press would do well to examine the legitimacy of Derek Walcott’s character assassination in light of media ethics, but to classify coercion as another example of literary free-living is ignorant.