This week a small number of voters will choose a name for the history books, in an election race that has, in past years, been plagued by in-fighting and scandal. Not the next Conservative leader, but something almost as important: the Oxford Professor of Poetry.
If poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (as Shelley claimed) then the Oxford Professor is the unacknowledged PM, voted in every four years by graduates of the university, but speaking to and for the republic of letters. Like the BBC’s Reith Lectures, the Professor’s three lectures a year (which are all the job requires) are released as podcasts for a keen listenership around the world.
WH Auden, Robert Graves and Seamus Heaney all held the post, recently vacated by Simon Armitage, the new poet laureate. And now Andrew McMillan has thrown his hat into the ring to replace him. McMillan is one of his generation’s leading poets; his fans include Alan Bennett and Samira Ahmed, the Radio 4 presenter who has been campaigning on his behalf.
At 30, McMillan would be the youngest person in the job since 1821. With a broad Barnsley accent, a broader grin and enough tattoos to have lost count (“nine or 10, I think”) his appearance might be a little startling to some of the dons who filled that seat in centuries past – but less so than his confessional poetry.
It is often extraordinarily explicit: not only about sex, but about all the uncomfortable parts of life we usually look away from. His latest book, 2018's playtime, covers anorexia, hair loss and his earliest sexual experiences. One particularly wince-inducing poem describes a botched hair transplant: “the sound of hair being ripped out/ reminded me of Velcro shoes”.
It took a while to pluck up the courage to show his parents the book. “If it was my child, I wouldn’t want to know some of the stuff that’s in it,” he admits. “My mum read it and said, ‘I never realised that children have private lives.’”
His candour can inspire similar soul-baring from fans. “The things that people tell me are quite astonishing,” he says, conspiratorially, over tea in a London café. “Retired women at literary festivals will come up and tell me the most intimate details about their husbands or their sex lives.”
For all his frankness, there was one topic he used to avoid: his father Ian McMillan, the popular poet and broadcaster. “With the first book, I was really conscious that I didn’t want to be ‘the son of’...” he trails off.
But after finding success in his own right, he no longer felt the need “to exclude any reference” to Ian; playtime begins with a beautiful poem addressed to him, and they have recently given public readings together.
McMillan went to “a very rough state school in Barnsley”, then studied at Lancaster and today lectures at Manchester Metropolitan, living in Manchester with Ben, his partner of four years. “He’s utterly unbothered by poetry. You couldn’t drag him to a poetry reading if you tried. But I like that, because there’s something grounding about it. I think I got that from home. If dad’s on the telly, mum won’t watch.”
Elections for the Oxford Professorship have been bitter in the past. In 2009, Derek Walcott pulled out over allegations of sexual misconduct. Ruth Padel won, then resigned just days later, after it transpired she had passed information about Walcott to the press.
But this year’s race looks kinder. What does McMillan think about the front-runner, Alice Oswald? “She should probably get it.” Why? “I genuinely think she is our greatest living poet.” And what about the least well known of the three names on the ballot, publisher Todd Swift? “He seems to be enjoying himself.”
If elected, McMillan plans to use the lectures to celebrate undervalued writers (John Riley, Thom Gunn) and shine a light on new talent. "For the first time since the Duffy and Armitage generation, there’s a new outward-facing crop of poets. It’s like the YBAs when they first started coming up,” he says, mentioning Jay Bernard and Heather Phillipson as names to watch. He believes the lectures should be "not just about poetry, but about poetry’s place within a world".
He does, however, feel a little wary about the extra attention winning the Oxford role would bring. "My worst fear is to be famous," he says. "I love being anonymous in public spaces, in crowds or on the train, being able to blend in and observe."