Why Oxford is the Best Place to Be a Writer
Dr. Kieron Winn’s first collection of poetry, The Mortal Man, was published in 2015, and has been widely praised. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was awarded a doctorate for a thesis on Herbert Read and T. S. Eliot. His poems have appeared in magazines including Agenda, Agni, The Dark Horse, Literary Imagination, The London Magazine, The New Criterion, New Statesman, Oxford Magazine, Poetry Review, The Rialto, The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement.
Selections of his poems have featured anthologies including Carcanet’s Oxford Poets 2007 and Waywiser’s Joining Music with Reason, and he has read his poems on BBC TV and radio. He has twice won, in 2007 and 2013, the University of Oxford’s most valuable literary award, the English Poem on a Sacred Subject Prize. He lives in Oxford, where he is a freelance teacher, and has been a tutor with Oxford Summer Courses since its founding in 2010.
I’ve heard it said that Oxford is the best place in Britain to be a writer. Partly this is because of writers whose footsteps you tread in, such as:
Geoffrey of Monmouth (medieval teller of tales of King Arthur)
Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet)
Dorothy L. Sayers (crime writer)
Elizabeth Bowen (novelist and short story writer)
W. B. Yeats (poet)
Philip Pullman (novelist)
The latter writes, in the trilogy His Dark Materials, of openings to parallel universes. Oxford can feel like that: it is crammed with quadrangles and corridors where different worlds exist behind each door. Working alongside each other in a college might be a biographer of Rasputin, a compiler of a Spanish Dictionary, and a researcher into black holes.
Oxford used to be a shallow tropical sea, and there are one or places where you can see fossilised coral and oysters. Sometimes, in the winter, there’s so much rain that it threatens to become a sea again. But, everyone agrees, in the summer, when you would be here, it’s beautiful. The honey-coloured buildings soak up and radiate the sunlight, and there is no shortage of green lawn to recline on. If you’re studying creative writing, you will read extracts from major writers, then pick up their tools. T. S. Eliot says that immature poets imitate, but mature poets steal. In other words, mature writers make the techniques their own. You might learn how to use fewer words, and not to mix your metaphors. You might look at how to use the stream-of-consciousness style of Virginia Woolf (this may involve unlearning a fair amount!). Or you might learn how to use poetic rhythm to generate meaning and make your words sink into the reader’s memory. All the teaching is done in small groups, with the tutorials mostly in pairs. You have to engage and talk, and this can be a great boost to confidence and learning.
Here are three of my favourite quotes about Oxford. The first is from W. B. Yeats: ‘I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all – the colleges I mean – like an opera.’
Here’s Matthew Arnold: ‘Beautiful city! so venerable, so lovely, so unravaged by the fierce intellectual life of our century, so serene!…whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age.’
And finally, Oscar Wilde: ‘Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made one.’
But don’t take their word for it: come and see for yourself, and make your own mind up.
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Dr. Kieron Winn, an Oxford-educated poet, has received praise for his poetry collection. Oxford boasts a literary legacy with writers like Shelley and Sayers. The city's beauty and inspiring atmosphere make it an ideal place for creative writing. Explore Oxford's charm and form your own opinion on its allure.