THE POETRY PROFESSOR AND THE STUDENT

By Tom Herbert

 

Martin tore-off a piece of toilet-paper and wiped his nose. He leant against the wall for a few moments, trying to breath slowly and deeply.

As he stepped out of the cubicle the toilet-door opened and Peter walked in. Peter said he was looking forward to Martin’s lecture and asked him to remind him of its title.

‘“The Political Power of Poetry”,’ Martin told him.

Peter repeated the title, smiled, and stepped towards a cubicle. ‘Oh, Martin, there’s still a little….’ He flicked the tip of his nose.

Martin murmured thanks and turned hastily to the mirror above the sinks. There was a small grain of white powder in one of his nostrils. He wiped it off and sniffed hard. He washed his hands and smoothed his thin hair.

 

The lecture-theatre was full. Martin saw young faces – smooth skin, thick hair, bright teeth. With twitchy movements he pushed-up his rolled-up sleeves, pinched his nose, pushed-back his glasses.

He lectured for around fifty minutes, fluidly, without notes. Words, phrases, sentences formed in his mind clearly and easily. He felt the audience’s attention.

He spoke about being asked by a left-wing journal to write an article about what poetry can do in a political context. He spoke about discovering poetry when he was younger, working in a sweet-factory – how he read during his lunch-breaks, memorising passages which he would then speak aloud to himself as he worked.

‘During one of these lunch-breaks I read Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey for the first time. There is a particular passage, which you’ll probably recognise, that profoundly affected me, and still affects me to this day. The passage is about a mood Wordsworth experiences when he pictures in his mind the “beauteous forms” of a certain landscape. This mood is described as follows:

 

that serene and blessed mood,

In which the affections gently lead us on, –

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

In body, and become a living soul:

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.

‘Now, I assure you, the sweet-factory was not a “beauteous” landscape. But when I read this passage that lunch-break I thought I not only recognised the “serene and blessed mood” Wordsworth is describing, but actually felt it. And when I went back to work this feeling persisted. I felt I was “see[ing] into the life of things” – seemingly for the first time. And this feeling was one of joy; doing this mundane, monotonous job, I felt joy. And accompanying this joy was a feeling of compassion. And this compassion became empathy – empathy for my colleagues, even empathy for the sweet-wrapping machine I was operating!’

The audience chuckled.

‘At that moment I realised that poetry was capable of putting a person in a state of mind, a mood, in which that person escapes- or even transcends their situation – whatever they’re doing – their surroundings, their context. And I realised that if poetry is capable of this, then poetry has the power to unite all people, all things, in a shared, sublime, harmonic state of joy, compassion, and empathy.

‘As a poet, that is what I try to achieve. For that is the power, and that is the purpose of poetry.

‘Thank you.’

The audience applauded immediately, enthusiastically. Martin felt sweat on his forehead and in his armpits. He drank from his water-bottle, hand trembling.

Peter came to him smiling, shook his hand, said it was very interesting, and left. A small group of students approached. The student at the front told Martin he really enjoyed the lecture and a few of the others nodded. Martin thanked him.

The student had dark olive-coloured skin, thick black hair swept back, neat stubble. His jacket was shiny and he looked stocky, muscular.

‘I don’t teach you do I,’ Martin said.

‘No, unfortunately not.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Tariq; everyone calls me Taz.’ He put forward his hand and Martin shook it and smiled. Tariq glanced at the students behind him and turned back to Martin.

‘Um, I was wondering,’ he said,’- I write poetry too and, um, I was wondering: I don’t know if you do this for students or not but… would you be willing to read it sometime – my poetry? And maybe, like, critique it? Obviously don’t worry if you don’t have time; I know you’re probably busy. But my friends told me I should ask so….’

Martin glanced at his friends behind him. There was a blonde girl. She had thick, full lips. He looked at her eyes and she looked away.

‘I’d be very happy to read your work,’ he said to Tariq. He told Tariq to email him.

Tariq thank him and the group started walking out of the lecture-theatre. Martin watched the blonde girl’s bottom.

 

‘So, I read your poem. And I’ve annotated a copy – here.’ Martin handed it to Tariq. ‘I’ve highlighted the lines I thought should be cut.’

Tariq thanked him and scanned the pages briefly. ‘What did you- I’ll read all your notes later properly – but what did you think of it, generally?’

‘Well I think it’s- I think you’re…- you might be talented.’

Tariq smiled.

‘But obviously there are things to improve,’ Martin said. ‘Why don’t you try reading it aloud – do you have time now? Read it aloud to me.’

‘Um, do you want me to read the lines you’ve cut?’

‘Recommended cutting,’ he corrected. ‘Yes, for now.’

Tariq started reading the first line.

‘Wait, stop,’ Martin said. ‘Don’t start reading until the meaning and the emotion of the line is in your mind, until you feel it.’

Tariq paused and then started reading again. After a few lines Martin stopped him again.

‘Reading poetry aloud Taz – it’s all about rhythm. It’s like music; poetry is meant to be spoken and heard. Understand?’

Tariq nodded and continued reading.

‘Faster Taz, come on. Have some urgency! You want to force the line, the image into my mind – the meaning. Okay, stop. Listen: have you ever taken cocaine?’ Tariq grinned and nodded. ‘Well, imagine you’ve just done a line and start again.’

Tariq started reading very fast and chuckled at himself. Martin snatched the poem, stood up, and started reading emphatically. On one word he slapped Tariq’s knee.

‘That’s how you read,’ Martin said. ‘Look, I used to read like you. When I published my first collection, when I was eighteen, I gave a couple of readings, and I read like you.’ He imitated Tariq, mumbling with a deep tone. ‘It’s boring isn’t it. You have to make the audience listen. Understand?’

Tariq nodded.

 

‘And this one’s for you,’ Martin said to Tariq. Tariq raised his eyebrows and didn’t move. ‘You’ll read better. Trust me. The nerves will just dissolve.’ Martin laughed.

Tariq grinned. ‘Have you done this with other students Martin?’

‘Yes, but never-mind that; we haven’t got long.’

Tariq laughed. ‘You’re a bad man.’ He snorted the cocaine.

They entered the pub loft.

‘You can sit with us,’ Martin said. He was by a table his colleagues were sitting at.

‘Oh, my friends are over there and I was gunna sit with them. Is that cool?’

Martin looked at his friends. The blonde was there.

‘It’s up to you,’ he said.

He watched Tariq go to his friends. They greeted him loudly, smiling, laughing. Martin imagined being greeted by them the same way.

He sat and his colleagues greeted him quietly. They looked slightly hunched over their drinks.

Sara stood on the stage behind the microphone. ‘Good evening everyone,’ she said. ‘Thank you for coming. As you all know we’ve got a very special reading tonight: our very own Martin Northmore will be reading an extract from a new poem he’s been writing. But first we’ll be hearing from one of his new protégés, Tariq Parmar.’

Protégés, Martin thought.

When Tariq was on the stage Martin looked at his thick hair under the light. His shoulders looked broad, his arms muscular. Martin looked at his friends. They were staring at Tariq. Several of the girls’ lips were parted, including the blonde’s.

Tariq began his poem. Martin watched him for a few lines and then glanced at his colleagues. One was frowning. Martin realised he hadn’t been listening and started to. Tariq was reading quickly and loudly, almost shouting. Martin heard words but they were meaningless in his mind. He glanced at the blonde several times but she was watching Tariq.

When Tariq finished his friends cheered and everyone applauded. Peter nodded at Martin. ‘He reads like you,’ he said and grinned. Martin’s mouth smiled.

Martin stepped onto the stage and watched Tariq join his friends. The blonde squeezed his bicep and kissed his cheek. Martin waited until they were watching him. Then he began his reading.

‘Last night I dreamed I fucked you,/A forbidden dream.’

After a few lines he saw in his peripheries Tariq’s friends whispering to one-another. After a page he glanced at his colleagues; they weren’t watching him. He realised he wasn’t thinking or feeling the lines before speaking. He wondered how thin his hair looked under the light.

Afterwards he sat with his colleagues. Peter said he thought the extract was very interesting, that he looked forward to the full poem. Martin thought they hadn’t understood it, as always. Tariq approached and complimented his reading, putting his hand on his shoulder.

‘We’re going now,’ Tariq said. ‘See you soon Martin, yeah?’

‘Mmm.’ Martin looked at his glass.

Tariq left with his friends. Martin thought they were probably going to a bar or a club or a house-party.

He ignored his colleagues’ conversation, finished his drink, and left.

Outside he saw young people smoking and going in and out of pubs and bars. As he passed groups he checked for Tariq and his friends. He looked at girls, their cleavage, their legs. He considered going into a bar. He imagined having a drink, seducing a girl – Tariq’s blonde friend.

He decided to text Tariq asking where they’d gone. A few minutes later he texted Tariq again telling him to meet him at the statue near the station and that he could bring his friends. After a few minutes Tariq replied he’d be ten-to-fifteen minutes.

Martin saw Tariq approaching, alone. As he neared he started grinning and Martin thought he looked stupid.

‘It’s been a while,’ Tariq joked and put out his hand. Martin clasped it for a brief moment and let go.

‘You didn’t bring your friends.’

‘Oh, yeah, they’ve gone home; they’re tired.’

‘Guess they didn’t want to socialise.’

‘No, it’s not like that; it’s just we’ve all got a lot of reading and everything, you know.’

‘Yeah.’

Martin looked away. He imagined Tariq’s friends telling Tariq it was weird Martin wanted to socialise with them, that he was weird, old. He imagined the blonde scowling and then laughing at the suggestion.

‘So what’s up Martin?’ Tariq asked.

‘Let’s go to my flat.’ He turned and started walking away.

‘Um, I don’t wanna get home too late ‘cause I’ve got a nine-a.m. lecture tomorrow.’

‘I know; I’m giving it. One drink.’

Martin started walking away again. After a moment Tariq followed.

 

Tariq stood in the doorway. Books were scattered and stacked around. The carpet looked dusty, stained. Martin picked-up a stack of books off a chair, tossed them onto the floor, and told Tariq to sit. Tariq walked slowly to the chair and sat, not taking-off his jacket. Martin offered him some wine and he said no; Martin poured himself a glass.

‘What’s her name – the blonde girl?’ Martin asked. ‘The one you’re always with.’

Tariq frowned slightly.

‘Blonde. Curvy,’ Martin said. ‘Full lips.’

‘I think you mean Katie.’

‘Surname?’

‘Ralph; Katie Ralph. Why?’

‘Are you two close? Intimate?’

‘No; we’re just friends.’

Martin swirled the wine in his mouth with his tongue before swallowing it.

‘She’s very attractive,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry you didn’t bring her. Next time.’

Tariq frowned again.

‘So… let’s talk about the reading; how did you find it?’

Tariq readjusted himself. ‘Um, yeah, I enjoyed it. I was nervous.’

‘Mm, you could tell.’

‘But I thought it went well, overall. People seemed to enjoy it so….’

‘You read too fast.’

‘Yeah? I thought you wanted me to read fast.’

‘You lost the meaning. You were just speaking fast – no emotion, no meaning.’

Tariq chewed the inside of his cheek.

‘It was adolescent, an adolescent reading,’ Martin said.

‘But people… liked it. I mean-’

‘You don’t have to argue Tariq. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.’

‘But… Martin, I just did what you told me. I mean, like, my friends said we sounded similar so….’

Martin smirked and shook his head side-to-side. ‘Your friends…. Tariq, tell me, do you want to be a disciple or a poet?’

‘What?’

‘A disciple or a poet. Because I don’t want disciples. I’m not interested.’

‘I don’t understand.’ They stared at each-other. ‘Martin, are you annoyed at me for some reason? Because I didn’t bring my friends or something?’

Martin’s face felt hot. He drank some wine.

‘It’s late; I need to work; you should leave.’

Tariq kept staring at Martin for a moment. Then he left slowly and quietly.

Martin gazed at the chair Tariq had been sitting on. In his mind he saw Tariq’s face staring at him. He imagined Tariq going to his blonde friend’s house, telling her what had happened. He imagined her calming him, rubbing his back. He imagined her kissing him. He imagined her naked, riding him.

He got his laptop and searched her name on the internet, looking for her profile on social media, pictures of her. But he couldn’t find her. He slapped shut his laptop. He thought he knew how his night would be now.

He got the rest of his cocaine from his jacket and emptied it onto the coffee-table, cut a line, and snorted it. He opened his laptop again and searched for a review of one of his early poetry collections. He found it and read the final sentences: “Northmore ought to be considered one of the finest poets writing in English today. That he is not more well-known seems a deep injustice.” He shut his laptop again.

‘Stupid little boy.’

         *                   *                   *

Shortlisted for Open Pen Issue Seventeen.

Tom Herbert is a twenty-three-year-old English Masters student living in London. Literature is his passion.

 

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