In my suburb there’s a non-descript shopping centre café which smells a little greasy and sells quiche and bacon and eggs and is inexplicably busy, mostly with older people. It’s next to the bottle shop and every time I pass it I think of the professor because the last time I saw him, in 2003, he was seated at one of its outside tables waiting for his order. I called out his name and when I wasn’t sure he recognised me I reminded him of how I’d been in his classes and he brusquely assured me he remembered me. Was I an unwelcome intruder? I must have spoken to him for a while because I recall showing off to him that my novel had just won an award and would be published. He told me what a bad state publishing was in and how his own novel had been rejected. To my surprise, it was a thriller with some connection to 9/11. The other thing I remember telling him was that I’d recently moved into the area, into a haunted house. What I meant by that was that I was living in a rundown house from the 1950s full of traces of the people who had lived there before, from the vintage stinking carpets to the rusty bedframe in the backyard under the decaying tree-house. But I said it was haunted because I knew he was into parapsychology and there’s a stirrer in me that people are slow to recognise. He took the bait and said something like, ‘When you say haunted, I hope you realise there are many haunted houses in this city.’ If he elaborated—and I would have been hoping he did—I’ve forgotten what else he said.
When I started my arts degree in 1999, the professor’s classes were the only part which lived up to my hopes of what university would be. His introduction to literature lectures ranged passionately across the Western canon. He spoke with an educated British accent. He was fluent in five languages, including medieval English. As my other units called meaning into question, he defended it.
At the end of semester, he said he might see some of us next year in his poetry class – if the Y2K bug hadn’t plunged the world into chaos and if he hadn’t died. He was serious on both counts, but as it turned out, the Y2K bug did very little and even though he seemed very old to me, he was actually only seventy and did not die that year. I had a timetable clash. I’d switched to theology as my second major and my Old Testament class at another campus was on right before the professor’s poetry class. I’d been warned that I must take the Old Testament class at the other campus, because it was taught by an evangelical; the same class was offered on the main campus by a liberal lecturer and it would be dangerous to take his class. But I was very convinced that the professor might be teaching poetry for the last time and that it was the most important thing to stay in his class. So I endangered my soul for the sake of the professor.
In the first tutorial, the professor asked us to name our favourite poet. He’d been unimpressed with everyone’s answers until me; I said W. H. Auden, and to my delight he said, ‘Interesting.’ But then another guy said Ezra Pound and he liked that answer even better. He also asked us who were the four major poets of the twentieth century. I think I got three and had the fourth one wrong – it was not Dylan Thomas he told me; Dylan Thomas was only a minor poet who was a celebrity. (There were no major women poets of the twentieth century.)
There was a third test in that first tutorial and I failed it, along with the whole class. He asked us to each recite a poem. He went round the room and we had to recite or pass. I was desperately scrambling to remember the words to a number of poems which were rattling around, incomplete in my head. I had lines but not the whole. I was ashamed when I passed and that shame was compounded when he declared at the end, ‘So not one of you can recite a poem. What if this was a music class and none of you could play a piece? And yet this is a tertiary-level poetry class and no-one knows a poem.’
I started composing an email in my head after the class to try to explain, to tell him the poems I nearly knew and how the recall defeated me at the crucial moment. I don’t think I sent that email, but I may have.
I became friends with a mature-aged student and he said when the professor asked the same question in his tutorial he was able to recite a couple of lines from Philip Larkin about your parents messing you up and the professor loved it. He went on to do honours with the professor. I remember him saying he told the professor he was moving house and the professor offered to come and help.
Like E. D. Hirsch, the professor believed the reader’s task was to recover the poet’s intended meaning. The professor took this conviction to its logical conclusion and advocated for poets including footnotes to explain contextual references. He had us study a poem about the assassination of JFK which did just this. I really liked the poem and I went up to him after the class to ask who the poet was because I’d missed their name.
‘I didn’t say the name—the poet is me.’ He told me I could follow him to his office and he would print a copy of it for me. When I came into the professor’s office he squinted at his computer with great antipathy and waited while it downloaded the fifty emails which had arrived since he’d last turned it on. While we were waiting, I started peppering him with questions, trying to make the most of my time alone with him. He told me he couldn’t concentrate and asked me wait outside in the corridor. I remember being close to tears when I finally took away his poem.
I took the literary theory class I’d been avoiding and I quite liked it, embracing aspects of theory and distancing myself from the professor’s quixotic stand against postmodernism. I did no more classes with him and I don’t think I spoke with him again at uni. After I ran into him that time in 2003, I googled him occasionally and noted with gladness that despite his pessimism, he was still alive and still teaching.
In 2017, I was in the middle of my PhD, a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I travelled out to a historical society in the hills near where she lived. The co-ordinator of the society used to work alongside the professor, and I asked after him. She told me he had died the year before. He was well into his eighties and it shouldn’t have been a shock but it was. I’d always hoped I’d have another conversation with him on equal terms. I will keep thinking about him every time I pass that café, especially now I’ve written this brief memoir of him.