Poetry and College English - National Council of Teachers of English
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Poetry and College English

During National Poetry Month, we posted poems that originally ran in one of the ten journals published by NCTE. This poem “A Professor Attends a Poetry Reading” by James E. Robinson comes from College English and wraps up our celebration:

A Professor Attends a Poetry Reading
I sat up front to avoid
the backs of heads
It is important to fix attention
on the eyes
And gesture
and hear the voice take flight
A reading is a prosopopoeia
an imitation of the act
that bent the being of the poet
into the poem
in the first place

Earlier that day I was glad enough
To have an audience
Go one way
And me another
Leaving the paper lecture
Afloat in the afternoon
But now I would take hold
In the night drawn rearrangement
And let the poet fix me with his meaning
As he pleased
The poem went on
And I missed pretty much the whole thing
It was about a poet being a paper poet
Building a paper house
It went up in smoke
I don’t think that was in the poem
Rather it was something that crossed my mind
But then maybe the poet meant it to

I thought perhaps I should have sat in back
To see what others do
When listening
What did alabaster girls and boys
I build in classrooms
Hear there
In the air
Where the poem was hanging
The poem went on
And I missed pretty much the whole thing
It was about a fountain and a statue
And water pouring over thighs
And down the drain
I don’t think that was in the poem
But it crossed my mind
But then maybe he meant it to

The poet wore a dark grey suit
And a dark blue shirt and tie
The face was cut from something hard
And the voice was round and clear
And the poem was solid sound
Between us all
And still I wondered what he was to me
And the others
Or I or they to him
Who is audit of which fleeting presence
Which life is rounded by which sleep
Which poem should I take hold of
As I was meant to do

The words came from the dark clothes
Vaguely priestly
And the hard face
Vaguely smiling
Like ballet steps and patterns
Which I chased across the stage
And round the room
The poem went on
And I missed pretty much the whole thing
It was about a boy bewitched by a balloonist
And an irritated father with a broken pipe
Pulling the boy away
Into thin air
Or was it the balloonist who disappeared
Whatever it was that crossed my mind
Was gone before I could be quite sure
I caught something of what he meant me to

When it was over
All the alabaster girls and boys
Gathered round to shake the hard hand
Of the Ballet Priest and Paper Poet
And I wanted to say something too
Because I had had a good time
But as the poem went on
In the room
And in the scattering crowd
And in the air outside
Having never said hello
Having failed to say goodbye
Having missed pretty much the whole thing
I just went away
As I think I was meant to do

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