:: Article

Greatest Living Poet

New fiction by Matthew Sperling, art by Anastasia Kashian.

David in Library

The GLP is kind to stray cats and urban foxes. He carries old bones and offcuts of meat in his pockets to feed them. He has his own, thoughtfully chosen names for them, and remembers their individual histories.

The GLP reads The Sun and watches reality television shows, and if asked why, he will say, “Oh, I have a positive addiction to the meanest trash.”

The GLP hates inaccurate usage. He groans whenever he sees panini used as a singular noun, and insists on asking for “a panino”.

The GLP used to have a phobia of flying. He did not fly until he was well into his fifties, when he decided he should try it. His companion of the time reports that when the plane became airborne the GLP burst out laughing.

I first met the GLP at a gathering which gave students the chance to talk with him. The students had been chosen for their exceptional promise, and I was proud to have been asked. I knew little of the GLP’s work then, and could not have imagined how significant the occasion would become for me.

From the GLP’s archive papers I later discovered that this gathering took place during a period of great personal upheaval and anguish for the GLP. I admired the fact that he had given no sign of this to us, his young audience.

In the archive the GLP’s handwriting is often indecipherable. I once showed him a photo I had taken on my digital camera, zoomed in on a word that seemed to be made up of indistinguishable letters u, r, n, and v. He angrily dismissed it, saying, “Then use a magnifying glass, don’t show me this!”

The GLP writes in lined A4 exercise books with very sharp HB pencils which he refers to as “Scribblers” and “Sharpies” respectively. The exercise books must be sewn or stapled at the spine and on no condition spiral-bound, which the GLP abhors.

The GLP listens to music while he writes (but never vocal music). I asked his wife to keep a note for posterity of the music he was listening to while writing particular works, but the GLP said that he found this inhibiting and instructed his wife to stop.

In private the GLP dresses strangely. He will venture out of the house wearing pyjama bottoms and Ugg boots, which he calls “Ugly boots.” He will say that he is past caring what people think of him, but some think this is itself a calculated attempt to strike a pose.

At public events the GLP dresses grandly, with embroidered waistcoats, hand-painted silk ties, and colourful pocket handkerchiefs.

If you ask the GLP about politics he will speak of the limitless depravity of contemporary public life. But he will also say that poetry need not concern itself with politics except insofar as all things are concerned with politics. He will say that poetry is no more political than woodcarving, but also that politics is the lifeblood of our most intimate desires and experiences. The GLP’s views can be difficult to comprehend.

The GLP disapproves of space travel on ethical grounds. It is said that on the day of the moon landings he retired to his study in a rage with a bottle of scotch.

If you ask the GLP what he thinks of the poetry world he will say that he thinks it has very little to do with poetry and can scarcely be considered a world.

Often the GLP will say things in conversation that he has previously said in print. When this happens I try to give no sign that I have read these things before, feigning a spontaneous reaction.

I am writing a biography of the GLP.

The GLP claims he spent most of his national service reading a battered edition of Shakespeare’s Works and failing to improve his German while guarding an empty military prison.

The GLP has never allowed the poems in his first book, published when he was 26, to be reprinted. The book has gained a near-mythical status among his devotees.

When the GLP taught creative writing he would start the academic year by insisting that writing could not and should not be taught, and that the only thing worse than a creative writing student was a creative writing teacher. This did not always endear him to his students and colleagues.

The GLP has a talent for hatred. He will utter a good word about few other living poets; if you ask him for his views on a rival poet’s work he will say, “Awful, just hopeless,” or “Dead words, dead rhythms,” or “Just nothing there, not a single poem worth a sou.”

When the GLP was invited to take part in a prestigious reading series and the organisers mentioned that they were thinking of inviting one of his hated rival poets, the GLP advised them they should not do so since the man suffered from a severe speech defect and would find the event excruciatingly awkward. This was untrue.

The GLP has never cooked a meal in his life. In the periods between his marriages he would dine out or pick at bread, cheese and cured meats over a bottle of red wine while watching television.

The GLP likes mangoes and seedless grapes to be brought to him in brown paper bags. Defying his advanced years, he slices them daintily with a fruit knife.

The GLP maintains his fitness by performing an exercise routine he has devised himself. It involves shadow-fencing with a straightened wire coathanger for a foil, and playing tennis with imaginary opponents.

In his younger days it seems that the GLP overcame his shyness at meeting women by befriending married men and then gaining the affection of their wives.

The GLP is not proud of this phase of his life.

In early middle age the GLP observed the emergence of new youth cultures with interest, but could only partly adapt to the spirit of a more liberated age. When students occupied the faculty offices during the events of 1968, the GLP abstained from all votes on the matter.

If the GLP goes to the cinema today he insists on seeing the coarsest big-budget movies, and will sit with a box of popcorn on his lap, roaring with laughter. When he emerges from the theatre he will be unable to recall a single detail of what he has just seen.

The GLP is generous is his praise for my writings on his work, but often in ways which make me doubt he has read it. He credits my writings for things I am not aware they have done.

I have grown middle-aged annotating the GLP’s work.

The GLP sometimes seems to assume that the person he is talking to shares his own knowledge and interests, so that a cryptic allusion or reference to an obscure favourite text of his will totally clarify the matter for the listener. This assumption is often mistaken.

The GLP has given me one piece of advice. We were browsing in a second-hand bookshop and he said, “When it comes to books, you must never think you can’t afford it. You can always afford it.”

He said, “There are books I didn’t buy sixty years ago because I didn’t think I could afford it, and they haunt me still to this day.”

I keep a notebook in which to record remarks made by the GLP. I call it the Table Talk Notebook.

The GLP has a habit of using cautiously qualified phrases (“there may be something to be said on behalf of the proposition that…”) to introduce claims of a startling audacity and unverifiability.

The GLP does not know he is called the GLP.

Sometimes the GLP shows his insecurity. Once, discussing the work of a rival poet, he asked if I thought it would survive, and I said that I thought it would. He then asked, quietly, “Do you think my work will survive?”

The GLP is so old that as a baby he was dandled on the lap of an old woman who was present as an infant at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral.

Once a week the GLP is driven into town for a massage. The young woman who gives him the massage marvels at the dough-like texture of his skin. The GLP believes that this laying-on of hands keeps him vigorous. But the GLP does not appear vigorous.

When the GLP retired from teaching it is said that he lost a certain discipline in his daily routines. Certainly he now rarely abstains from taking wine, and his progress on a long-awaited new work appears to have slowed down.

I once stood with the GLP on the steps of a house on a summer evening, looking at the stars. After a long pause, and without looking at me, the GLP said, “It’s a nice night.” No more needed to be said.

The GLP feels he has not had his due.

Matthew Sperling writes poetry, fiction and criticism; recent works include ‘Tradeskin’ and ‘Gear’ in The Junket, ‘Removals’ in The Short Anthology and ‘Voice Over’ in The Literateur, which will be anthologised in Best British Short Stories 2015, edited by Nicholas Royle.

Anastasia Kashian is a self-taught artist, and failed anthropologist, based in West Wales and Andalucia. You can find her on Twitter, and see more of her work on Facebook, and on her website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 16th, 2015.