The Poetry Lesson
Princeton University Press, 2010
128 pp., $19.95
The Poetry Lesson
Bennigan was entranced. Everybody else seemed to be texting under their desks, against express orders. I brought Poems for the Millenium, Volume Two sharply down on the desk. If any texting was going to go on here, it would be out of the textbook! They started. Their thumbs froze. No, they weren't texting. There was no text-message alert. They just kept their hands down there to defend their genitals, under attack from poets.
Romanian-born Louisianan poetaster and longtime NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu is not necessarily popular among conservative Christians. Perhaps that's because his radio essays skew so far to the left, or perhaps because his wonderfully old-fashioned-looking Exquisite Corpse literary journal contains such graphic sexual and scatological references, or perhaps because he talks so freely about the drugs he's taken, or perhaps just because his beard is shaped like the devil's.
The Poetry Lesson may do nothing to diffuse such sentiment, but it sure is a lively read. The organizing metaphor, a college poetry workshop, is chock-full of delightful caricatures, starting with indifferent but occasionally brilliant students and their lecherous and creaky-boned professor who doesn't get technology and whose brain is brimming with thousands of poets' names and book titles.
In this workshop Codrescu is assigning a "G-C" to each of his students—that is, a "Ghost Companion," a poet they must study and get to know. This provides the author with a double-edged sword: he is able to scout both poets and students, to impale both the living and the dead on the skewer of his wit, like Dante assigning his friends to various circles of hell.
And this pedagogical device gives Codrescu an excellent opportunity to show off his vast knowledge of the last century of American poetry and literary culture, in all its excruciating minutia. If it has been painful to live with a head full of so many specific references, it must be a relief to offload them into a quirky little book from Princeton University Press.
From the classroom metaphor, Codrescu branches into memories: the evolving poetry scene (including an observation that AIDS put an end to poetry-reading-intermission unisex-bathroom hookups), the Sixties ("I have a lot of dead friends," he muses), Eastern Europe ("There are no bohemians in Bohemia!" he shouts at his misguided students), even (while he is taking a bathroom break) what it means to be a poet in America nowadays:
I went to the professors' Men's Room on the second floor, a place of majestic faience and private stalls where, I imagined, my colleagues held their puds with dignity and let go a flood of professional resentments. There was something solemn and sorrowful about this bathroom forbidden to students. Apartheid still reigned here …. While I was peeing I didn't think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can't. I'd have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that's exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject.
His colleagues are conformists, and he is not. The judgment sounds self-serving, but Codrescu does not come across as particularly arrogant. He's a Sixties idealist coming to terms with his approaching emeritus status, a "tenured radical" faced, in the closing years and months of his teaching career, and in the shadow of the demise of the print version of Exquisite Corpse, with an unrelenting need to prove himself as ideologically and culturally relevant.
The secret to this book, the spoiler, is that Codrescu really can't reinvent himself. The final scene is at once crushing and (from the perspective of one who has taught numerous poetry workshops) dead-on recognizable:
When they had all gone, I sat in the empty classroom and waited for the familiar wave of futility to wash over me. I checked my email. The first one was from a student: Professor Codrescu, I'm sorry I had to miss class, I wasn't feeling too good. I went to the infirmary and have a doctor's note.
So The Poetry Lesson ends on an honest, searching, appropriately self-deprecating note, and that's a good thing, because it helps resolve the book's attitude. Codrescu is not impossibly hard-bitten. And looking back from this vantage point, it's clear he's actually fond of his students, even if he expresses no hope for them or what they might become.
It's still hard to tell whether the proper names, place references, literary allusions, and private jokes heaped up in this book are merely vanity or a kind of shrift for Codrescu. The Poetry Lesson is, truly, a fruity bush grown thick with proper nouns. Has Codrescu, as one final self-referential joke, created an exquisite copse? For these and other questions there may never be answers. Suffice it to say, the general reader will likely find this book tough to plow through, even if incisive and clever. And although Christians everywhere will continue to rain imprecatory adjectives on Codrescu, he's never given anyone the impression that it bothers him.
Aaron Belz teaches English at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California. His second poetry collection, Lovely, Raspberry, was published by Persea Books earlier this year.
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