by Rupert Thomson
The Poetry Lesson is a lucid yet playful book, that slips between memoir and fiction, jaunty anecdote and pure tangent, as it describes the first lesson of an ‘Introduction to Poetry Writing’ course, in the last year of its teacher’s institutional career. This subject allows Andrei Codrescu to take in many themes, often from a subtly double perspective, such as retirement and youth, or memoir and fiction. One could push this a little further to identify another theme as a sort of ‘double-double’, as Codrescu explores both the intense reality of poets’ lives and the intangibility of their writing, as well as what could be thought of as the intangibility of life and the intense reality of poetry.
Codrescu is himself a veteran poetry teacher, and also a fine poet, essayist and speaker. This book concerns itself with teaching, with poetry, with 20th century cultural history, the impact of age on one’s perspective, and, to an extent, the state of the world today. But above all it is a work of literature, a meditation on writing and experience. Codrescu has acquired an impressively light touch in both his poetry and his prose, but he does not write lightly. The weight he puts behind the elegant frivolity on display throughout The Poetry Lesson is often in this vein: playing with the inherent mysteries of the everyday, and making merry with the parallels of continuity and contradiction.
The book is quite short (a little over one hundred pages), and as an account of a university teaching session has a built-in narrative. Codrescu adds a further level of structure by having his teacher work his way around the class, finding a bit about each as he goes, and assigning them a ‘Ghost-Companion’ (‘G-C’) – a poet whose life and work will be their spiritual guide through the course. This allows Codrescu to present, and to judge, various stereotypes of contemporary American youth. He makes no attempt to pretend these are not stereotypes – from the radicalised lesbian to the heir of an eccentric milk-farming family; this way, and by being unrestrainedly sweeping in his judgements, Codrescu is able to pull this otherwise patronising approach off charmingly and effectively. A sample comment: ‘Jason feigned indifference, which is about the only thing the young are very good at. Ours is not a heroic age and it embarrasses them. They prefer doom to nothingness, but there it is: if you can’t have doom, feign indifference.’ He may mean it, but there is also evident a subtext of self-mockery, or at least amused self-awareness.
The class teacher (who shares his profession, wife’s name, and swathes of personal history with Codrescu himself) reminisces, both in his head and while rambling to the assembled students, and as he does so he recalls passages from the lives of notable twentieth century poets. Ranging from the famous to the less well-known – from visiting Laurence Ferlinghetti’s bookshop in San Francisco, to all-night arguments with Ted Berrigan – these are, for the most part, presented in such a way as to give a sense of ‘the poet’ as a fairly normal person. Even when the stories become more showbiz – of topless girls, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel – there is no sense that these artists are ‘better’ than the rest of us: they’re simply living the life their choices directed them to. There is, in truth, little judgement made of the poets Codrescu describes (in contrast to the students), but the implicit comment remains: you too could be one of these people. In this sense, Codrescu is not just imposing his jaunty pedagogy on his students, but the reader too.
Codrescu’s anecdotes often combine the far-fetched with the familiar, giving them an enjoyable mix of plausibility and exaggeration. Drinking gin and smoking spliffs, naked in a hot pool overlooking a volcano, could conceivably be possible. It becomes markedly more so when accompanied by a mid-ranking New Zealand academic, and not, say, Edie Sedgwick.
Despite Codrescu’s writerly self-awareness being evident throughout, there is an enjoyable arrogance to his countercultural references: this isn’t a late-middle aged writer showing he is ‘still hip’, so much one who knows he is ‘more hip’ – at least compared to most of the students his double is now teaching. This applies to his informed analysis of contemporary culture too, exemplified by his sophisticated observations about the relationship between cloud computing and human social relations.
All this being said, the only poetry to feature is in fact one of the students’. And, while it may be Codrescu’s own impersonation of the style a relative novice might adopt, it is not bad – and in the context of the teacher’s generally cutting take on his students’ lack of wisdom, this is significant. The clear sense is that all these kids are worth teaching, and there is every reason to hold hopes for their creative futures.
In lieu of poetry, Codrescu’s wit and concision are reserved more for a series of smart one-liners, that stand alone as well as contributing to his general take on things. ‘The only good imagination is unused imagination’ he quips, intently. Or this more perspicacious suggestion: ‘the right to a prolonged childhood was hard fought-for and laboriously won by generation after generation, wherever and whenever. The long, physical strain of standing and fighting only to earn the right to lie down and dream was humanity’s story.’ This is accomplished irony, and this subtle approach applies to paragraph as well as sentence structure. It is often the short last sentence, delivered after the punch-line (a sentence which could just seem like a pause for the ‘audience’ to laugh, or a segue between ideas) where Codrescu makes his most important point.
But this clever, even seductive approach to meaning is also where The Poetry Lesson slightly falls short of its mark. Codrescu makes a clear point about postmodernism by imagining a ‘crossroads’ in the text (and in the lesson), between the self-reference of the ‘pedagogical-memorialistic mode’ he has so-far employed; and the other route, where ‘something dramatic, momentous, horrible, tragic’ must happen. The teacher takes, as does the book, the former route. Nothing wrong with that, it’s true. But no matter what alertness and sensitivity this may encourage in the reader, the consistent sense of intangibility it creates does rather diminish the sense that a passion for poetry will achieve anything. This may be because this is genuinely how Codrescu feels. That despite a love for teaching his students, their generation is not living up to the radical attitude his own almost took for granted. But nevertheless, there is a feeling of bathos. Of sorts an ode to possibility, The Poetry Lesson unfortunately leaves the reader feeling a little deflated. Entertained, yes, and wiser, for sure. But not exactly inspired. Codrescu has – one has no doubt – had a fantastic teaching career, and inspired many students. Now it seems, still possessed of all his wit and insight, he is retiring from this part of his profession, quietly.
Andrei Codrescu: The Poetry Lesson
Princeton University Press, Princeton 2010.
Cloth, 128 pages, US$19.95
Rupert Thomson is a playwright and former artistic director of The Roxy Art House, Edinburgh. Previously, he was an editor at The Skinny magazine. He lives in Edinburgh.
(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books.