The Poetry Lesson
by Andrei Codrescu
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Poetry month has come and gone, and the stack of books I wanted to write about for this blog still sits here staring at me. Tempus fugit, memento mori.
How apt to find a skeleton on the cover of The Poetry Lesson and inside its covers, the first thing that the narrating professor of creative writing assigns to his students is the writing of a daily epitaph, to be ready in case they suddenly pop off. He also makes reference to the poetry journal that he edits, Exquisite Corpse. But wait. Didn’t the flap copy tell me that the author also edits Exquisite Corpse? And that he was a professor of creative writing at Louisiana State University, where this book is set?
It reads like fiction, it takes advantage of poetic license, but this book is also a memoir and a rant. By turns a fond and exasperated look at the teaching of creative writing, it is the story of the three hours that comprise the first class of the last semester that the narrating professor will teach. He meets his students, he gives them their instructions for the week and the year, and in between narrating scenes from the present, he remembers scenes of his own youth spent meeting great poets.
To say that the man has an idiosyncratic approach to pedagogy would be to understate the case. These are his tools of poetry:
1. A goatskin notebook for writing down dreams
2. Mont Blanc fountain pen (extra credit if it belonged to Mme Blavatsky)
3. A Chinese coin or a stone in your pocket for rubbing
4. Frequenting places where you can overhear things
5. Tiny recorders, spyglasses, microscopic listening devices
6. A little man at the back of your head
7. The Ghost-Companion [a poet whose last name begins with the same letter as the student's own name and who will serve as a guide and helpmeet]
8. Susceptibility to hypnosis
9. Large sheets of homemade paper, a stack a foot thick
10. A subscription to cable TV
The list made me laugh, as did many other moments in the book, but I could not quite suspend disbelief. Was he really that odd? What purpose did it serve to perform such quirkiness for a room full of new students? Did this performance endear him to them or alienate them?
There is a delicious passage in the middle of the book in which the narrator pulls a meta-moment. He indulges in 1980s postmodern trickery, stepping out of the story to address us and tell us where the story might go from here. (I love 1980s postmodern trickery. Why did it not come back when leg warmers and skinny jeans and orange blush came back?)
I’ve sworn off postmodern cheap tricks in this story, but this one can’t be helped. It’s a crossroads in a story. If I take the road to the left, there will be no sudden dramatic development. My students will sit down and I will continue in the pedagogical-memorialistic mode that has so far held your attention, reader (because if it hadn’t you wouldn’t have gotten this far). … If I take the road to the right, something dramatic, momentous, horrible, tragic will take place…. Which is the road I’d be forced to take if this was, let’s say, a novel. This is not a novel, but then neither is it poetry, because if this story were poetry I’d take the road to the right without any qualms of the sort I’m confessing. No, this story is not a novel or poetry, and it’s no essay or memoir either, though it mimics aspects of both.
There we have it. He has given his reader a map of sorts, but it’s about as useful as a goat-skinned notebook.
In addition to collecting books about books, I also collect campus novels and teaching memoirs. I read the memoirs in the hope of being made to weep by stories of how great teaching has changed lives. I’m a softie that way. I read the novels because I like to hear about the crimes and misdemeanours of students, professors and administrators. I like to see them satirized, but I do prefer to see the mockery evenly distributed. There is a built-in power imbalance in classrooms, and real-life faculty rooms are full of the anecdotes of teachers’ moronic students. Yes, they are morons, but so are we. Fiction should play fair with human folly.
The narrator does take stabs at academics (“On the floor above the one where I was tormenting poets, tenured professors tapped steadily on their keyboards, completely uninterested in the deep ravine that ran between their professional thoughts and their lives.”), but this book leans a little too heavily on the students, who never quite emerge from behind their cardboard selves. And while the narrator made me chortle, he did not charm me. There was too much mental undressing of his students, and an obsession with their bodily functions (“They needed to pee. I knew that they needed to pee. They knew that they needed to pee. Their bladders were ready to burst. Ah, merciless poetry! I saw myself covered in the golden showers of their bursting bladders. No, I’m not a pervert. Ask anybody.”) No thank you.
Even with the helpful instructions of the narrator, I’m not sure where to file this one. I won’t put it under teaching memoir because there is not enough love for teaching. Campus novel it is, even with its slips out of fiction into memoir.
I had not heard Codrescu’s NPR essays before reading this book, which is too bad, because I read the narrator’s voice with a generic American accent. Codrescu’s own Romanian accent is quite thick, and hearing its rhythms as I read would have enriched my reading. This is Andrei Codrescu on NPR reading a short essay about his Kindle and his alarm at finding out that the supposedly new e-book he bought comes with other morons’ highlighting included: “You are what you highlight.”
And here he is in his role as a poetry professor, handing out assignments. Very much like the narrating persona of this book. Funny.