The Poetry Lesson

December 23, 2010

It's hard to know who the intended audience for this book is, partly because it's hard to know what kind of book this is. The latter ambiguity is certainly part of the point; indeed, The Poetry Lesson is relentlessly keen to signal its formal disobedience, from the self-complicating blurb on the inside flap, right through to the inevitable, ironically postmodern, self-conscious discussion of the narrative impasse it reaches approximately three-quarters of the way in (page 74, if you want to save time and jump right to it).

Not a creative writing "how-to" manual, not an essay, not a novel, not a memoir - The Poetry Lesson resists genre classification with all the radical aplomb of an angry beatnik refusing to tick the "which-age-demographic" box on a government census form. Because literary form is, like, so straight, man. How can you think exciting, radical, poetic thoughts in a fixed, conventional genre? That would make you The Man. And Andrei Codrescu and his avant-gardists have been sticking it to The Man since before most of us were born. We should be grateful.

Actually I am. And more or less with the programme. But even experimentalist mash-ups need an audience. When it's not busy telling us what it isn't, The Poetry Lesson turns out mostly to be a non-realist, fictional account of the first class on the last-ever Introduction to Poetry Writing course that its imaginary, Romanian, professor narrator is going to give at a university in Louisiana before retiring at the end of the year. So its audience will be all those interested in what a fictionalised Codrescu (whose real-life counterpart retired from Louisiana State University last year) has to say by way of a professional swansong.

Seemingly, that's a deep-rooted scepticism about the possibility of teaching creativity at all within a university environment.

Towards the end of The Poetry Lesson, the panicked narrator, aware of the multiple crises of fleeting time that press upon him and his students, candidly blurts at them: "We are teaching in an institution run by institutionalised people who have invested all their time into the institution! The lunatics run the asylum! We all have an investment in keeping the racket going! It's all a pyramid scheme, people, like everything else in the world now, from economics to banking, and you are at the bottom of the pyramid!" The characterisation is all in the exclamation marks.

Certainly, taken as a satire of the institutionalised creative writing industry (not to be confused with the genuine article of course), The Poetry Lesson is biting in its humour. The narrator truly sucks as a teacher and one can only feel relief on behalf of his students at his upcoming retirement. Somehow he manages to spend almost all of a three-hour seminar assigning "ghost-companions": poets from the anthology Poems for the Millennium, dead or alive, whose surname begins with the same initial as each novitiate's.

Ostensibly this is so the student can develop a unique relationship with the ghost-companion, and turn to him/her for advice on all matters poetic, spiritual and other. But it also affords Codrescu the opportunity to have his narrator indulge in enthusiastic speculation about his students' sexual lives, the size of their cocks, the erectness of their nipples, etc, as well as in a repetitive series of fictionalised name-dropping anecdotes about how he hung out with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Berrigan and Co, back in the days when the world was hipper and more revolutionary. Codrescu is a keen observer of the bathetic comedy of the aged rebel parading radicalism-nostalgia before indifferent youth. The latter take plenty of toilet breaks.

The Poetry Lesson

By Andrei Codrescu. Princeton University Press 128pp, £13.95. ISBN 9780691147246. Published 20 October 2010

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