The Poetry Lesson

By Andrei Codrescu

The Poetry Lesson is a novel of ends and beginnings. A beginning in that it takes the form of the first day of an “Introduction to Poetry Writing” course taught at Louisiana State University by Andrei Codrescu (it is a novel in the form of a memoir), and an ending because it is Codrescu’s last year of teaching.

In many ways the Romanian-born poet of the American and European counterculture, now a self-described “typical fin-de-siecle salaried beatnik,” is right to feel out of place and ripe for retirement standing in front of a class of iPod-wearing, cellphone-monitoring young people. At one point, seeing everyone in the class apparently texting under their desks, he even slams the course anthology down and declares that if there is to be any texting going on it will be done out of the textbook!

But Codrescu is no stuffy old fogey. His introductory lecture is a fast-paced bit of pedagogical stand-up, interspersing personal recollections of various twentieth-century poets with whimsical observations on poetic craft and modern culture in a stream-of-consciousness style that blurs the line between inner and outer monologues. Along the way he recommends such necessary tools of the trade as a susceptibility to hypnosis, a Mont Blanc pen (preferably pre-owned by Madame Blavatsky), and a poetic Ghost-Companion.

It is the last item that gives the book its basic structure. As Codrescu goes through his class list he assigns each of his students a guiding spirit: a poet from the course anthology whose last name begins with the same letter as the student’s. And so as he draw thumbnail sketches and imagined biographies of his pupils – the ROTC girl, the heir to a family fortune, the Christian fundamentalist – he does the same for writers like Akhmatova, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Whitman.

The Ghost-Companion buddy system is one way, and an engaging way at that, of imagining the sort of endeavour Codrescu is engaged in, which is the forging of a literary tradition. Tradition is the vital web that relates the quick to the dead: If your Ghost-Companion is Allen Ginsberg’s, and Ginsberg’s was William Blake, then before you know it you are related to every other poet who ever lived when you take a Ghost-Companion of your own. In fact, poets aren’t even ghosts. Graves are “superfluous”: “The whole world is a cemetery, everybody’s dead except for the poets. Poets don’t need a cemetery.”

This is important because there is an undertow of gloom implicit in the book as well. It’s a relief to know that there are still free-spirited loose-cannons kicking around the corporate beehives of today’s universities, but Codrescu’s case also reminds us this is the only way a poet can make a living today: not by writing poetry but by talking about it. Making things even worse is the fact that many of the students in Codrescu’s class don’t even want to be there but are only fulfilling program requirements (something they don’t hesitate to let him know). But in the course of things even this is turned to humorous advantage.

The Poetry Lesson starts off by talking about epitaphs and famous last words, and leaves us with poets bursting out of the cemetery gates. Codrescu’s introduction to the afterlife, as he exits from the stage, makes a witty and heartfelt case for poetry’s end being its beginning.

Review first published in the Toronto Star January 2, 2011.

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