On page six of Andrei Codrescu’s, The Poetry Lesson, student Matt Borden tells the class about himself. He is heir to a milk fortune and his grandmother “was a personal friend of Queen Marie of Romania,” who is buried in a SALT-treaty-emptied missile silo along with all of her books and a “life-size bronze of Diana the Huntress.” Before this moment, one could believe that The Poetry Lesson “is a hilarious account of the first day of a creative writing course.” But Matt Borden is clearly a character, not a person, and the same goes for Hillary Adams, the ROTC member, Jason Jacob, who “looked very much like young Trotsky,” John Ferris the economics major, Letitia Klein with her Aunt Clara, the nun, and all the other students in the intro to poetry class. It’s easy to believe a unique thinker like Codrescu would open a class with an anecdote about a man who collected pictures of poets’ graves and that he would assign the acquisition of a “goatskin notebook for writing down dreams” and a “Mont Blanc fountain pen (extra credit if it belonged to Mme Blavatsky),” but the students themselves reveal the fault lines, or seams, or perhaps even brushstrokes of the work itself.
About two thirds of the way through the book, Codrescu says this about The Poetry Lesson; “This is not a novel, but neither is it poetry…No, this story is not a novel or poetry, and it’s no essay or memoir either, thought it mimics aspects of both.” Though it hints at a creative personal essay, it still goes too far into fiction for even our era’s lax requirements for a “memoir,” and its narrativity doesn’t go far enough into fiction for it to share a shelf with Sophie’s World, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Ishmael. It might be best to read The Poetry Lesson as one reads Plato’s Dialogues; the Dialogues have characters, settings, and, in a basic sense, plots, but those components of fiction are merely support structures for ideas. One does not read the Dialogues to explore the human experiences of Socrates, Phraedrus, or Alicbaides, as characters, or to understand Plato’s milieu, but to grapple directly with the ideas themselves.
However, that analogue is problematic as well, because the core projects of philosophy and poetry are so different. Philosophy constructs ideas through statements; poetry creates images with language. One should be prepared to read statements like these as lines of poetry, “I saw her standing at the bottom of the nuclear silo where a lone soldier once stood before a console and a telephone, reading endless novels, waiting for his one moment of work when the phone would ring;” “And if you do get rich…I advise you to dedicate a room of your rebuilt plantation house to Aimee Cesair;” “Think of what the inside of your head might sound like if you asked the Roman poet Ovid and the French poet Antonin Artaud to tell you what to have for dinner,” and “I did not dismiss the idea of the devil as a skilled forger who had faked what we call reality.”
Ultimately, The Poetry Lesson might be just that; a poetry lesson taught with dada pedagogy. It is a lesson plan bent by manifesto-ish proclamations like “Unlike fame, immortality doesn’t need a press agent;” “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;” and “One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry.” In a discursive but powerful way, Codrescu is making a statement about poetry; poetry mixes intellectual mysticism with an artistically arranged social consciousness, and a freewheeling joy in the creation of words, through whatever individual expression the writer has left after being formed, reformed, and deformed by systems of culture. Will The Poetry Lesson create better poets? I don’t know, but all those who read it will be better travelers in the world of poetry.
Codrescu might offer an even better perspective for reading The Poetry Lesson. Much of the class in the Lesson is made up of Codrescu assigning “Ghost-Companions” to his students. A ghost-companion “is a poet that you will study all semester, read deeply, understand well, google until you’re satisfied, and call on when you feel some difficulty. Any difficulty…Your Ghost-Companion…will come to your aid not just for your assignments, but also in other situations that neither you nor I can now imagine.” (italics in original) Perhaps Codrescu has tried to write a Ghost-Companion.
Regardless of how it’s labeled, The Poetry Lesson is a brilliant work, filled with sentences and images you’d want hung on your study walls for occasional contemplation. Codrescu writes, “It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything,” and “It was an interesting time in America: our country suddenly had more singers than machinists, more waiters than carpenters, more nerds than farmers.” At times the work reads like an anthology of likely epigraphs. If you want to assess the impact this book has, just keep track of how often its statements appear at the beginning of other people’s works of poetry. The Poetry Lesson bends, twists, dances, and distorts ideas of poetry; creating a weird, wonderful, and challenging work that stretches across and slips between genres of literature, while maintaining a profound core of wisdom.