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Walter Benjamin

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.

 

Today I thought I should add my secret voice to your evaluations.
Your intelligence may be genius, but remember as my mother said also always be nice.
A seventh grade teacher consoled me when I was teased:
You can always tell the genius by the enemies who surround him.
Try, though it’s impossible. See JA. Make no enemies.
Well, you’ll always have aesthetic enemies just by liking something “they don’t.”
But I’ve noticed even one personal enemy is too much in the tiny circle of Prospero’s Kabbalah.
You impress me and you’re so young, so you have I think one task: Go on! Keep working,
and keep your opinions growing widening and changing.
One day love Chatterton. The next day read Villon.
One month give up to Proust, one year give up to Kafka.
Pound’s big canon is correct: Be curious like a physical scientist (Aggazis for Pound).
Keep your work, throw nothing away, it might be the best you’ll do one day.
Don’t be arrogant with the stupid as I was accused and am.
See the dynamics of politics and art but without getting bitter.
Reject none of the great religions—read and memorize all sacred texts without belief.
Or keep them with you if must for certain periods.
Be interested in all the arts. That includes architecture, dance, painting, sculpture.
Read more than philosophers in philosophy.
But don’t make your poems be a vessel just of abstractions.
Exercise in real life, stay healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink like kids.
Read all the old magazines. Find a library that has them.
Know 1952 and 1852 as if they were 2010.
Have together in your mind the value of the concrete particular.
Make your work dazzle but not razzledazzle—make your being elegant and defended.
Read all of Shakespeare and the great commentaries—that doesn’t just mean Uncle Harold necessarily.
Learn languages. Each language is worth 500,000 or more.
When you learn a language, keep it up.
Translate a page every day.
I mean mistranslate a page every day and that will be a religious duty.
Don’t be a Rilke—practicing vulnerability.
Make it your business to read Marx AND Finnegans Wake.
Search out no great men—be a great man.
Don’t let emotional problems destroy you.
Don’t commit suicide obviously, and learn to scorn it but not the victim.
Don’t get married too young and if you have to write love poems, do.
Try writing 20 songs a year.
Try writing short stories. Read Kawabata.
Read everything that Meyer Schapiro footnotes.
Learn to travel and be one “on whom nothing is lost.”
Continue reading James even if others tell you they haven’t.
They will and they will have the subtlest teacher. Therefore,
read William and Henry and their father. Good luck,
David Shapiro in a Polonius-like mood.