Andrei Codrescu, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton University Press 2010)
Exquisite Corpse is the name of that game where players make up a story together. It’s also the name of an online literary journal. Andrei Codrescu, a poet who recently retired from teaching at the State University of Louisiana, is its editor, and this is his most recent book.
It’s not a book of poetry. Nor is it a book on bow to write poetry, though there are some possibly useful tips such as this list of ‘The Tools of Poetry’:
1. A goatskin notebook for writing down dreams
2. Mont Blanc fountain pen (extra credit if it belonged to Madame 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
8. Susceptibility to hypnosis
9. Large sheets of homemade paper, a stack a foot thick
10. A subscription to cable TV
The book is a wildly unreliable account of the first lesson for the year in his Introduction to Poetry Writing course, in which he assigns each of his 13 students a ‘Ghost-Companion’ – a poet living or dead whom they are to read and turn to for guidance. This slender narrative frame is fleshed out in any number of ways – with sex-and-drugs-and-poetry reminiscence, gossip, a touch of postmodern cleverdickery, a hallucinatory moment or two, some surreal invention (at least I assume it’s invention) involving a disused missile silo, reflections on the weird intergenerational activity known as teaching, cranky-old-man observations on technological and other change, a lightning tour (during a pee-break) of his office, which is also the editorial office of Exquisite Corpse, and all manner of intelligent self-indulgence. It’s an oddity that reminds me of nothing more than of Brother Wilbred, my superbly eccentric Grade 8 teacher, who regularly treated us – 40 or so 13 year old boys – to impassioned and not entirely comprehensible rants on non-curricular subjects dear to his heart.
Andrei Codrescu taught for more than 25 years: I imagine many past students will enjoy the book as a comic look at what was happening on the other side of their student–teacher interface. Those of us who haven’t previously heard of Mr Codrescu, who have chosen the book as a replacement for a Christmas present we’ve already read, attracted perhaps by the incongruity between the title and the supplicant skeleton in the cover illustration, can only imagine that insiders’ pleasure, but we still get a privileged glimpse behind the tapestry, and an unexpected, sometimes exhilarating ride.