The Poetry Lesson, reviewed by Tove Danovich

On the first day of my first poetry workshop, the teacher yelled at us. He talked about how the right poem could save your life. He said the world was ridiculous because we were sitting in a classroom learning to write poems while kids our age were fighting a war abroad. Pay attention. Get serious.

The professor of Andrei Codrescu’s new novel The Poetry Lesson would have a lot in common with my teacher. I could see them fly fishing together at dawn or, at the very least, sharing a few beers and grumbling about students.

The Poetry Lesson covers the span of the first day of Intro to Poetry at Louisiana State University. It’s a course taught by a Romanian professor who, in his office, keeps a poster with the words EXQUISITE CORPSE written across it. While it could be easily assumed that the professor of Codrescu’s novel is Codrescu himself, he’s more of a literary doppelganger—the teacher Codrescu might, on occasion, fantasize about acting like.

This book is Codrescu’s chance to teach a class of poetry the way it should be taught. The professor is utterly serious about his subject yet, in the details, the ridiculousness of those Poets comes through clearly. I’m sure you’ve met them before; they’re the ones drinking and scribbling late into the night, quoting lines of Whitman to unsuspecting young women. They breathe poetry. They’re the Poets who, like our dear Professor, would give a list titled “The Tools of Poetry” to a class and include items such as a goatskin notebook, a Chinese coin to keep in your pocket, and a Mont Blanc fountain pen owned by a medium. But the Poet-ness of the professor is both authentic and without contempt. The Poetry Lesson seems to wonder if there could be any other way to be a poet than with an earnestly that borders on the absurd.

It’s in the smallest of details that Codrescu tries to keep the balance between serious and silly. Another list titled “The Ten Muses of Poetry” embraces such things as Mishearing, Misunderstanding, Misreading…all the way to “Mississippi (the river).” While many good poems have been written about large bodies of water, it seems to be Codrescu’s voice stepping through in these moments. The professor is so sincere, even in his desire to connect with this class, that it’s impossible to believe he would so openly poke fun at the art of poetry. At times, the professor is called to act out so many of Codrescu’s fantasies that it seems the author has forgotten the entirely self-sufficient character he’s already created.

If Codrescu were to write a series of Poetry Lessons, reading them should qualify you for course credit. Unlike most novels where the characters live in the literary other-world of our own, this book felt like reading a play. The professor and his students were bursting out of each page, waiting to come to life in tangible Intro to Poetry classes all across the world.

In the interest of full disclosure, the pages of this novel may not divulge the secret to becoming a writer or a poet. It’s a fast read. Time flies as though you were taking a class with the best professor you’ve ever had. The book reminds you to pay attention, to be serious, and—above all else—to remember that even the most earnest writing should be fun.

Leave a Reply