The Poetry Lesson by Andrei Codrescu. Princeton University Press. 128 pp., $19.95.
The Poetry Lesson is an account of the initial three-hour meeting of an Introduction to Poetry Writing course, a session in which the near-to-retirement Codrescu pontificates to his students about the lives of poets, ruminates to himself about the life of poetry, and assigns each of his charges a poet to study as the semester moves forward. The book defies one unhealthy trend in the practice of the teaching of creative writing, another in the practice of literature—they’re related, and you should read this book and absorb its lessons as soon as possible.
Perhaps it was inevitable: whenever a thing grows to a corporate scale, it becomes more concerned with self-preservation than with whatever gave it life in the first place. I dated a poet who once began a poem with the line “Everyone’s womb goes up in flames.” She was very young, and very smart, and I’ve thought of this line—the first she was proud of—many, many times since our relationship went up in flames. We all abandon our mommies, religions excommunicate their prophets, and corporations forget whatever principle founded them.
So it goes with the academic institution of creative writing. What founded the academic institution of creative writing? A distinctly anti-academic spirit, I’d argue. In the beginning, creative writing pedagogy never shied away from the question of whether the subject could be taught at all. Maybe it can’t. Maybe all you can do is create an environment, a womb-like tough-love space, where a budding writer might be afforded at least the opportunity to grow. Thus, the workshop: a practice criticized on the one hand as cruel and grueling, and on the other as a gut course lacking form and rigor.
These criticisms follow in the wake of the explosion of creative writing courses, from the mid-seventies on, say. Not just the dozens upon dozens of MFA programs you’ve never heard of, but cash-cow low-residency programs, too, and nonprofit writing centers, and “writing emphasis” majors at schools that don’t offer graduate degrees, and open-enrollment summer programs. It’s been noted before that the explosion of writing programs has not resulted in an explosion of talented writers, and it’s no surprise that with so many people dependent on organizations, nonprofit and otherwise, a corporate spirit has begun to prevail. Thus, the pedagogy of creative writing has begun to shy away from the workshop and creep closer and closer to the dubious proclamation that, all evidence aside, writing can be taught: all you have to do is declare your major, enroll, sign up, attend, send in your tuition.
Roland Barthes once compared his “seminars”—which really ought to translate as “workshop”—to the “phalansteries” of Charles Fourier, the utopian visionary whose theories were put into practice most prominently at Brook Farm in Massachusetts. The Brook Farm “phalanstery” went up in flames—literally.
I first studied creative writing at the college-level at the University of Pittsburgh. I took two professors more than once, Eve Shelnutt and Chuck Kinder. Shelnutt is a famous teacher, and you’ve probably heard of Kinder not because of his wonderful novel Honeymooners but because he was the model for Professor Tripp in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Chabon too studied with Shelnutt and Kinder. As did current Associated Writing Program president Dinty W. Moore.
From Shelnutt and Kinder I learned that there were two kinds of writer/professor—those who think, and those who drink. I don’t know it to be true, but I’m guessing they probably sort of hated each other, which is too bad because they at least shared a faith in the workshop—the womb of the creative writing pedagogy. In other words, they’re now both “old school”: they have more in common with each other than with the current trend in the teaching of creative writing.
Old school in this case doesn’t mean rigid and traditional—it means the opposite of those things. And that’s where this begins to come around. The version of Andrei Codrescu we get in The Poetry Lesson is some kind of hybrid of Shelnutt and Kinder. I was wrong about the thinkers and the drinkers—of course the thinkers drink, and the drinkers think, and Codrescu paints himself and all of poetry as a kind of grand thinking drinker, a drinking thinker. The Poetry Lesson itself is an inebriated self-eulogy. I’m sure that some reviewer of The Poetry Lesson is going to indulge in a Dead Poets Society comparison, but that’s shallow and easy. Codrescu’s oddly riveting book depicts a teacher—a pedagogy—that is now more or less impossible. Who’s the dead poet here? It’s no accident there’s a skeleton on the cover: it’s a portrait of the exquisite corpse that Codrescu may fear he’s already become. We watch him hand out his poets like flash cards and flash his encyclopedic range of experience and knowledge, and in the process he awakens something like excitement in his students—not with course objectives but with the proposition that this class will be like no other they have taken before, or will again. We come to realize (or me, anyway) that this book is a tomb, a tomb in which the ashes of our burned womb have been interred.
In the first few pages of The Poetry Lesson, Codrescu gives his students an assignment. Write one epitaph every day. He gives them this exercise not because it will teach them to write but because it will teach them to live. This a little similar to what James Alan McPherson claims in “Workshopping Lucius Mummius,” an essay that defends the workshop methodology even though McPherson’s nothing like Andrei Codrescu or Chuck Kinder:
Perhaps, finally, this is the role that the many, many writing workshops are destined to play. In my view, they will remain the places where the best of the literary resources of the humanities will remain available to those who want to develop refined levels of taste and meaning that will help define some ultimate meanings, no matter what else is being marketed outside such enclaves.
The problem is that it has begun to look like McPherson’s prophecy was wrong. The real goal of the instruction of creative writing wasn’t ever to teach people to write—it was to give them an opportunity to teach themselves in a distinctly anti-academic environment. It’s something that has been forgotten as writers have been forced, more and more, to strive after positive student evaluations, publications, and tenure.
Which is sort of related to what The Poetry Lesson, ostensibly a piece of nonfiction, has to say about the current obsession over whether nonfiction remains strictly factual. This obsession indicates a corporatization of the literary spirit.
The Poetry Lesson is full of small bizarre set pieces like wonderful James Tate poems, little meditative histories that descend further and further into absurdity, and one senses that they begin with reality—some story about some actual old poet or student—but depart from it precisely at that moment when literature must shed reality, when a strict record of facts fails to record not events themselves but the impressions they have left on our ever-streaming consciousnesses. Perhaps even more than questions of pedagogy, this is the lesson of The Poetry Lesson. The fluid region where fact and fiction communicate, that playground where poets have forever gathered, is not simply flawed memory, but memory altered, either buttressed or betrayed, by imagination, either excited or depressed.
In this way, too, The Poetry Lesson is sort of old school, in its recognition that a depiction of the inner life is a depiction of the outer life—or, put otherwise, that there ought not be a strict line between fiction and nonfiction. That’s not a particularly popular position to take these days, not even in creative writing departments, where genres have become fiefdoms. Bookstores, too—where will The Poetry Lesson be shelved, after all? People want their fiction fictional (but autobiographical!), and their nonfiction factual. To goof around with the latter—even as it speaks to the very heart of what literature, at its most fundamental, is supposed to achieve—is to tickle the third rail of the corporatized literature industry. There is no new school to replace the old one. There’s only marketing departments and department meetings—and more and more they are becoming indistinguishable.
Maybe Codrescu has it right: retire when you can, and write your epitaph every day.
You can choose what to read, or read what they choose.
Choose this book.
J.C. Hallman’s most recent book is In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise, published in August by St. Martin’s Press.
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