The Quirky Whimsicality of Andrei Codrescu

Sunday, September 4, 2016

UP LATE AND LATER ON: Andrei Codrescu’s So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems 1968-2012
(Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press. 2012)

The two senior poetry critics whose careers have been based in academic discourse the past several decades are Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler. It is perhaps appropriate that they live on opposite sides of the country, for I am not certain that it would benefit the artistic ecology of any region to have this pair living even within tangential proximity. Vendler exudes the confidence of someone who believes that simply being part of the line of succession at an Ivy League college will automatically assure her of a place in the pantheon of important and cited critics well into the next century, and she might well be right in her self-assuredness. The “selfie” camera that Vendler holds up features an undefined future in the background that she believes she has shaped with her judgment. An autocratic diplomacy suffuses her regimen: that Jorie Graham deserves to remain one of the crucially influential figures in American poetry for the rest of this century is, from her point of view, not something to be questioned.

Fortunately, I live on the other side of the country, and have enjoyed bantering with Marjorie Perloff since the late 1970s, when she walked into a bookstore I was working at and made a joking comment about an anthology I had just published. I don’t think she was aware that I was behind the counter. Despite this inauspicious start, I have always respected Marjorie Perloff’s intellect and insights, and regard any occasion or topic on which she is writing or speaking as an opportunity to grow as a critic and working poet. I certainly have disagreed with her assessments on more than one occasion, in particular regarding some of the contemporary poets working in Los Angeles, but she has an ear for poetry far more attuned to a variety of poets in the United States than Vendler has ever demonstrated, and it’s a bit late in the game for Vendler to play catch up.

In reading and commenting on contemporary poetry, Perloff has especially distinguished herself in recognizing the importance of the Language poets; but that cluster of poets hardly represents her primary focus, nor does her ability to make use of their assumptions about language and social life tie her down to such an extent that she cannot rove elsewhere. It’s a rare talent that can write about Rae Armantrout for instance, and also give an accurate evaluation of a poet who would just as soon never have met a poet influenced by Language insurgency. A prime example of Perloff’s much more capacious list of subjects to comment on is Andrei Codrescu, one of many immigrant poets who began attaining recognition in the past century, a list that includes Olga Broumas, William Pillin, Armand Schwerner, and Charles Simic.

I start by mentioning Perloff’s review of Codrescu’s So Recently a World Rent a World because her assessment of his free verse prosody is exactly what my reaction was, a month or so ago, when I finally sat down with this collection:

“Codrescu … has never paid much attention to the niceties of line breaks or sound structures, and he seems to write his poems as quickly and easily as he does his NPR columns. Not every poem, consequently, is as fully realized as it might be. …. Line by line, these jokey poems are great fun to read, but they may not have much staying power.”

I appreciate being able to call up Perloff’s commentary because it sums much of the problem I have with Codrescu’s poetry. Anyone seeking to teach young poets about how enjambment in free verse poetry is the crucial factor in increasing the line’s dramatic and connotative power as well as its internal tension as a rhythmic unit would not be able to make significant use of the poems in So Recently Rent a World. What Perloff describes as the “niceties of line breaks” is a kind rebuke, and I suspect Codrescu has not often had this flaw pointed out before. Even if it had been, perhaps it would not have made any difference. Codrescu’s writing discharges, at a fairly steady pace, an anarchistic jauntiness that serves as his substitute for formal shapeliness, control, and dexterity. His attitude recalls Frank O’Hara’s “just keep running” advice: “do like me I say / keep talking” he advises young immigrants who approach him, asking “what should / we do with our accents” (“often after a public event”).

Codrescu has certainly kept talking, as evidenced by several long poems such as “not a pot to piss in” and “Comrade Past and Mister Present.” I confess I lost interest in his monologue long before these poems ended. Codrescu’s charm works most efficiently in short bursts, in poems such as “A Grammar” (on page 128) or “The Gap” (page 70), both of which share a theme that echoes a sort of existential variation on Zeno’s Paradox. A skeptical surrealist is at work in Codrescu’s imagination when he is at his best. “Wishes” begins: “I wish I could appear at will in your thoughts.” The final five lines bring the wish full circle:

I wish there were a way for many of these
futures to be known
by something other than their names”

By the need for them perhaps or
by their light”

The answer to this wish is one of the few poems that is worth quoting in its entirety, “Why Write” (page 136). If I can ever get permission to quote it, then I will someday insert it for the pleasure of my readers at this point in the commentary.

Finally, it perhaps is indicative of Codrescu’s limitations as a poet that there is no index of titles or first lines at the end of this 400 page volume. Unfortunately, such as index would tend to highlight the flatness in his work. There are enough interesting moments in this collection to make it worth perusing, but it was probably a good decision to leave out these indices. One doesn’t want a person to glance at something meant to highlight the alluring parts of a composition only to have a potential reader encounter mediocrity. Codrescu places himself in Charles Bukowski’s company, but Bukowski would never settle for the nondescript titles that head up all too many of Codrescu’s poems.