The Poetics of Defiance

To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah, NBBPS
Subject: The Poetics of Defiance

Codrescu1When Andrei Codrescu landed in America (c. Detroit, 1966) he donned a black leather motorcycle jacket not the elbow patched tweed or navy blue blazer uniform of the Anglo literary elite. He chose rebellion over conservatism. He was (and is) a wild one in the tradition of les poetes maudits in which the sacral gravity of being is replaced by the ironic clank of existence. In Detroit he connected with the politically radical working class poet John Sinclair and later, when he moved to New York City, Ted Berrigan, a poet no less radical or working class but esthetically more avant-garde. This was his introduction to the post-Beat new American literature. But Codrescu came with his own solid cred as a poet from a Romania situated at the ancient migratory crossroads where a rich culture has flourished for millennia and whose Dacian roots go deep along the Danube and the Black Sea and predate those of the Grecian golden age. He also brought with him an appreciation of the modernism of the French poets of the early 20th Century, the Cubists, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists. He arrived fully clothed (with the exception of the iconic jacket), so to speak, as a poet, stranger in a strange land, and like de Tocqueville and many strangers before him, ready to make comparisons and assessments.

There is the story, no doubt apocryphal, that Ted Berrigan once informed Codrescu that American poets think they have to stand in line to become famous. To which, it is imagined, Mr. Codrescu said something to the effect of ‘I am not an American so I can take cuts.’ Challenged by the poet at the head of the line questioning who did he think he was taking cuts, Codrescu replied ‘I am a poet’ to which there is no rejoinder for the simple reason that until they become famous, American poets are uncertain as to whether or not they are actually poets. Codrescu does not stand on ceremony or in line. Where he comes from, poets are admitted without question.

As he writes in the introduction of So Recently Rent A World, New and Selected Poems: 1968 – 2012 (Coffee House, 2012),“At the age of sixteen or so, in Romanian, the person speaking employs its ‘I’ to declare the presence of a poet whose intention is to set himself against the accepted first-person singular of any authority, parental or statal. This is an ‘I’ that is mostly spontaneous but also borrowed like the shell of a hermit crab from lyric rebels like Villon, Rimbaud, Blaga, and Arghezi.” As well, poets of early European Modernism can be seen as seminal influences, all of whom chose to defy convention with their radical vision. In the US his immigrant “I” met “the emerging political ‘fuck you’ of the 1960’s.”   This was also the time of such revolutionary slogans as “Kick out the jams!” and “Up against the wall, motherfuckers!” As the former rude boy from Romania states, “What happens after that is in English, and the story of this book.” The accented English he writes in has the distinct advantage of being largely unaffected by the constraints of Anglo-American literary convention. And the rest is history or autobiography or meditations on esthetics or fiction or cultural critique but most of all poetry served up with his trademark (by now) incisive candor.

Codrescu has made his mark with quirky humorous yet prescient critiques of the bourgeoisie, their minions and toadies, for in the US the middle class is a leviathan and cries to be harpooned. The author of over forty books (but who’s counting), editor of the consistently defiant literary magazine, Exquisite Corpse, and regular commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, he has applied his articulate intellect to examining the underpinnings of his adopted country, and with the universality of his poetic license, remarking on the fabulous and the flawed. As one reviewer put it, “If Andrei Codrescu still lived in Europe, he’d be a public intellectual consulted by presidents and ministers. . . .” Yet it is as a poet, acutely aware of the limitations of language but with a mathematicians love for the infinite permutations of meaning wrought by word order, that Codrescu finds his greatest success. Perhaps less appreciated by an essentially non-literate population that finds the term ‘poet’ fraught with overtones of effete elitism and questionable sexual preference, poetry is at the root of all Codrescu’s writing and pronouncements. His cultural affinity for the working class recognizes the chasm between the solid truth speaking insurgent earth folk and the airy cerebrations of the double speak elite and their MFA drones. No one is quite so subversive.

In his latest poetry outing, So Recently Rent A World, Codrescu’s oeuvre is selected from a history of poetry collections and chap books along with newer, previously uncollected works. The recent poems start off what is essentially a retrospective of nearly fifty years of poetry, beginning with the seminal License To Carry A Gun (1970).These early poems read like translations, stripped of any native adornments and assumptions in a new language that acts as an intermediary. Their somber at-the-barricade tone is informed by, as he says, the “dark metaphorical music” of his first literary influences and “the pop insistence on the actual physical world that was the passionate poetics” of his new American friends, the New York School poets in 1968. The clarity of their intent is in part due to the constraints of a language in the process of being learned. That reason alone makes them a remarkable achievement.

So Recently Rent A World traces the emergence of confident wit, intelligence, and shoot from the hip improvisation. Codrescu brings a cosmopolitan deftness and deep cultural identity to his new language, one that is in many ways alien to the Anglo-American literary sensibility. No one writes like Codrescu, certainly no American, or with such élan.  The intelligent sophistication of his writing stands in stark contrast to Yankee provincialism. Codrescu is possessed of a certain ‘internationalism’ (for lack of a better term), and like Paz or Bolaño for instance, has as his touchstone and reference the polyglot literature of the continent and is not bound by the insular singularity of the imperial tongue alone. By contrast linguistically challenged American writers are adrift on an English bark.

It is customary in writing about a poet’s poetry to excerpt relevant passages in an effort to highlight a particular excellence. Nothing can be gained by this lame practice, one that is similar to showing a corner of a painting by Pollock or Rothko and labeling it ‘detail’. To truly get to the top and bottom of these selected and new poems, it is necessary to find the book, buy it or borrow it, and read. Quoting a stanza or section cannot by any stretch of the imagination give an approximation of the poem’s totality. A list of titles is equally ineffective. However, a few recommendations can give the reader a place to start. Of the newer works, the gulf of mexico (social realism) demonstrates Codrescu’s mastery of the discontinuity of the modern form. And selected from It Was Today (2003), often after a public event is the pithy acknowledgement of a life in exile in a language that is not the one of your birth. It takes someone like Codrescu to give the natives a fresh perspective on how to write in their own language.

To readily appreciate what Codrescu has accomplished requires a sensibility perhaps foreign to these cerebral shores, a level of erudition that does not do well in a climate of instant gratification and reality TV. Codrescu’s paeans to the imagination may fall on deaf ears and in view of uncomprehending eyes. He has the knack to perceive myriad paths through the thicket, that rat’s nest of neurons, axons, and dendrites, and trace a narrative that meanders through the vast halls of unconscious memory with graffiti lushness. The arabesques and the full circle cogitations on various and sundry matters in multiple and rhetorically accomplished voices provides an undercurrent of astuteness required to keep the reader afloat shooting the rapids of the unpredictable. Getting splashed while dodging big boulders in a rushing stream is not for everyone.

To get a solid fix on where Codrescu is coming from (and going) in relation to a defiant unaffiliated American poetic, the brave and the hardy are directed to The Posthuman Dada Guide (2009), The Poetry Lesson (2010), both published by Princeton University Press, and the current poetry selection, So Recently Rent A World. In The Posthuman Dada Guide Codrescu addresses the roots of his modernism. The Poetry Lesson applies what he has learned and, in turn, taught about American poetry as a professor at Louisiana State University. So Recently Rent A World is the result of a lifelong pursuit of the muse in his adopted language, and Codrescu’s contribution to the American canon.

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