Witness Post: Andrei Codrescu’s Poetry Lesson
Listening to the radio on a Public Broadcasting Station, somewhere in the Mid-West, there was an interview with Andrei Codrescu. He was asked to read some selected stories from his new book, The Poetry Lesson. I heard that voice and immediately flashed back to a lesson he had offered my students and me many years before.
View from the Middle School
It was spring 1979 and Mr. Codrescu was a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time he was a little-known Romanian writer, commentator, and teacher. I was a first-year 6th & 7th grade English teacher at McDonogh School in Baltimore and, admittedly, was struggling to find my voice. (McDonogh is a century and a half years old former military turned co-ed school, teaching students from pre-kindergarten through high school.) On campus every teacher was formally addressed as Mister, Mrs., Doctor or Ms. The Middle School English curriculum for the 7th grade called for a poetry unit. Taking a lot of English classes in high school and college, I had read poetry, of course, but had no idea as to the best way to teach it.
At McDonogh School the 7th grade was known as ”the grammar grind” year: it was the year when the lessons of Lower and Middle School collided with the preparations for Upper School. All writing rules were stuffed into the mental meat grinder of drills to produce P-S-A-T pâté. Voila! At this point in the second semester, the students were weary and ever-so bored of Mr. Hooper’s grammar lessons, particularly parts of speech, memorizing prepositions and diagramming sentences. I willingly admitted that poetry would be a great break from the tedious language drills and “Wordly Wise” vocabulary quizzes.
One afternoon, Mrs. Holloway, the Middle School secretary, put a yellow notice in our faculty mail boxes. The sheet announced a “visiting poetry scholar” program in conjunction with Johns Hopkins. I signed up immediately. Mr. Tom Harper, the head of Upper School English Department, had heard about a visiting scholar program and wanted to extend the program to the Middle School. McDonogh had been invited by several local colleges and universities to be part of the outreach to share their faculty and visiting scholars with the high schools. McDonogh was picked to have a professor for the spring semester. Mr. Harper blocked out the schedule for the Upper School and being the only faculty in the Middle School to sign up, I was ecstatic to receive the one-on-one help.
There are two things that I remember most vividly from our visitor that day: his voice and the simplicity of his message.
Mr. Harper escorted Mr. Codrescu to my classroom and introduced him to me briefly. The visitor’s oversized glasses, bushy mustache, and floppy hair announced “radical in the room.” I brought him into the class, offered the students a very brief introduction, and then willingly invited Mr. Codrescu to take over the lesson for the day. I grabbed a seat in the back of the room. “So you vant to learn about poetry, do you?” he asked the students. “First of all, vhat do you know already?”
In the one previous poetry class I had taught, we had read some limericks, ditties, and several Shel Silverstein poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends, but mostly we had laughed. The lone assignment had been to “bring in a copy of one of your parents’ favorite poems and the lyrics to one of your favorite songs.” (Since it was an era of censorship, I did not particularly worry about the students bringing in profane rhyming language.) I was trying to get the class in a poetic mood, but I had little clue as to what I should be doing.
At Mr. Codrescu’s question, a few students cautiously raised their hands. When called upon, they muttered that they liked poems with some cadence and rhyme and structure and humor. But mostly the students just stared at him with quizzical looks on their faces. His voice was so … so unusual.
If you have ever heard a Romanian accent, it is quite distinctive and memorable. Mr. Codrescu’s voice made him sound like a Count from Transylvania who “vanted to suck your blood,” or a real live Boris Badenov, from a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon.
“I tell you vhat: ve should go outside, no paper and pencils, and see vhat ve can discover.” Since it was a sunny spring day, Mr. Codrescu asked me to pick an ordinary place where each of the children could sit and look and imagine. We went outside of the classroom building, walked along the sidewalk, and sat on some steps in a stone courtyard. With its trimmed and tiered rows of yew hedges, the courtyard extended to some taller arborvitae, and statuesque Mediterranean Cypress. The dominant view straight ahead was of the topiary bushes and trees, but we also had a side view of playing fields and the athletic field house in the distance.
“Vhat do you see?” As the minutes ticked by … two, five minutes … the kids slowly began to speak up: “I see the color green.” “I see the stacked bricks and stone.” “I see the pointy topped trees, swaying in the wind.” “I see the heat from the sun rising from the flag stones.” “I see distant lacrosse fields and empty playgrounds.” “The pointy trees look like tall green witches hats to me.” “I hear the cicadas alright,” piped in one anonymous voice, for the insect drumming was quite loud. The children giggled.
“Good,” Mr. Codrescu said, “Now you are starting to see!” He asked me to write down what I heard the students say and to write them on the board tomorrow. And he explained how poets need to see and feel and hear and taste this sensory world in order to understand it and describe it to others. He encouraged the students to go outdoors often and to watch, listen, feel and interpret.
In the waning moments of the class period, I asked our visitor if he could explain the difference between poetry and prose. Mr. Codrescu offered: “It is really quite simple: poetry is shorter.” The kids laughed. Then he continued, “In poetry words are carefully chosen, as each one is important; they all have weight. Poetry is more free flowing and fun. And I love to hear it read out loud.” He went on to say that there were no rules in poetry and something about being a haven for anarchists, and then he said there was a lot more he could say, but that he had to get back to the Upper School for his ride back to the campus at Johns Hopkins. The period-ending bell rang and he walked back to the McDonogh Allen Building (Upper School) to meet his car ride.
It was the echo of his Romanian accent that lingered the longest.
The next day the children wrote down their words I had put on the board and a lot more. They all wanted to know when Mr. Codrescu was coming back. They said that once they got used to his accent, they liked it because it was soothing and distinctive. One student with Eastern European roots offered, “He sounds like a Gypsy from the Old Country.” The students in that class never forgot the words from our guest Gypsy, nor his radical lesson. He helped fracture the structure of the grammar-grind and to add some fun and color to English class in the month of May.
View from the Upper School
Part of his arrangement with McDonogh School was that Mr. Codrescu would get a lift from a designated driver. Two Upper School students were assigned the task of picking him up and chauffeuring him to and fro. Jonathan Drachman and David Pipes took turns with the driving. At the time Codrescu lived in a Bohemian Victorian in one of those old, leafy neighborhoods in Baltimore. They quickly learned that picking up their guest first meant finding him. As David Pipes reported, “We would have to go searching for him in the house, which was usually full of random, partially clothed people recovering from whatever excess the previous night had produced. No one really remarked on a high school kid wandering from room to room looking for Andrei. It was not exactly a commune, but more along the lines of a 19th century radical salon.”
“He usually had to be shaken awake, and it was imperative that his glasses be located before leaving, because
he always forgot them. Often he was still not entirely compos mentis. On the way out and back , he’d usually ramble on about politics.” Codrescu was involved in the Progressive Party movement in that era. The Progressives were trying to influence the Democrats in the upcoming elections. Codrescu would compare and contrast things he read with Romanian politics, or what he had witnessed in California and New York. He had an assortment of interesting positions on Marxism and capitalism, middle and upper class differences, and all the rest. Pipes and Drachman thought the ideas were fascinating.
Shortly after arriving at school Codrescu taught his class. At the end of the class period he took three or four of the students out of class, marched them down to the Upper School office and announced that he had special work he was conducting and he needed to take charge of the students. As Pipes recalls, “Students spend two or three class periods, or more, wandering around campus, listening to an oral history of the Beat movement, tales of his life, and having wide-ranging discussions on every imaginable topic that could possibly be related to creativity and the arts, as well as class struggle, Progressive issues and all sorts of other political ruminations.”
During his extended time with the Upper School students, one particular location became popular. Mr. Codrescu greatly admired the Tagart Chapel and wanted to know what was above the choir loft. The students escorted him to the chapel, up the stairs and into the bell tower spaces. “Ken Gallager had access to the Carillon, (which rang loudly every 15 minutes). We curved up the stairs, and of course there was the trap door to the space where the bells were. We clambered up the steps and caught the fantastic cross-campus view. We talked while trying to guess when the next automated bell sequence would strike. If we got it right, we’d be down in the room below when the bells peeled, but if we got caught up in discussions, the bells would start up and we’d all pall-mall down the ladder as fast as we could with a near-permanent ringing in our ears as the penalty if we were not down before the big bell rang. It was great fun. :-)”
Years later David Pipes reflected, “That time was a hugely formative experience for me, over a semester or so, and I still have no idea how he picked us out, but I’m thankful for it. … I don’t recall that he selected us for our
outstanding poetry or anything like that, since I was just average at the time. I think for Mr. Codrescu it was a unique experience too. He was teaching at Johns Hopkins, after all. The formal style of JHU and McDonogh must have frustrated him to a degree. I think we were something of an experiment, or a pressure relief valve, perhaps. He was free to teach us the way he was most comfortable. That’s how I like to think of it, anyway.”
Johns Hopkins University, Homewood Campus
View from JHU
Professor Codrescu may have offered the college students a different face than he did to the Middle School and High Schoolers in the day. However, with writers like John Barth on staff (The Sot Weed Factor and Lost in the Funhouse), the faculty members of the Johns Hopkins English Department were not afraid to divert from conformity. Besides, JHU’s motto translates, “the truth will set you free!” or words to that effect. David Pipes, who experienced the residential housing of students and adjunct professors, is confident the college students got more than McDonogh lads did on the anarchistic Beat movement. Professor Codrescu was a man of the times.
JHU Crest & Motto
While being chauffeured to McDonogh, Codrescu told Drachman and Pipes stories about his poetry readings before huge crowds during the Harvard University Strike. “He said he was hallucinating at the time and the result seemed to be his ‘poetry is the emperor’s clothes’ story.” Codrescu also commented on his conversations with Rod McKuen. Apparently, “some of the other Beats harassed Rod McKuen for years during his public readings. McKuen didn’t know who they were or what they wanted and he was incredibly frustrated” by their heckling.
Codrescu with Jerome Rothenberg in 1987 at the Poetry Project
Clearly Professor Codrescu’s views of poetry, education, and generational differences colored his willingness to speak out through his work. He has always been an insightful voyeur into our culture and students of all ages find themselves attracted to him, in person and in print. He is especially potent over the airwaves, because his message is shaped by his accent and intonation and language. The broadcast media helps to sprinkle his gems far and wide.
In the 1990’s I heard a familiar accent and voice on NPR. The radio announcer had said the program was being broadcast from a public radio station in Louisiana. I did a double take: could the voice be from the same poet who came to my middle school class to teach us poetry? The introduction said the author was the editor of The Exquisite Corpse in New Orleans. His voice brought back an immediate flood of memories and broken stereotypes. Mr. Codrescu’s accent and tone were full of the same fun feelings that he had infused in our poetry lesson that day in 1979.
Ironically McDonogh School was founded by a John McDonogh who had made his fortune in New Orleans. He was one of the wealthiest land owners in the US at the time of his death. In his will McDonogh provided cash for the founding of both the public school system in New Orleans and the “farm school for orphan boys in Baltimore.” The linkage to Louisiana seemed poignant and symmetrical.
Statue of John McDonogh, New Orleans / Portrait / McDonogh School, Maryland
Looking back, Mr. Codrescu’s words and outdoor lessons had been instructive and longstanding, as they gave feelings and magical expressiveness to my poetry unit. For the six years I taught Middle School, poetry became my favorite unit of the yearly curriculum, and the students always created some outstanding free-verse and rhyming poems. I typed up the student-selected best poems and gave them to the students in a stapled booklet. They proudly took them home, showing their parents and relatives their “PUBLISHED” writings. In turn, the 7th graders memorized and read the poems aloud to the lower and upper school students at McDonogh during the year-ending oratory contest.
About a decade after hearing that first NPR broadcast, when my own daughter was in the 7th grade, I volunteered to teach a poetry unit in her classes. The grammar-stressed teacher accepted the offer and seemed to enjoy the poetry lessons as much as the students. It became a great middle school ritual.
Thank you, Mr. Codrescu,
Henry E. Hooper
p.s. Having recently gotten back in touch with Mr. Codrescu, I requested and he granted me full permission to write this short story and share it on my WordPress Witness Posts. Thank you, thank you.