"Yes, poets are buried in Paris to make it easier for tourists. Poets are one big family. Anyway, at each grave this man took pictures. A couple of years later when he was found shot dead in the small apartment he kept secretly in lower Manhattan, the police detective in charge of the case, Detective Emma Flores, took pictures of these photographs of the poets' graves, framed along the walls. She believed that there was a connection. Frustrated by what she believed was her ignorance of poetry, she enrolled at the New School and took a beginner class in Writing Poetry with poet and teacher Sharon Mesmer. You would be right to ask, 'Did she solve the case?'"
Nobody said anything.
"The answer is no. Professor Mesmer's method of writing poetry at that time, in the early years of the twenty-first century, consisted of entering a number of blog postings into a Googlator, a program that mixes up words in strange combinations and returns them to you in novel forms''
"I thought that this was supposed to be a poetry class," said a disaffected voice from the back, with hair hanging over the mouth, a voice, I instantly thought, destined for greatness. It exuded intelligence from under all that hair, like an animal's breath on a frosty morning.
"You must speak clearly in this class. You must enunciate. What did you say?"
"There is a novel writing class," he enunciated.
"Yes, you could have taken that and yes, it's true, there are novel forms in which to write novels, but when I speak of novel forms, I generally mean them to apply to poetry because poetry generates novel forms more quickly and more easily than novels, which are long. What is your name?"
Matthew Borden, as I immediately found out by googling his family tree on my desktop computer, was the grandchild of the founder of the famous milk empire. For many years I'd seen his gleaming family trucks hurtling milk on the highways.
"Matt, your family business is pretty poetic. Do they approve of your interest in poetry?" I had no idea if Matthew was interested in poetry—maybe he was in it just for his English requirement—but I saw bursting udders on frosty mornings being milked by 4-H beauty queens and I became momentarily lost. I knew that machines did the milking now, and then there were details like penned animals and hormones, but there you have it. Poetry.
Matt said, "My side of the family is pretty artistic. We have a farm of super-cows, more like a showcase for kids. The animals live in heated stalls that are better than some public housing. Their names and genetic history are carved on wood over each stall. Some of them even have small televisions for entertainment. The best of them eat apples that are hand-fed to them by German-speaking Wisconsin high school girls."
He couldn't have enunciated more clearly. The face that was hidden before came out of its hairy nest, looking consumptive. He was not a mumbler, but had widespread eczema, covering both cheeks. His eyes flashed. "There are some poets in the Borden family!"
"Lizzie?" asked Bennigan.
Matt Borden grinned. "My grandmother was a personal friend of Queen Marie of Romania. They exchanged poetry."
I had to admit it. I'd been out-googled. This kid knew not only that I was from Romania, but that Queen Marie, his grandmother's friend, wrote verses in the 1920s and made many friends in America, including a lumber baron in Washington in whose castle she spent the night, leaving in the morning for the next stop on her triumphal train tour. The baron transformed the castle into a museum dedicated to her memory. It was the most touching one-night stand in the history of poetry.
I asked him if he possessed any of his grandmother's poems and whether he might read some in class.
Matt Borden shook his head sadly. "Her poetry was buried with her in the grave in North Dakota. She left in her will that all her books had to be buried in bookcases around her tomb. She only published one book and she has that with her inside the sculpture."
"Yeah, well, it's a story. The family had to import a French sculptor, originally she wanted Rodin, but he was already dead, to make a life-size bronze of Diana the Huntress in my grandma's likeness. She was buried standing inside of it..."
I was astonished, and the class was nervously fingering earbuds, doodling in their open notebooks, shifting in their seats, etc. I didn't blame them. It was a wacky story. I knew it was true because Queen Marie'd been a flapper, friend of Isadora Duncan and Rodin, among others. If the Queen and the Borden woman had palled about in Paris in the 1920s, they'd have surely posed naked before Rodin at one time or another.
"And the statue of Diana, the grave, stands in the family cemetery bearing a poetic inscription? What does it say?"
"Well, actually, no. Grandma died in the Eighties when they removed a bunch of intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Dakotas because of the SALT Treaty, and she bought a decommissioned nuclear silo. It's thirty stories deep. She stands in the center of what used to be the control room on the bottom."
I didn't quite understand. If she was buried in the family cemetery, how could she be resting in a decommissioned silo ... unless ...?
Matt guessed my unspoken question. "Yeah. She also left in her will that the family cemetery had to be moved into the silo. Now we are all on different levels, buried into the walls between bookshelves. The place is pretty big, there is a lot more room. All of us have spaces in there already, me too, with my birthdate engraved, because I'm not dead."
THE POETRY LESSON
The Poetry Lesson is a hilarious account of the first day of a creative writing course taught by a "typical fin-de-siècle salaried beatnik"—one with an antic imagination, an outsized personality and libido, and an endless store of entertaining literary anecdotes, reliable or otherwise. Neither a novel nor a memoir but mimicking aspects of each, The Poetry Lesson is pure Andrei Codrescu: irreverent, unconventional, brilliant, and always funny. Codrescu takes readers into the strange classroom and even stranger mind of a poet and English professor on the eve of retirement as he begins to teach his final semester of Intro to Poetry Writing. As he introduces his students to THE TOOLS OF POETRY (a list that includes a goatskin dream notebook, hypnosis, and cable TV) and THE TEN MUSES OF POETRY (mishearing, misunderstanding, mistranslating . . . ), and assigns each of them a tutelary "Ghost-Companion" poet, the teacher recalls wild tales from his coming of age as a poet in the 1960s and 1970s, even as he speculates about the lives and poetic and sexual potential of his twenty-first-century students. From arguing that Allen Ginsberg wasn't actually gay to telling about the time William Burroughs's funeral procession stopped at McDonald's, The Poetry Lesson is a thoroughly entertaining portrait of an inimitable poet, teacher, and storyteller.
ANDREI CODRESCU is an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, and NPR commentator. He edits the online journal Exquisite Corpse and taught literature and creative writing at Louisiana State University for twenty-five years before retiring in 2009 as the MacCurdv Distinguished Professor of English. His recent work includes The Posthuman Dada Guide (Princeton) and Jealous Witness: Poems.