Andrei Codrescu’s New and Selected Poems, reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

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The Los Angeles Review of Books has put up a special feature on Andrei Codrescu, which includes an interview, a sampling of poems, and a sharp review of his career-spanning new book, So Recently Rent a World : New and Selected Poems: 1968-2012by Marjorie Perloff.

Although Codrescu is probably best known for his wry and irreverent commentaries for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” he is an accomplished and prolific poet who began his career firmly within the orbit of the second-generation New York School.

Codrescu was born in Romania but left in the late 1960s at the age of 19 to escape the deprivations of Communist rule.  He quickly fell under the spell of the New York School of poets and became a fixture at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s, which he referred to as “the literary heart of the lower east side, which was the number one Bohemia in the world in 1968.”*

Upon arriving in New York, Codrescu was actually involved in one of the stranger incidents in New York School lore.  In 1968, Kenneth Koch was giving a reading at the Poetry Project when a man suddenly appeared near the podium and fired two shots from a pistol at Koch.  Primed for the worst in those tumultuous days of social unrest and assassinations, both Koch and the audience were terrified for a moment, but it quickly became apparent that the gunshots were only blanks.  It was actually a prank staged by a young activist poet, Allen van Newkirk, and his friends (who seem to have been protesting the recent arrest and sentencing of Amiri Baraka on a weapons charge).  After the “shooting,” Newkirk joined a young man in the back of the hall who was handing out leaflets — it was the young Andrei Codrescu, only recently arrived in the United States.**

Codrescu established important, long-lasting friendships with leading figures in the New York School’s second generation, including Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Anselm Hollo.  He also, for a time, joined the exodus of young poets to Bolinas, California, the New York School’s west coast outpost in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He later remarked in an interview: 

I was only nineteen when I left Romania and only spoke Romanian. In Romania we speak in very literal terms. When I came to America I went to the New York School of Poetry, where they taught me how to look at things like toasters. Where I was from in Romania we were poor and didn’t have the material things we do here in America.

Perloff calls this new gathering of Codrescu’s work an “impressive collection.”  She praises Codrescu’s vibrant, funny poetry and stresses its variety.  Rather than sticking to any one particular mode, “Codrescu prefers to break all rules, his own included, and let the chips fall where they may,” she writes.  “Like the seasoned magician he is, Codrescu always has a new card up his sleeve.”

Although he absorbed Surrealism, Dada, the Beat aesthetic, and the New York School’s bag of tricks, Codrescu’s distinctive, playful, and iconoclastic work has always gone its own way.  As Perloff notes, “The surrealist strain never quite disappears from the lyric of this exile poet — a poet who has learned early on that one must speak in code if one is to survive.”

As the LA Review of Books notes in the introduction to its Codrescu feature, this new collection is just the latest in a welcome storm of activity for Codrescu in recent years:

Codrescu retired from Louisiana State University in 2009. Since then he has published a book every year and has been more active than ever; rarely has retirement been more rejuvenating. Codrescu is now taking a fresh look at old topics and bringing new life into some of his literary obsessions. He is also taking a keen interest in philosophy and religion and, in general, is toying with immortality.

Codrescu’s work stands as a distinctive chapter in the story of the New York School, and contemporary American poetry more broadly, and it’s great to have a collection that brings together his whole body of poetry.

* This quote appears in the entry on Codrescu in Encyclopedia of the New York School Poets, edited by Terence Diggory.

** For one account of this incident, see Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s.

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