This Old Poem #42:
Andrei Codrescu’s Still Life
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/21/02

  Andrei Codrescu is 1 of those terrible poets whose whole ‘brand name’ is dependent upon things with no real connection to poetry. In his case it has been his years of shilling his & others’ bad poems on National Public Radio- itself 1 of the least worthy causes a sane person can imagine. He also tries to do monologues, essays, travel journals, & prose fiction- both on NPR & in print. He fails at all these endeavors with such frequency you gotta wonder if he has something on someone. Case in point is his incredibly bad on- & offline magazine Exquisite Corpse- part surrealist wannabe, part pseudo-Beatnik- the magazine is a near-incoherent mishmash of literary dreck. Of course, this never stopped publishers from soliciting from such poetasters. In fact, the infamous (& now defunct) poetastry publisher Black Sparrow Press has long had AC as a client. The poem in question, in this essay comes from AC’s Alien Candor: Selected Poems, 1970-1995. I happened to meet AC, once, in the mid 1990s at the infamous Hungry Mind bookstore readings. He was shilling his really bad book on Elizabeth Bathory, The Blood Countess, [trust me, I’ve read it- take a pass!], when I asked him to comment on his poetry. I will give AC credit, though, as he unwittingly summed up his poetry vis-à-vis his prose: ‘I don’t pay as much attention to my poetry.’ A true critic could only comment that the insertion of the word any for as much would be more correct.
  The truth is that AC, as so many of his kind, is condescending, has no technical skills, relies on almost all clichés, has very hit & miss punctual rules, knows nothing of why enjambment works, & is-in short- an utterly lazy poet. The bio: 

  Born in Sibiu, Romania on December 20, 1946; emigrated to the United States in 1966; became U.S. citizen in 1981; poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter; columnist on National Public Radio; editor of Exquisite Corpse, a literary journal on line at; MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English, LSU
            Peabody Award for Road Scholar.
            Lowell Thomas Gold Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism
            National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships for poetry; editing; radio
            Big Table Poetry Award
            Towson State University Literature Prize
            General Electric Foundation Poetry Prize
            ACLU Freedom of Speech Award
            Mayor's Arts Award, New Orleans.
            Literature Prize of the Romanian Cultural Foundation, Bucharest


"One of our most prodigiously talented and magical writers."- Bruce Shlain, New York Times Book Review.

"His command of language is superb, his writing beautifully original, and his insights piercing."- Frances Taliafero, Harper's.

"The writing is a celebration, a festive song of gratitude."- Stephen Kessler, San Francisco Review of Books.
"With humor and grace, wisdom and tenderness, Codrescu transforms the commonplace into the miraculous. His work is cause for celebration."- Kay Boyle

  Here’s a tip you that you should know to avoid this poet’s work- when even the blurbists start quoting other blurbists. On to the highly original title of the poem we will dissect:

Still Life

At the end of the street stands
a little green house called

The young woman in the window is
giving piano lessons to a giant
flower in a smashed
flower pot

and, across the street, in the Chinese
grocery store,
the tiny chinaman arranges
roots, powders and cans in patterns
defying description

as, suddenly, the girl kicks
her legs in the air and turns
her face so that we can see her
and she’s surprised and gentle and there is
light in her, she is in love

  Why the title? It is meant to reference a type of painting but the poem does not play this out, nor does it work in any of the other ‘definitive’ meanings 1 could cull from the words. Stanza 1- no music, line 2 is poorly broken, & line 3 is a cliché that is emphasized by capitalization- why? Stanza 2- line 1 is poorly broken- the word ‘is’ has no existential heft in this context- why not reverse window & woman? Line 2 is banal & line 3 poorly broken in to line 4, whose image is both expected & redundant. What other sorts of pots are flowers seen in than flower pots? Stanza 3- the break at ‘Chinese’ could suggest something inside a Chinese person, but the break reveals it is but an adjective- bad bad break! Then why the outmoded racist term of ‘chinaman’? This is not used in any salutary nor educational way? Even if an early AC poem you think he’d have changed it, especially since there is no artistic reason for it. Then line 4- why not add a comma after ‘powders’? Commas act as de facto eliders in longer strings of things- be they actions or descriptions. Too few poets know how vital good punctual usage can be! Stanza 4 is a travesty- sappy, expected, clichéd, & poorly worded & constructed. Do you not want to shake your head at this poem & tell AC to come back when he has something even marginally original to say? How does a poem this condescendingly bad & poorly written get published? Is there anything here that makes you go ‘Ah! I never thought of that before!’? No. Let’s rewrite this & improve it- or try to:

Still: Life

At the end of the street
a little green house:

The young window in the woman,

across the street, in the Chinese grocery store,
roots, powders, and cans in patterns,

suddenly, turns
her face and she’s surprised.
There is in her,
she is in her.

  Let’s see what I did to improve this & what limits I could not go beyond. The title: the mere addition of a colon (:) opens up the whole title for the interpretations of quietude, the passage of things, etc. that the banal original lacked. 1 fuckin’ punctuation mark! Stanza 1 has dropped the clichés & we get a simple description. The 2nd added colon then makes the rest of the poem either a subset of this image, or an explication of it. You choose. Stanza 2 is 1 line & more directly apropos to the poem’s theme. We now get the idea of penetration through & by the woman. Stanza 3 lets us see what she sees, or what is within. By stanza 4 we see the value of commas. The added comma after stanza 2’s ‘woman’, & that at the end of stanza 3’s ‘patterns’, allows for the elision of the whole 3rd stanza- thereby allowing the ‘window in the woman’ to turn suddenly. Is she now looking in or out? Is there a conflation of the outer with the inner, or vice versa? It can be read either way. This sort of duplicity is essential to good poetry. Not too mention well-constructed poetry being a key, as well.
  Would that AC & his ilk understand these things. Then, again, TOP would have no rationale. So, keep on keepin’ on, ye poetasters of the world: I need to sharpen my blades on something!

Final Score: (1-100):

Andrei Codrescu’s Still Life: 45
TOP’s Still: Life: 72

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