Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which means that the whole dreary spectacle of the end-of-year holidays is upon us. The holidays depress me; they make me sad, misanthropic, despairing. No, I don't want to talk about it. Go away.
Blurbs are a unique genre, part advertising copy and part prose poem. In the case of slim volumes of contemporary verse, mostly prose poem, and often with only a tenuous apparent relation to what's inside the book. Back when I took the TLS, I used to enjoy the feature where the anonymous editor "JC" would skewer nonsensical back cover copy, usually for interesting volumes of contemporary American poetry. With forthright English commonsensicality, he would emit hoots of derision at some tangled and impossibly abstract mare's-nest of praise, which typically gave a reader no idea whatsoever of what they might expect from the book itself. Alas, I saw any number of my friends and colleagues fall under JC's derisive gaze.

But then again, one doesn't read a blurb to learn about what's inside the book. The blurb is rather a stamp of certification: "The book by aspirant poet X has been read by established poet Z, who by taking the time to produce this blurb – 30 minutes reading the book, 5 minutes on the blurb itself – signals that you ought to read it too." After all, it's not what the blurb says that we pay attention to: it's the very fact that Poet Z has written it.

(Note, gentle reader, how misanthropic and cynical this very post grows... it must be the holiday season.)

Blurbs come in two general types: solicited blurbs and "mined" blurbs. The former are descriptive or promotional statements that the publisher has asked a blurbist to write especially for this book; the latter are bits of language yanked out of other contexts and refunctioned to serve as jacket copy, much as the movie ads quote bits of reviews (generally, the good bits; tho the editing is sometimes unintentionally funny: I recall a poster for Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, a highly unsexy but visually dazzling fantasia on The Tempest, which quoted Playboy magazine: "More nudity than any film this season," or something of the sort.) Academic publishers generally mine at least some of their blurbs from the readers' reports that persuaded them to publish the book in the first place. That's how I've ended up "writing" blurbs for a few scholarly books. Occasionally, poetry publishers will extract a few sentences out of a previously published review for jacket copy. (The cheeky New Directions quoted me on the back of one of Will Alexander's book, without even telling me; fine, but it would have been nice to send me a copy.)

Anyway, this week's mail brought me two new books that I'm mighty awful proud to have contributed blurbs to, and you can tell me whether they meet the JC test for incomprehensible meaninglessness. I shan't blog these books, but needless to say, I think they're both great; you should buy them right away:
John Peck, Contradance (U of Chicago)

John Peck is unique among contemporary American poets for the burnished, intricate density of his thought and the rugged, even gnarled lyricism of his lines. The ghosts of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Avedon, Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Melville, and a host of others stalk gravely through the steps of Peck’s Contradance, their spectral presences a ghostly counterpoint to the poet’s preternatural awareness of the buzzy, blooming confusion of the present moment: "Life is not a thing / that we have, it is being seeking employment."

Alan Halsey, Even if only out of

One of the 5 or 6 poets whose work I'll buy immediately on sight, no questions asked, without bothering to open the book or read the blurbs. Halsey's poems – and they come in such variety, from very straightforward, personal-voice addresses to the most recondite word salads – are like a dense portable anthology from a rich & complex literary canon that simultaneously overlaps with but is fundamentally shifted or twisted from the recognizable "canon."

1 comment:

J. A. Giardini said...

Of course, reading the blurb you provided for the Halsey book, one has to ask: who are the other 4 or 5 poets?