Blurbs Blurps Blubs Blips & Blops
OK, so anyway, the blurb. The back of the book blurb, specifically. The sanctioned by the publisher (and poet?) blurb that helps (maybe?) the sales and understanding of the book. Right? The blurb is there to lay the ground that the reader will start out on when opening to the poems themselves.
Blurbs are really two things: the back-cover text from the publisher and testimonials.
First, the back-cover text, without a named author, that situates the book, often with words like “eagerly awaited” and “brave,” which seem to be there with the intent of causing a potential reader to question her or himself. Was I eagerly awaiting this book? Was everyone else and I just didn’t know? Yikes, I’d better buy it right now! Get on that band wagon! And then "brave," which gives one visions of the author running through gunfire to write the poems, or writing the poems in the face of death threats or threats of imprisonment. Right? So I say to myself, "I must buy this book! The poet was brave to write it!" But since that can't possibly be the case, I'm at a loss why any publisher would label a book of poetry "brave." I've seen it so often, there must be a reason that I'm missing. Will someone please help me?
What can one say about this sort of text? Has such text ever helped you want to buy or not buy a book? Here’s the kind of thing, for a more specific example, that makes me not want to read a book, for instance, taken at random from Poetry Daily:
The Snow's Music continues award-winning poet Floyd Skloot's lyrical and narrative explorations of memory, love, loss, and artistic expression. At once musical and precise, formal and fluid, Skloot's poems balance inner and outer vision, past and present experience, meditation and observation, humor and sadness. Skloot explores human resilience in the face of sudden change and radical shifts of perception that define creative endeavor when the world refuses to cohere.
Whether the author is recalling lessons learned as a young actor in the role of a Shakespearean clown, thinking about the painter Georges Braque reassembling himself after wartime head injuries, or imagining his volatile parents reunited in the afterlife following his mother's death at age ninety-six, Skloot's accessible poems move and delight, creating his most emotional and engaging work yet.
“The Snow's Music continues award-winning poet Floyd Skloot's lyrical and narrative explorations of memory, love, loss, and artistic expression”
At this point, I’m already not taken with the book. If it had been left with simply the title, I would have been interested. I like the idea of snow making music. But this sentence is telling me several things that don’t interest me. “Lyrical and narrative explorations” makes me think it’s going to be slightly elegiac with all the most resonant words telling the story of the speaker going about daily activities that one would expect, with all the reflections on “memory, love, loss, and artistic expression” that I could guess before opening the book. Am I right? I don’t know. I didn’t open the book. When I come across descriptions like “accessible poems move and delight, creating his most emotional and engaging work yet,” I can find little energy left to open the book.
“Accessible” is code these days for “not one of those ‘difficult’ poets that are ruining poetry.” It’s saying this book is safe. The “stories” inside will be readily digestible. “Move and delight” is code for a light formal quality (I expect occasional rhymes and meter? As the blurb does go on to say the important combinations of "musical" [it's going to have a bunch of descriptive language!] and "precise" [but it's going to make obvious sense!], "formal" [it's going to rhyme!] and "fluid" [but don't worry, the rhymes are going to be easy!]).
“…explores human resilience” make me think the book is going to have mawkish “true” stories of how the author’s mother overcame the hardships of the prairie while raising the author and the author's many brothers and sisters.
“…radical shifts of perception” almost wins me back. I like radical shifts of perception. The words “radical” and “perception” are always interesting to me. But for all the stuff above it, this would get me to open the book. Perhaps it would, if I were in a bookstore? Or on amazon, to click on the “excerpt” button? But then it gets buried in the rest of the sentence: “…that define creative endeavor when the world refuses to cohere.” Ho-hum. I was interested, but now I’m thinking the book is going to turn right back to conventional assessments about the individual trying to make sense of how complex the word is. Yes, the world is complex and seemingly incoherent. Does the world refuse to cohere? Well, the world is the world. Coherence is how a sensibility processes the world. If a world “refuses to cohere” it makes me think that this book is going to say something like “cities full of messy people = bad” and “my mother’s prairie farm = good.” If I’m right or wrong, I have no idea. I haven’t read the book. I’ve only read what the publisher wrote about the book.
All this is not meant as an assessment of Floyd Skloot’s poetry in general, or this book in particular. This book might be marvelous. I’ve no idea. I’ve only read the text on the back. And my point is this: what is this text for? What is it accomplishing? Are these good things? What do you think about publisher text on the back of a book, when so many assumptions can be made about it before one even opens to the first page? It reminds me of how often movie trailers ruin movies. You know what I mean?
And then comes the second, and more common idea of the blurb: the testimonial, like this one by Billy Collins that I was reminded of by Elisa Gabbert over at the pshares blog a few days ago:
David Berman possesses the most engrossing new poetic voice I have heard in many years of hard listening. When I first read him, I thought: so this is the voice I have been waiting so long to hear, a voice, I wish in some poems, were my own.
First off, I have this book, and I like it quite a lot, despite the blurb. If I had come across it in a bookstore, rather than having a friend (shout out to David Dodd Lee) recommend it, I doubt I would have picked it up. Why? Well, first off, I don’t care much at all for Billy Collins’ poetry, therefore I distrust his evaluation of the poetry of others. After reading the book, by the way, I’ve decided Collins is lying. If he really wished this voice, in some poems, were his own, he would try harder for the kinds of tones Berman pulls off. But, fibbing aside, there’s another problem here: the way blurbs often say bad things about every other book in the world. Is that really a good way to help a poet or a book of poems? To say things like “the most engrossing new poetic voice I have heard in many years of hard listening” is to say every other “new voice” published in many years is not engrossing. How many years is “many” I ask myself. Then I start doing the math. Well, let’s see, this book came out when, 1999. OK. Many years before that would have to be more than ten. So let’s just say twenty. So no new voices published since 1979 are engrossing. I’ll let you do your own math with some of your favorite poets to see what you think of this assessment. Jorie Graham springs to mind. Bin Ramke. Martha Ronk. Marie Howe? And all the other Howes?
These are the major problems I see with blurbs. But what are the good things they accomplish? Well, if one of my favorite poets (Ashbery, etc.) says something, anything, on the back of a book, I’m interested enough to open it. And, I suppose the above stuff about Skloot, if those things appeal to you, those things would get you to open the book? Maybe I’m talking in circles, but that’s what I do. I’m not very thesis-oriented these days.
I’ll end with this bit I ripped from SLATE this morning (there’s a lot to be irritated about with the article it comes from . . . the whole business of making a point about how bad “contemporary poetry” is in general is worse than irresponsible. But that’s for some other day. Here’s the link from Poetry Daily:
"The supremely difficult and delicate art of blurbing poetry:" Ron Rosenbaum sets out to blurb Keats and discovers an art form.
And here’s the non-irritating bit I’ll end with:
"Everyone engaged in publishing," Eliot wrote when he was an editor at the august London house Faber & Faber, "knows what a difficult art blurb-writing is; every publisher who is also an author considers this form of composition more arduous than any other that he practises. But nobody knows the utmost difficulty until he has to write blurbs for poetry: especially when some are to appear in the same catalogue. If you praise highly, the reviewer may devote a paragraph to ridiculing the publisher's pretensions; if you try understatement, the reviewer may remark that even the publisher doesn't seem to think much of this book: I have had both experiences."