Sunday, September 07, 2008

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."


At 9/07/2008 10:18 AM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 9/07/2008 10:31 AM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

Your explication of the Skloot book blurb is a great example of "a thing that keeps me coming back to your blog." Well done.

At 9/07/2008 11:04 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey thanks, Paul. I appreciate that. Now I wonder what the person before you wrote and then deleted!

At 9/07/2008 2:12 PM, Anonymous summer girl said...

I can see why you'd have so much to criticize about others' blurbs, seeing as you have written SO MANY yourself. Why, you're such an important poet that you're probably asked to blurb books several times EVERY DAY.

At 9/07/2008 2:31 PM, Anonymous Ron Slate said...

I'll be the voice of dissent .. and say this quacking over the nature of blurbs wasn't worth your time ... Everyone knows they're superficial, innocuous, and not to be trusted as indicators of what's between the covers ... As for the Skloot book, it's one of the strongest volumes of essays to come out this year, blubs or no blurbs ... So, I'm presuming there won't be any blurbs on your next book, or perhaps you'll personally vet them for accuracy?

At 9/07/2008 2:34 PM, Anonymous Ron Slate said...

Now I see you had referred to Skloot's new book of poems (he's also got a new book of essays, THE WINK OF THE ZENITH) -- and it, too, is great work.

At 9/07/2008 2:53 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Summer Girl,

I did write one blurb once last year. In it, I tried to be descriptive. I might have done a poor job. I hope not. But what I don't understand is your sarcasm. What did I write that upset you so much? Whatever it is, I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to upset anyone. I'm just wondering about the hyperbole and overt positioning that goes on on the backs of books.

I also have no pretensions to being an important poet. You can trust me on that.


I haven't read the Skloot book, and I was hoping I made that clear. It seems I haven't. but if you read down a bit, you'll see I did say it might well be a good book, or even a great book, of poems. It wasn't Skloot's poems I was thinking about. What I'm interested in the the nature of the text on the back of books.

I could have used other examples, perhaps from some book you dislike, that say similar things. Right now I wish I had.

At 9/07/2008 3:14 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Ron (Take 2!),

As for your calling me out on blurbs on some possible book of my own in the future; indeed, that is a hard call. The problem is, must we live in a dichotomy? Either we say YES to all blurbs or NO?

I think that it's ok to talk about these things, as they are the very first things one sees when picking up a book (well, if one turns it over before opening it). But I am curious that if one is to say "they're superficial, innocuous, and not to be trusted as indicators of what's between the covers," why they're there at all. It seems to me that sometimes, as in the two cases I mention here, they might possibly do more harm than good.

At 9/07/2008 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the fun post, much of what I agree with.

But I would like to offer an alternative as to why some people may want blurbs.

I don't know too many poets or publishers think at all that a blurb is going to increase sales, esp. since most blurbs are achieved through personal contacts and/or relationships with teachers or mentors.

The reason why I wanted blurbs is that I knew very, very few people would read my book, and I thought that asking a poet I respected (and did not know personally) would put the book in someone's hands who I respected. Did I expect the poets who I asked to do something other than offer me a blurb possibly? Not really. Most poets have a lot of friends who they're already doing things for. Why would they do anything extra for a stranger, other than what I wanted a blurb and validation in writing and yes something for me to look at to make me feel legitimate.

In a lot of circles, that's a weak thing and probably a silly thing. But I am weak and silly and I like that some of the people I asked did read my book and had something nice to say esp. considering a good number of poets didn't give me a blurb and didn't have anything to say. It was a fun game to see what would happen, which is sort of like writing a poem.

Steve Fellner

At 9/08/2008 7:55 AM, Blogger ljs said...

John, thanks for posting, and I don't think you're quacking, as much as I'd like to see you do an impression of a gaggle of ducks, maybe at next AWP.

My question is, anyone know when blurbs started to become so universal? I think they've become so expected, whether they're a good or bad thing, that it's become difficult to really think about what they're doing and why - and I like the fact that you're trying to do that here, John.

What was it like before blurbs? How first "invented" or introduced them? I wonder what the first book of poetry with a back or front cover blurb was...

At 9/08/2008 7:59 AM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

Hello again. In the (my deleted) first post, I originally had mis-spelled "Skloot." I would have let it go but it's a name. I'm just that way when it comes to names.

I think it is good to talk blurbs, as well as anything else in poetry/context of poetry. I have not blurbed but I have asked for blurbs. They came back fantastic, in the spirit of the game of the chapbook and of poetry, little celebrations that felt good, if for no one else but me and the publisher and the blurbers. One person refused, saying he/she felt like Merv Griffin. Fair enough.

But it is such an artifice that I can't help think, "how is it we continue doing this thing as a group when we know it is shallow, 'innocuous,' etc"? If a blurb isn't as important as clipping your toenails, then why do we compel them into the world?

Steve's point is a good one, and we, yeah, you and me, Steve, are weak and silly sometimes. I look at blurbs. I sometimes chuckle. I sometimes think, "geez." I sometimes re-read a blurb in a Donald Duck voice. I sometimes quack about it.

At 9/08/2008 9:17 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

I'm another poet in Steve's boat - my first chapbook was published in a very limited edition, only 200 copies. Sure, it was letterpress, beautifully done, but I knew I'd only reach so many people with it. Top that off with the fact that it was bilingual, and I'd really cut down my audience, not just for reading in general, but for reviews.

It's the reviews that I want to key in on here. Sending gratis copies out to journals was nearly a waste of time. There was a wonderful (wonderful) 1200-word review in Borderlands and a shorter one in Gulf Coast, but really, how many places will give space to a chapbook, let alone one that isn't all in English? So I started sending out copies to people I considered important and/or relevant to the style and subject matter, asking them for blurbs in case a second edition were ever printed. The blurbs themselves become secondary, for the new poet, to establishing or feeling out relationships with more established writers.

Similarly, the blurb system becomes a way to track who knows whom, who will support whom. In short, it's a taxonomy of the power structure. I'm not talking about the foetic illuminati version of the pobiz power structure, but the general sense that certain poets help each other out. Blurbs are one more way (a more direct method than, say, who is published in which journals and perhaps on par with who is published by which presses) to know where the circles are, where they overlap.

Personally, I miss the long intro that explains to some degree what the reader ought to expect. It's got more style than the blurb.

and to a lesser extent


At 9/08/2008 1:24 PM, Blogger Matt said...

First of all, I should begin by mentioning that I am a fairly recent reader of this blog, and this is my very first post to "NtS&SI."

However, the way in which I was to discover this very site seems relevant to this matter of blurbing, for I arrived here after reading John's April pick of Wallace Stevens for Poetry Daily's poem-of-the-day. I myself run a celebration of 'all things poesy' during April (Poetry Month) on Facebook among a small group of friends, and when I read John's review and introduction to "Earthly Anecdote," I figured we shared a similar enough taste that I should delve a bit deeper.

So after purchasing "The Little Book of Guesses," and the subsequent months of enjoying theses musings on music and poetry, I am here as proof to say that Blurbs as we know them cannot be completely bad!

Having said all this, I guess that I am not being entirely accurate. What exactly is a "blurb"? If the OED doesn't have an entry, it does not exist, right?

Of course, I joke. I kid. Yet this brings up an interesting point: shouldn't we go ahead and make a distinction between "blurbing" and "advanced praise"(what John has called "testimonials")

This seems to be an issue of semantics that segregates many of us that enjoy the frequent poetic "advanced praise" by a contrast to the much despised maudlin "blurb" by an anonymous critic representing a larger Newspaper/Book Review.

Now of course, I am aware that too often poets cannot avoid the intrinsic nepotism that abounds (I would love, for just once, to see Tony Hoagland flat-out oppose a Dean Young chapbook...or vice-versa!!), for such endorsement these days are almost outright expected.

But, John, I do find the very practice of reading blurbs enjoyable, if not for the very means of gaining insight into an unknown (to me) poet or simply to revel in the beauty of an interesting "testimonial."

For instance, I recently happened upon a fun little book of short stories entitled "Dogwalker" by Arthur Bradford after glancing upon a David Foster Wallace's blurb, stating: "Here's a book that's like being able to have lunch with the part of you that dreams at night"
(*I should mention, in footnote form, that I am by no means a DFW fan, haha!)

So they say you shouldn't "judge a book by its cover"...but might we "by its blurb"?

This reminds me of a similar practice that I have noticed, and I will end here, or might never at all...and that is the notion of "Poetry Magazine" running a quotation of its back cover.

They seem to be growing more and more outlandish as the months pass (It's getting to the point that it seems "Letters to the Editor" outright aim at this objective).

Anyone else notice this occurrence?

At 9/08/2008 5:05 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Blurbs! Maybe I love them after all. At least I do agree that when they say things that aren't absurd, they do show family ties, as in: this book has testimonials from David Antin and Cole Swensen, I bet I will like it. (That book was Rae Armantrout's Next Life which I already was pretty sure I was going to like anyway, as she's been a favorite of mine for a long time, but that's beside the point.)

And I like the straight to value of something like the blurb on the back of Michael Palmer's new book of essays: "A magnificent poet." - The New York Times Book Review

What bothers me is what bothers so many people. I've been hearing for years the jokes we make about the wacky things said in many publisher's texts or poet testimonials. So it's not the fact of the blurb, but the blurbiness of the blurb. And boy there are some whoppers out there.

I agree with you, Matt (and thank you for your generosity). Actually, if I look back over my own blog, I see that every time I've written something about a new book, it could be considered a "blurb" of sorts. And I participate in the world of talking about books of poetry and writing things . . . but, even with that, I honestly do wonder why some people who write blurbs get themselves into such a lather of either, in the case of the Skloot book, denuding the book by reducing all the possible moves the poet could make, or in the case of the Bermann, to praise it by talking bad about every other book published.

And don't get me back on those overused "this book is brave" and such moves that so many bend toward so as to render the term meaningless.

I really should stop going on and on, quacking like this, but, as we took our solemn poet oaths to cleanse the language for the future, and then put them out there, it seems we should take some care in its packaging.

At 9/09/2008 8:55 PM, Anonymous Louise Mathias said...

Man, SG is having a bad day, apparently. Or just wrote a blurb. Or just asked for one?

I have mixed feelings about them myself. One comment I would make about the Billy Collin/Berman thing is that although I can't remember when the Berman book was published, it may have been before Billy Collins was as "famous" as he is now. At one point, he was *almost* considered cool. Or at least not as over exposed. Or something.

The blurbs I have the most trouble with are the luke-warm ones, where you can just tell the person asked someone because they had to, and the person just wrote it because they felt they had to. The blurbs I like best are the one's that somehow DO tell me something about the content of the book and whether it sounds like I would like it or not, in which case I'm typically able to disregard the name of whoever wrote it. I also think it's important to remember that people often do really poetry that falls out of their personal aesthetic.

Interesting discussion though...

And some people DO refuse to have them-- Geoffrey O'Brien comes to mind. And I kinda respect that.

Ultimately I think it's important to not be a blurb "slut".


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