Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Blurb As Argument Platform II

Part One is here:

http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/2010/03/blurb-as-argument-platform.html

Part Two, Then 

What he wrote on the back of the book:

“With complete dedication and seriousness Michael Dickman has absorbed his influences and taught them to work hand in hand with his own unique genius to produce a style like no one else's, one as instantly recognizable as that of poetic masters such as Dickinson, Follain, and Simic. To me, he is one of the younger American poets who are hiddenly heralding the end of the randomness, the glib irony Rilke strenuously warned against, the gratuitous non sequiturs and obscurities for obscurity’s sake which have been fashionable in our poetry for the past couple of decades, and which make it so difficult to determine whether or not a poet has talent or anything significant to tell us. His work achieves all that is most valuable and most difficult in writing: simplicity, clarity, specificity, mystery, primal sincerity, and emotion as Pound used the term, that is, artistic allegiance to whatever is universally shared and unalterable over time in the human experience. With the utmost gravity as well as a kind of cosmic wit, Dickman gives a voice to the real life sorrows, horrors, and indomitable joys that bind together the vast human family.” —Franz Wright

My reaction to what he wrote:

The first sentence: “With complete dedication and seriousness Michael Dickman has absorbed his influences and taught them to work hand in hand with his own unique genius to produce a style like no one else's, one as instantly recognizable as that of poetic masters such as Dickinson, Follain, and Simic.”

OK, so first he writes that Dickman is like no one else, and then he names off three poets who are somewhat like him in their recognizability? (And it’s not just their recognizability he’s thinking of here, as he’s using poets recognized for a spare, open line, with whom Dickman has been compared in other places.) It’s not a terrible thing to say, but it has at least the tone of contradicting itself, which is a very common thing for a blurb (and for most reviews). First, say the author of the book is utterly original, and then name some poets that writer resembles. Ah, what sweet irony…

Speaking of irony, it’s the second sentence that I want to concentrate on. It’s an unnecessary straw-man argument over the back of a book:

“To me, he is one of the younger American poets who are hiddenly heralding the end of the randomness, the glib irony Rilke strenuously warned against, the gratuitous non sequiturs and obscurities for obscurity's sake which have been fashionable in our poetry for the past couple of decades, and which make it so difficult to determine whether or not a poet has talent or anything significant to tell us.”

I really can’t stress it enough how much this kind of thing irritates me. Why does Wright need to do it? Does he really need to make Dickman the poster-child for an argument with a segment of American poetry? Who are the friends he’s trying to win? Who are the enemies he’s trying to make?

An argument against many poets could be made, sure, but “glib irony” isn’t going to do it. We all make arguments all the time about what’s good and bad in poetry (I’m doing it right now). I’m not against Wright making an argument, just its location in a blurb on the back of a book, where there’s no room to make a real argument with support and examples. So it just sits there, a call to arms without saying who the enemy is, just a kind of wild “they’re out there and we know who they are” mistiness.

What I’m saying here is I understand Wright’s motivation to want to fight with a lot of poets, mostly younger, who he feels are going awry. In this, he joins a growing group of male poets (including Tony Hoagland, David Wojahn, and others) who seem to be making something of the same argument (I think) against (I think) the same younger poets. It’s an interesting sociological study. Is this just a boy thing? I wonder. When I do find examples about what’s wrong in American poetry (mostly from Hoagland), they are all (or nearly all) male. And now the corrective is also male. It’s fascinating.

And while I’m on the subject, why not list out these poets who’ve been writing for a couple decades with this “glib irony” thing? I’d be interested in that list. If Wright is going to make an argument, I wish he’d just make it, and not euphemism his way around it. If there’s going to be a fight, there should be a fight, but not in jacket blurbs.

Depending on what he’d say in return, I might possibly agree with him (OK, I’m sure I wouldn’t, but as I haven’t seen his list, I don’t know), but as it is, I strongly disagree, because I’m guessing he’s talking about all (assuming totality, which is, of course, absurd) the poets published by Verse/Wave, Fence, Action Books, Octopus, Black Ocean, Ahsahta, Letter Machine Editions, and many of the poets published everywhere else. That’s a pretty big net. Of course, he can’t mean all of them, so the accusation just kind of floats out there, swinging wildly.

But, even so, all those presses are fairly new still. Twenty years takes us all the way back to the end of the 80s, which is right about when what was called “Elliptical Poetry” started up. So is Wright blaming all this on Jorie Graham? Or was she one of the names? I get so confused by it all . . . which is precisely what happens in this kind of “blurb as argument” situation: since no one really knows who is being attacked, they just fill in whatever names they want. Some glib, ironic X. I consider it a useless argument, both hyper-aggressive and rather powerless.

So then, knowing that I like many of the books published by the above presses, I receive Dickman’s book as if hostile fire, and I didn’t need to receive it that way. The publisher should have never let the book go out without editing that blurb down.

Look how much nicer it could have been, for all concerned:

“Michael Dickman’s work achieves all that is most valuable and most difficult in writing: simplicity, clarity, specificity, mystery, primal sincerity, and emotion as Pound used the term, that is, artistic allegiance to whatever is universally shared and unalterable over time in the human experience. With the utmost gravity as well as a kind of cosmic wit, Dickman gives a voice to the real life sorrows, horrors, and indomitable joys that bind together the vast human family.” —Franz Wright

13 Comments:

At 3/28/2010 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's horrible, what envy does to the mind--I remember this well. Perhaps someday you too will have the dubious good fortune of gaining some attention: then you will have to read all about it in blogs by guys like yourself. My suggestion to all you blogshit fellows: spend more time working on your writing and less time writing public diaries. It doesn't do any good to anyone.FW

 
At 3/28/2010 6:19 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I was quite civil and even-handed in what I wrote. I stand by it as neither envious nor blogshitty. If you have a problem with it, refute it sensibly.

You can be such a better person than this.

 
At 3/29/2010 5:15 AM, Blogger Leslie said...

John,

I agree that blurbs are the wrong platform for the endless (and often tedious) territory marking in the po-biz. I've also noticed the white boy (and its supposed antidote) thing you mention. And I like your edited blurb much better than the original.

So a question, not exactly for you, but in general. I understand why we (the young authors) want/need blurbs--those official stamps of approval from our poetic elders, which, by the way mark and map merely in the selection of writer. I mean, isn't a lot of the argument implied by having, say, Robert Hass blurb your book as opposed to Lyn Emanuel or (just for example) John Ashbery?

But here is the puzzle. If you are a quote unquote senior writer, why blurb? What does it do for you? Some possible answers:

1. Empire building--this is the territory argument again, right? You or your press seeks out writers with whose work yours shares some aesthetic or intellectual preoccupation. So they blurb because they are flattered, interested, and want to support someone coming up from the minors and playing for the same team?

2. To be/seem relevant?

3. Because this one might be the next hot thing and you want to ride that popular pony for all it is worth and sell some of your own books by association?

4. You are a nice person wanting to help younger poets?

5. And this, I think is the one we all want to believe but which I suspect to be the rarest of all: because you genuinely think the young poet in question is the next Dickinson or Hopkins and you want to praise that which is praiseworthy?

I understand that blurbs exist at a crossroads of multiple purposes: for the press, they are a marketing tool, for the writer they are affirmation, for the reader they are a shorthand roadmap to the contents. But for the blurb writer, what are they?

 
At 3/29/2010 7:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Leslie,

Those are great questions to ask. Some people are putting together a survey on the subject of blurbs, and I'll forward this to them.

For myself, I've no idea why senior poets (or established poets) write blurbs. My guess is that they write them because they are asked.

Now, why they write what they write when they write the blurb, that's a different question. For Wright and for Wojahn (he's the one who wrote the blurb I talked about last week) it seems they wrote these blurbs toward correcting a fault they are finding in the art, and the book they are looking at gives them the opportunity to grind away a bit. To make it become a manifesto moment.

 
At 3/29/2010 2:34 PM, Blogger Steve Fellner said...

Dear FW,

How can he be envious? He's got Ashberry.

 
At 3/30/2010 7:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Steve,

Depends on one's definition of "got".

"Envy" is such a strong word. There are many poems I wish I'd've written. You know? We all feel that way, I'm betting.

But to call it envy, that makes it all creepy. I prefer the Russian formulation of, I believe, "White Envy" I think, where one is envious, yes, but in a clean, friendly way. Not the dark, identity theft way.

 
At 4/01/2010 8:58 AM, Blogger Johannes said...

John,

I think it's good to engage with blurbs. They serve a function - or should serve a function. and they should be open to criticism.

Johannes

 
At 4/01/2010 9:45 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It's just this "They serve a function - or should serve a function" aspect that I've been talking with some people about this week.

What blurbs do, what they should do... for the author, the press, the reader, and the one writing the blurb. What is at stake for each, where and how can things go well, and where they often go awry.

In the short term it's going to be an AWP panel proposal. But then, after that, possibly something else. Maybe just more blog posts...

 
At 4/02/2010 9:13 PM, Blogger Steven Fama said...

Yeah, I like this too. I think blurbs ought get the going over, why not?

 
At 5/05/2010 2:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Empire building." Do you realize how your generations has bought into the vocabulary of stark naked capitalism and/or crude popular culture? After the ubiquity of the MFA programs was accomplished, and the bar was so lowered that per year maybe hundreds or thousands of pieces of paper (if you paid your tuition, or were a good low-level instructor slave)are issued stating that somebody in his or her mid twenties is now a MASTER of the art of poetry. Then you get the insane self-consciousness of theinternet going, and put it all together and you get a couple or few generations of themost abject mediocrity, not in thought--anyone can blabber intellectually--but in the art of the poem which is made of out solitary silent meditation, made out of everything that is the opposite of what you kids daily invest so muchimportance in. You poor dupes. One of your generations will produce a reaction, a generation of children who will rebel against your constant need to check in with each other on your computers to make sure you aren't missing out on anything, and who will withdraw back into the desert from which real art comes. You all are lost. I see what the best of you have produced, and compared to the American poetry, arguably the best inthe world, that was produced pre-MFA ubiquity --that is, before the late seventies--you don't make good toilet paper. You can still choose, those of you who are young enough. You can turn away from the writing programs, the blogs, all the self-conscious ways to destroy the silent solitary spirit of lyric poetry. Maybe. I doubt it. But there may be one or two of you out there with the balls to do it. And by the way, any blurb I have written has generally been for younger poets I feel are doing just that, and whose work I admire, and whose future I have hope for. There are thousands of people now inthis country who actually call themselves poets--that astounds me. How many poets do you think even the greatest literary periods in history produced? FW

 
At 5/11/2010 7:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

As the above comment by FW is rather large, I thought it best to respond with a proper post, which I now have.

 
At 5/20/2010 2:30 PM, OpenID Terry said...

In response to the first criticism of your blog, I think that you have misread the sentence;FW does not say that Dickman's unique genius itself is similar to the other three but rather that it is uniquely individual on an abstract rather than a particular level. Grammatically, the sentence indicates that such is the case so the sentence itself does not contain any contradictory information. To say that four people have a unique style is not the same as asserting that they have the same style.

 
At 5/20/2010 3:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Terry,

Granted, but that's part of my question. First, these three ARE poets that Dickman has been compared to in his style (well, I've not heard Follain, but I have the other two - for whatever reason). Second, to say he's as instantly recognizable as "Dickinson, Follain, and Simic" is to make me wonderful why choose them at all? Aren't ALL genius poets instatly recognizable? What of William Carlos Williams? Robert Frost? Sylvia Plath? They're also just as instantly recognizable.

It's still an odd thing to say. There's a reason to say these three names and not others. He could have said Bukowski and Whitman and Kay Ryan, but he didn't. He could have said Ashbery and Armantrout, etc. He's using these names to position the poet while pretending not to. He's saying "think of these three poets when reading this book" while telling us not to. It's a version of the classic "don't think of a dog barking."

But, yes, you are correct.

 

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