Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Blurb as Argument Platform

Yesterday I saw a blurb on the back of a book of poetry that, in praising the book at hand, leveled a charge to the rest of (or “most” of) American poetry. I’m always intrigued by blurbs that do such things. The most common is a version of “this poet is one of the best poets of the generation” thing, which we’ve all learned to just kind of tune out and go on.

But this one was of a different order, as it leveled a direct charge at pretty much the whole of American poetry. I’m having to edit it a bit, as I don’t want to name the book, because I don’t have an argument with the book itself, and I don’t want to name the writer of the blurb, for the same reason. What I’m interested in is the charge itself. Here it is:

“In [this] masterful … collection [the poet] is concerned, above all, with the ramifications of a new global culture that most American poets have thus far ignored and neglected, partly out of incomprehension, partly out of fear. By setting [himself or herself] against such timidity, [the poet] offers [his or her] most sustained and experimental reckoning with matters of cultural and social witness.”

It’s high praise, and perhaps this book is up for it, I don’t know, I haven’t read it yet. But the rest of the blurb, where the blurb writer chastises the rest of American poetry, has me wondering. Is it correct?

Homework Questions

1. Should all American poets have “the ramifications of a new global culture” as their direct subject matter?

2. If they don’t have “the ramifications of a new global culture” as their direct subject matter, is it because they find it partly “incomprehensible” and that they are partly “fearful”?

3. Are American poets “timid” in this respect (and by inference, timid in general)?

4. Are “the ramifications of a new global culture” the only way to reckon with “matters of cultural and social witness”?

There’s an argument going on in this blurb. So, then, what do you think of the issues raised? Is the blurb writer correct? Is it simply hyperbole? Should we ignore it? Well, then why is it there as the first blurb on the back of the book? The publisher must want is to read it and to take it seriously. Right? (Even if, by inference, most of the rest of that publisher's catalogue is part of the problem that this book is here to correct.)

I haven’t done a statistical analysis of American poets to be able to get to the specificity of what “most” means. I mean, who could really know what most American poets write without reading all the books by American poets, which is statistically impossible. But I feel intuitively that the blurb writer is wrong, especially with the “ignored” and “neglected” bit. In a lot of the poetry I read, I feel there IS an engagement with “the ramifications of a new global culture” going on all over the place. Perhaps there’s a specific way that the writer of the blurb thinks such things should be witnessed, that the writer doesn’t see going on. That could be true. But that’s not a lack of engagement, that a manner of engagement.

I want to open a new book of poetry either positively or neutrally, but not while thinking a blurb on the back is putting this book forward as a corrective to “most American poets.” I doubt that the author of the book would want that. It might be true that a lot of artists think that the rest of the artists don’t have a clue what’s going on, and therefore want to enter as The Voice, but few, I think, would want to have that written on the cover of their books. I mean, if it’s true what they say, that only poets read poetry, well, you’ve just kind of called most of your audience wimps and made fun of their shoes.


And then there’s, of course, the question of the role of poetry in general, as in question number one, above.


At 3/13/2010 7:11 AM, Anonymous Glen said...

This blurb is an example of why I do not read blurbs. Like the movie industry they serve only one purpose, to praise the product and to get the opinion-writer noticed as well. (Scratch my back, I will scratch yours.)

In this case I do take serious issue with his/her wording. The problems the author comments about should be addressed to the publishing industry who are in control of the content presented and not the poets themselves.

Not that I believe the coments presented in the blurb for that matter.

Honestly, I wish you mentioned the book's title and the blurb's writer... although it makes sense you wanted to place a distance between the two.

At 3/13/2010 8:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey Glen,

Blurbs are meant to assist a reader in encountering the work, which is such a subjective thing . . . but this one, yeah, it goes a little far.

A quick google search will get the book and blurb writer, but as I've criticized the one who wrote the blurb before, I'm not wanting to make it seem like I'm going after him or her. I'm trying to keep it just about this blurb and what it's saying about "most American poets."

At 3/13/2010 8:03 AM, Blogger vazambam said...

One could "nitpick" this blurb to Death and "most of us" [the poets] could justifiably argue that the nitpicker was not picking nits at all--simply showing "most of us" what a nitwit the blurb writer must be to have written it. Thanks, John.

At 3/13/2010 1:29 PM, Anonymous Glen said...

I found the book. Sigh. The second blurb isn't that much better:

"In fact, the collection's clarity is almost spiritual. [The book] names the names, walks the walk, and definitely talks the talk."

And he likewise is an established, noted poet. It is very depressing the manner in which people create such an "art" out of complimentary nonsense buzz words.

At 3/13/2010 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I LOVE blurbs! I think they're almost never of intellectual merit, but they're always interesting to me; branding, to me, is interesting: I'm not gonna lie, a Chanel dress makes me want to take a look in a way that a no-name ones likely doesn't. Man would I love to attend a Chanel runway show!!!!!!!!!!! Ok that's a touch off topic, apologies!

Adam Strauss

At 3/13/2010 1:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That is the kind of blurb I'd love to see on a book. I'd want to at least read a little of it, you know?

I get curious.

At 3/13/2010 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a tad confused: are you "saying" you'd love to see my blogbox comment as a blurb? If I read you correctly--thank you for the kind words!

Adam S

At 3/13/2010 2:50 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

A Little Black Dress is always in style. My daughter dressed up as Coco Chanel for her school "dress up as a famous person from the last century" day.

Chanel plays well here.

At 3/13/2010 3:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fabulous costume! I wonder what would happen if Karl Lagerfeld taught a poetry workshop!
Some studly flamer should dress up as him--oh that fabulous fan!

Adam S

At 3/17/2010 2:57 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

Do you have A. E. Stallings's "Hapax"? She wrote a poem for the back cover, an "Antiblurb."


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