The Sound of One Wing Flapping:
The Art Of The Poetry Blurb

How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem,
Part VI



Essay #1: "On The Prosing of Poetry"
Essay #2: "I=N=C=O=H=E=R=E=N=C=E" Essay #3: "The Argument for Silence" Essay #4: "The Best I Can Do This Year" Essay #5: "If Only We Couldn't Understand Them"

The following sources are cited in this article:

1. Gwyneth Lewis, Times Literary Supplement, Friday, 20th November, 1998

The following poems are cited in this article:

Underneath, by Jorie Graham

January 3, by David Lehman


A mong other things, poetry is a product. Unlike a cleanser or food item, however, we can’t determine when we “use” a poetry product whether or not it lives up to the claims made about it. What is said about it, in fact, cannot be put to any useful test once we get it home. For example, with a cleanser, we can tell at once whether or not it works as described, then buy it again—or not. With food, we can decide we simply don’t like it after trying it, and then try something else. Even with a movie we can literally see for ourselves whether or not it is worthwhile despite the reviewers often conflicting claims. None of these tests apply to the poetry product because, like a psychic experience, the poetry product resists experiential knowledge and objective testing. Unable to see, touch, smell, taste or judge its efficacy, we are left holding something we cannot categorize in any meaningful way. As with a psychic experience, we are presented with an “event” (the poem) and we can’t own or enjoy or digest it directly ourselves. Further, the poetry product is surrounded by claims about its worth that we can’t verify, made by people prone to “seeing things,” even attributing a kind of aura to it. This aura is described in such terms as:

“audacious and strenuous”
“intensely somatic, gestural”
“a rare find”
”a one-hundred ring verbal circus”
“timeless truths”
“influential, exciting, stunning”

Trying to compare the blurbs on a book of poetry to the contents is like trying to compare a description of angel wings to actual angel wings. The blurbs employ extravagantly unverifiable descriptions of the contents (what is “intensely somatic”? a “one-hundred ring verbal circus?” who says it’s “brilliant” and why?) to contents that are themselves indescribable. How do you determine the accuracy of a description of the indescribable?

None of these tests apply to the poetry product because, like a psychic experience, the poetry product resists experiential knowledge and objective testing.

The circularity isn’t coincidental: nearly all blurbers are themselves poets, creating the same unmeasurable, unverifiable, wholly subjective blurb to describe the unmeasurable, unverifiable, wholly subjective contents of a poetry book, such that the consumer/reader is made to doubt the simplest reality testing: that is, the test against one’s own responses. It takes a poet to blurb a poet. Only another poet (although in some cases, a poetry critic will do) is truly qualified to “see” the worth of the poetry, much as those with psychic powers are the only ones able to “see” a ghost.

“We follow [the poet] barefoot on the streets of Heaven, grateful to be in her constantly revealing shadow.”

“Nobody evokes the mysteries of beauty and the beauty of mystery the way [this poet] does.” “[The book] is a book about strangeness, about making the vision strange enough that Truth will reveal itself.”

Anyone able to see a ghost is, by definition, someone with psychic powers. A reader able to “follow the poet barefoot on the streets of Heaven, etc.” is, by the same logic, someone special, someone, perhaps, capable of writing poetry themselves, someone who, as they achieve status, may become able to write blurbs for other poets.

For those unable to see the ghost of worth and unable to understand the product’s aura as described in the blurb, there’s always the status of the poet to fall back on. How can you go wrong when buying a book by a major prize winner? Or, to put it another way, how can you be so wrong as to not understand/appreciate/resonate with/admire/love a volume of poems by a prize winner? Who among us is not susceptible to feelings of inadequacy when it comes to reading contemporary poetry? And who wants to admit they don’t “get it” when a book has status and acclaim surrounding it like a nimbus? The suspicion that the poetry really doesn’t merit so much praise, never mind a major award, is a suspicion we’d better keep to ourselves if we want to be “in the know” about contemporary poetry.

Only another poet (although in some cases, a poetry critic will do) is truly qualified to “see” the worth of the poetry, much as those with psychic powers are the only ones able to “see” a ghost.

For example, imagine you are standing in a bookstore trying to decide which book of poetry to buy. A reviewer says this about a Pulitzer prize winning poet’s book (Swarm by Jorie Graham):

“a book-length sequence of poems stunning in its sober encounter with destiny, eros, and law.”

Now take a sample poem from this book:

Underneath (9)


Up, up you go, you must be introduced.
You must learn        belonging to (no-one)
Drenched in the white veil (day)
The circle of minutes pushed gleaming onto your finger.
Gaps pocking the brightness where you try to see in.
Missing: corners, fields,
completeness: holes growing in it where the eye looks hardest.
Below, his chest, a sacred weightless place
and the small weight of your open hand        on it.
And these legs, look, still yours, after all you've done with them.

Explain         the six missing seeds.
Explain        muzzled.
Explain        tongue breaks         thin fire         in eyes.

Learn what the great garden-(up, up you go)-exteriority, exhales:

the green never-the-less        the green who-did-you-say-you-are
and how it seems to stare all the time, that green,
until night blinds it        temporarily.

What is it searching for all the leaves turning towards you.
Breath the emptiest of the freedoms.
When will they notice the hole in your head        (they won't).

When will they feel for the hole in your chest (never).
Up, go. Let being-seen drift over you again, sticky kindness.

Those wet strangely unstill eyes filling their heads-

thinking or sight?-
all waiting for the true story-
your heart, beating its little song: explain . . .
Explain        requited
Explain        indeed the blood of your lives I will require

explain the strange weight of meanwhile
and there exists another death in regards to which
we are not        immortal
variegated        dappled        spangled        intricately wrought
complicated        obstruse        subtle        devious
scintillating with change and ambiguity

Next up: Summer, Fall, and Winter. Are you ready to buy yet? No? Perhaps more about this prize-winning poet will help:

“We should be grateful to Jorie Graham for her own heroics of perception, even if they show up our ordinary insight….Since her first book, Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts (1980), regard for Jorie Graham's difficult, infuriating and brilliant poetry has consistently increased although she shows no signs of ingratiating herself with her readers or of making any concessions, whether to our frivolity or to the bluntness of our perceptions compared to hers.” 1

Our ordinary insight. Our frivolity. The bluntness of our perceptions compared to hers. Here is blurbing raised to an art form all its own. We are told outright what we secretly feared: that Graham’s poems are difficult, not due to any deficiency on the poet’s part, but because of our limitations as readers. Someone has noticed the hole in our head. Thus, the persuasion to buy is based on the implication that, if we do so, we will demonstrate to ourselves, and anyone else who cares, that we are better people, less frivolous, less blunted. As with any marketing based on an appeal to status, this works beautifully—if we will simply agree (and repeat to others) that Graham is difficult because she is a genius, because we are not, and never the twain shall meet. Now, paradoxically, we can join the privileged class of those who “get it ” by admitting that we never will. We don’t even have to read the poetry!

We are told outright what we secretly feared: that Graham's poems are difficult, not due to any deficiency on the poet's part, but because of our limitations as readers.

Even if we question the accuracy of the blurb (but what is the accuracy of an angel wing in flight?), how can we question the poetry of someone who has won a major prize? People who know have conferred the prize. We do not know. Perhaps we need to buy the book out of a sense of shame, go home and pore over it until our perceptions become keener, our reactions less frivolous.

Another way to justify buying a book of poetry whose worth we can’t seem to grasp but feel we ought to, is via celebrity testimonial. The following blurbs, taken from different books, are so versatile that they can be applied to any book of poetry.

“An illuminated insight and wit illuminate the deep-seeing of [this poet’s book]. We can all savor [this book], an exhibition of lyrical surprises.”

“Just as in ancient worlds myths offered the templates for negotiating a safe path through terrors natural and Olympian, [This poet’s poems] find embodiments for the maladies of the new millennium.”

“Rarely, if ever, has the contemporary lyric been both so pure and so informed with varieties of experience...This is fine work, both delicate and bold.”

“Place and motion, place in motion, and the place of motion in our lives— [this poet’s] work grapples with these issues, and through them, with the issue of presence. These poems are the present, and the reader becomes more present within them.”

The music of the mind is brought into congruence with the music of the page, or the arbitrary but beautiful and delicate words themselves, making both elegance and passion gleam from the pages.”

These uber-blurbs, done by master blurbers (Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, C.K. Williams, Cole Swenson), tell us nothing about the product itself, only that it is a product important enough to rate their blurbs, thus constructing an Escher-like secondary credential reference within the author’s own credential reference. Encrusted with some serious primary and secondary credentials and shot through with elegance, passion, presence and perceptions that make yours look blunted, the poetry product gleams from the shelf. Do you dare reach for it?

Perhaps it’s better to work yourself up gradually to the higher poetry product, start where there’s a little more everyday prose and a little less gesture. How about a book of poetry that’s really a journal? A likeable book by a popular guy? Something real about somebody’s life? How about something that’s:

" frisky, as potent and as readable as any poetry volume that's come down the pike in a while."

That’s what The New York Times thinks. Yusef Komunyakaa, a master blurber, thinks it’s good too:

".. reads like a sped-up meditation on the elemental stuff that we're made of: in this honed matrix of seeing, what's commonplace becomes the focus of extraordinary glimpses when these everyday images are juxtaposed into a mental geography made engaging by gazing into the daily mirror. The seemingly randomness of daily life accrues into a shaped and insightful surety."

So does Carolyn Kizer:

“.. Imagine! A poem a day, and really good, charming, personal poems too!”

A shaped and insightful surety. Really good, charming. Sure. This is more your speed.

January 3

The shrink says, “Everything depends
On how many stuffed animals you had
As a boy,” and my mother tells me my
Father was left-handed and so is my son
And they’re both named Joe whose favorite
Stuffed animal was a bear called Sweetheart
While I, the sole constant in this dream,
Am carrying a little girl who has a gun
In her hand as I climb a brick wall
On the other side is unknown territory
But it has to be better than this chase
Down hilly streets where the angel disguised
As a man with red hair drives the wrong way
Down a one-way street so he arrives late
At the library where his son is held hostage
He breaks in lifts the boy in his arms and tells
The one kind man he had met that he and
His brother would be saved but the others
Who had mocked him would surely die

From “The Daily Mirror” by David Lehman

Lehman’s book has all the attributes of a desirable poetry product: credentialed author, master blurbers and, best of all, you can understand it. Though maybe you wish you couldn’t—at least not so fast. Maybe you want a sprinkle of that “audacious and strenuous” or just a hint of that “intensely somatic, gestural.” Or, maybe you want a book of poems that engrosses, moves, surprises, even changes you a little. Something more than a series of personal annecdotes, but something less than ethereal pronouncements from no apparent source. Maybe you want what you used to think of as poetry— something that soars off the page. Now it's the blurbs that soar. Listen, you can almost hear it: the sound of one wing flapping.

                                                                              [copyright 2003, Joan Houlihan]

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