Sunday, October 22, 2006

Gives Good Blurb

The short, unpleasant history of blurbs began on an appropriately bogus note. The first literary blurb in history was when Walt Whitman extracted a sentence from a private letter from Emerson and emblazoned the sage of Concord's words on the spine of the second edition of Leaves of Grass: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Emerson, of course, didn't mean an academic career, but his choice of words seems rather telling in retrospect.

Whitman made this move without even asking Emerson, embarassing his benefactor before his friends. It wasn't so much the actual words that caused chagrin, but the fact that Emerson's uncouth Brooklyn friend would even make the move in the first place. Those days, Americans still had some sense of rightful shame in the face of shameless self-promotion. And publishers didn't assume that readers needed to be told what what to read by a stranger.

Well, we all know what's happened since. Blurbs are now considered universally necessary as promotional moves, even though poetry doesn't sell. The blurbs themselves have evolved. Until the last couple of decades, their role was essentially to praise and describe. Now they seem more about the blurb's authors than the book they purport to promote.

Blurbing poets seem engaged in a continually intensifying contest to see who can come up with the most outrageous act of hyperbole. And where only a short time ago, poets seemed resigned to blurbs as a kind of disagreeable fact of the publishing world, poets now actually seek out the opportunity to blurb other people's books. To have your name attached to a blurb is a sign that you've hit the big time.

And now the fun part. I have before me the single most egregious example of blurbaholism ever to grace the art--the often mentioned but seldom seen blurb Jorie Graham gave to her student, Mark Levine, after picking his book for the National Poetry Series (and yes, I know the story). Anyway, without further ado, here it is, word for word:

"Every now and then, in the eventful, dramatically self-reinventing history of poetry, a new voice comes along which startles by its stunning appropriation of the music, energy, diction, and obsessions of its own immediate moment, yet which is imbued, simultaneously, with a deep knowing connection to the questions and beliefs of the tradition. A poetry filled with that energy of revolution which is born, precisely, of its tense apprenticeship to the voices of previous masters. Debt is such a book. With its brilliant play on all forms of that titular notion--from the spiritual indebtedness we call original sin, to the cultureless greed of our 'national debt'--it moves with torqued grace between the savings-and-loan fiascos of each of our crucial currencies--personal, metaphysical, scientific, historical, political, psychological, cultural, ethnic--(and enacts, at reckless and resounding speed, a holocaust upon political and intellectual and personal correctness by its stark, self-implicating dramatization of the culture of blame). Beginning with the problem of identity--self-creation? soul? the blank space known as citizenship? the number assigned to one's camp card? one's credit card? one's wrist? do we deconstruct? can we?--all the anxious terms of post-romanticism and post-modernism are acted out with astonishing precision and candor by a speaker part Jew, part Palestinian, part intellectual, part consumer, part victim, part terrorist--owner, lover, slave, child--one complex, supple, scary, moving, self-contradicting voice as much the creation of the media, circumstance, history, factuality, as--is it possible?--the creation of some late and inconceivable God."
--Jorie Graham

"I greet you at the beginning of a great career" seems rather quaint and modest now, doesn't it?

I could snark this one until the end of time, but let's do that together, shall we? Join me in the comments section with your snark, and please, if you think you can top this blurb for sheer awfulness, please post your candidate in this thread.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Check Out the Threads

A friend who reads this site just told me that he wasn't aware that there was anything going on in the comments sections, and so he just reads the posts, not the threads. The comments sections at this site rock, and if you're not reading them, you're missing out. Check out the conversation going on in the post below, for example. The conversation there blows away my original post.

The traffic here has skyrocketed lately, even though I don't post that much anymore. Anyone know why? It's kind of surprising.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Poetry is for Rich Kids

It's no secret that poetry is among the most "elite" of art forms, right up there with contemporary classical music. When people say "ordinary people don't read poetry," what they mean is "working class people don't read poetry." Nor do they write it (not stuff that sees the light of day anyway).

Yeah, yeah, every ten years or so, the poetry world throws up its sacrificial "workingman's poet." Philip Levine is the biggest name. But within a few years, these poets inevitably lose touch with whatever roots they may have had and start writing in one of the available neo-Romantic trends in post-W.C. Williams free verse, start writing poems of "ekphrasis" (the most snobbish and exclusive of all sub-genres)--or start writing historical poems or suburban meditationals. You get the idea.

Recently, we've seen the emergence of the supposedly "avant-garde" working class. Armed with Deleuze and Gramsci, these jokers eschew representational value altogether, promoting a poetry of theory and gesture. Nearly all have the same job teaching creative writing somewhere. Which reminds me--Ron Silliman takes a lot of shit. but say what you will, he still works a job outside of academia. As people, Silliman (and Rae Armantrout) deserves props for keeping it real, regardless of one's estimation of their work (and I admit I like Rae's work).

But back to my rant.

It seems good to remind one's self every now and then that M.F.A. programs are mostly baby-sitting limbo zones for upper and upper-middle class kids who aren't ready for a "real career" and don't have the focus to do a Ph.D. Does this go without saying? Maybe I'm wasting my time here. Is there anything wrong with it? Not from an individual point of view, I suppose. It's hard to see something wrong with young people wanting to write instead of work a 9 to 5 office job, and why not give people the chance to "find themselves" for a few more years (um, never mind that they are in their mid-twenties at that point--vive le American adolescence!)

Is there a single "major" American working-class poet? I used to think Walt Whitman is the only one. But now this new book comes out--Andrew Lawson's Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle--that convincingly demonstrates Whitman was really a member of the lower-middle class artisanal culture of New England at the time. Bummer. Where oh where / is America's John Claire?

Don't ask me. I'm a part of the problem, not the solution. Though I lived in a trailer much of my life and my dad didn't make squat, my favorite living poet is John Ashbery. What does that say about me? I like to think that I am just "reverse-slumming."

Who is the Howard Zinn of American Poetry? Do we need one? Does it matter?

If there is something productive to be done, I would think it would have to start with the M.F.A. programs. We have minority fellowships. Why don't we have class-based ones?