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."
"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.