July 21, 2012KR BlogBlogReading

from A Field Guide to North American Blurbs

As I’m preparing two blurbs this weekend, I’m looking at a lot of blurbs and thinking about the genre. Maybe there are some observations to be made about the varieties of blurb so you’ll recognize them in the wild.

Maybe you’ll comment, sharing some of your favorite blurbs…



The genre of the recommendation letter, a friend once observed, is hyperbole. Everything has to be stated in the superlative, so one reads for degrees of overstatement, hyper- and hypo-hyperbole, becoming a progressively more sensitive seismograph, searching out quavers and tremors of microscopic proportion.

The blurb is a clear cousin or sibling, at least in the most common form in which sparrows of adjectives crossbreed with surprising frequency, occasionally to be found perching with monikers and epithets (the good kind).

The paperback edition of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow lavishes its (richly deserved) lavishings in one-liners:

Nakedly honest … Superbly charged. —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Impossible to put down. —Los Angeles Times

An amazing, amazing read. —Jennifer Weiner, NBC’s Today

It’s really powerful. —Diane Rehm (NPR)

An exciting read all the way through. —Chicago  Tribune


This last is almost a meta-blurb, suggesting in its strange capitalization (or is this the work of the book designer or the marketing department?) the always-already capitalized nature of the blurb, the raised-voice praise that may always only say however many words are within “this is good.”

Even in a more substantial blurb, like this one (with which I heartily agree), written by Melissa Pritchard for Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City (Sarabande 2011), the lavishing raises its volume:

Caitlin Horrocks is that literary phenomenon: a master storyteller. In each of these eleven short fictions, she lends confident style, mature perspective, and myriad voices to people in situations and circumstances we might otherwise turn from or never know of. This Is Not Your City is smart, entertaining, and emotionally mesmerizing—a superb, daredevil immersion steeped in grace.

These things are true. Horrocks is a great storyteller (and now the fiction editor for the Kenyon Review), a phenomenal storyteller (and a great reader of her own work). These adjectives or adjectival nouns—phenomenon, master—highlight their cousins, harmonizing in a complex chord of praise: confident, mature, smart, entertaining, mesmerizing, superb, daredevil.

Even when the book wrapped by the cover has a profoundly different concern, like David Sedaris’s hilarious When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the blurbs remain in the hieratic:

Glorious…. What makes Sedaris’s work transcendent is its humanity…. He’s the best there is. —Judith Newman, People

Profoundly funny, well-crafted stories that somehow, magically, bring home a major point about fidelity or guilt or love…. The draw, as always, is Sedaris’s utter lack of sanctimony and his use of humor as a portal to deeper feelings. —Heller McAlpin, Christian Science Monitor

Where is the humor that might respond to or be inspired by Sedaris’s? Barely here:

A delightful compilation of essays circling the theme of death and dying, with nods to the French countryside, art collecting, and feces. —Vanessa Grigoriadis, New York Times Book Review.


Maps & Legends (Keys)

Perhaps the earliest poetry blurb was the line from a letter Emerson had written, which Whitman took and impressed into the spine of the 1856 Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” This looks like lavish, pure praise without substance, as if Emerson had said greatness, this. But in Whitman, this greatness is theme as well, this beginning is theme as well. So, this proto-blurb begins to define another variety of blurb, the comment that serves as a preface or legend, putting the reader in the frame of mind to approach the book properly.

So, Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow is adorned with knowledgeable praise lavished on the previous book, Swing Low. Katie Peterson, from the Boston Review:

[Phillips] never fails to return us to the body of experience, the moments of perception that inspire his meditations. In Speak Low, he tries assiduously to do so, more than hinting that he is as much an epistemological poet—a maker of knowledge-structures, a theorist of perception—as he is a love poet. Or that the two kinds of poem—in the hands of writers such as Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and Phillips—are actually one in the same.

And Lisa Russ Spaar:

No one writes like Carl Phillips, whose extraordinary tenth book of poetry, Speak Low, deepens and extends his inimitable vision and sway with words in poems whose syntactical, erotic, and aesthetic discernments rival in their daring economies of risk and quiet ambition Emily Dickinson’s Master Letters and Virginia Woolf’s best poetic prose… If any language—the sentences by which we trope our own lives—can possibly provide a way to ride our amazements and our terrors with fugal and resistive intelligence—it resides in these crucial poems.

Double Shadow is indeed a book that moves the musculature of the erotic toward a place of higher if often darker knowledge, so these blurbs, which tell the reader that he or she is about to read the poem of love or the poem of thought and that these poems will be one in the same, these blurbs prepare the reader for the poems within.

This is another form of praise, but it leads us into the book not only trusting in the experience of the blurbist, but in her knowledge as well.


Drunk on the Wine Within

Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth (Cleveland State, 2010), in which the world is created 44 times, in different ways, inspired two ecstatic blurbs. The first, by Kevin Prufer, imitates the book’s form, interpolating many of the poems’ first lines:

In the beginning, everyone looked like Larry Bird. In the beginning, there was a rotting pig corpse. Everyone wanted to fight to the death. There was a hole in the basement floor. And a bunny with a broken leg. There were ghosts. Evildoers. A gun. Bacon. Cologne. A pencil. In these inventive, often deeply unnerving poems Mathias Svalina offers us a string of forty-four creation myths and one longer, unsettling destruction myth. The result is a sonically complex, breathtakingly witty book, a collection of poems that surprises first with its wildly orchestrated clamor of narratives then, on reflection, surprises all over again with its intelligence and insight into the many ways we tell stories, the many means by which we imagine ourselves participating in them. This is an ambitious, brilliant first book.

The second of these blurbs is even more ecstatic. Anne Boyer:

If I feel physically as if the top of my head is taken off and replaced with a soft serve ice cream machine, I am pretty sure it is poetry. Svalina’s book does no less, and also so much more. Read but also believe this book of fantastic lies. It’s like how you see a cat sitting there and you think ‘that is just a cat’ and then you realize that cat is God. Mathias Svalina has reinvented Yaweh as an Animorph. When this book is taught in college classrooms, students will curl up on the air conditioning vents and ask for salt.

To my mind, these blurbs are even higher praise, recording the transport of which the book is capable, deranging the prose of the reviewer.


Tag Team (Inheritance)

Sometimes a book has a single blurb—one blurb—on the back. I’ve got two examples on hand that suggest a kind of handoff, with the blurb evidencing a kinship, with an elder poet authorizing the younger, or placing the poet within a particular community or lineage. These blurbs are kin to the Maps and Legends blurbs, telling us something about how we’ll read the book or more precisely how we’ll value or understand the value of what we’ve just read.

Christian Hawkey’s The Book of Funnels (Verse 2004) has John Ashbery’s imprimatur:

Christian Hawkey’s poetry is landscape poetry in the true sense of landscape—not a segment of the earth’s surface posing for its picture, but an open, undetermined space in which all kinds of crazy mental and physical things are going about their business simultaneously. What emerges is a portrait of a medium like the one we live in, with all its unexpectedness. The Book of Funnels is one of the strangest and most beautiful first books of poetry I have read in a long time.

This is a remarkable endorsement, especially for a first book. Ashbery’s is a perceptive reading that helps one enter The Book of Funnels (see legends), but it’s also an anointment. If you liked John Ashbery, you’ll love this.

Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead has a single note, from Yusef Komunyakaa:

Terrance Hayes is a master of insinuation. In this new collection of edgy poems the work has the feel of a neo-bluesman whispering existential riffs against modern chaos. His language negotiates the flux and accepts the ragged edges of things, and is always determined to be anything but lighthearted or lightweight. The earned humor in these pages is bittersweet; love and pathos live under the skin of innuendo. Lighthead is genius at work.

The blue note is important here, so we’ll tune into the tone and the turns of Hayes’s work and read the poems not as comic but as refractive: this is a vein in which Komunyakaa excels.



A poet may reach a late stage of career where the blurbage is clipped, telegraphic, communicating the sensitivities only the closely related may be able to decipher clearly. But the brevity should indicate to all observers that even a brief perusal of the wonders within will amaze and leave the reader capable of only single-sentence responses.

James Tate’s last decade’s selected poems The Eternal Ones of the Dream offers among its few briefs:

[James Tate]  ever ceases to astonish, dismay, delight, confuse, tickle, and generally improve the quality of our lives. —John Ashbery

Mr. Tate’s gift is such that many of [his] poems move me at least to plain envy of what he can do. —W. S. Merwin

But the poet of spectacular plumage may be indicated too by the relative plainness of those around it, blurbed not by other poets but by publications, by choirs. So, David Baker’s Never-Ending Birds:

[Baker] is a reliably illuminating presence in American poetry—a profound poet who inhabits the natural world and the realm of the arcane with equal ease. —Huffington Post

Well observed, careful, and shot through with sadness, [Never-Ending Birds] is [Baker’s] best. —Publishers Weekly


Phantom blurbs

A poet whose song is widely reputed may be so reputed by no blurb at all.

Copper Canyon Press folded the blurbs for Dean Young’s Fall Higher onto the flap of the dust jacket, leaving a single poem on the back cover that reads, in the paperback context of poetry books, as if the book is its own blurb, as if a paraphrase of imminent brilliance is impossible: the light has already arrived.