The art of the poetry blurb is such a particular thing, and, as I’m asked to perform it with increasing frequency, I find myself wondering whether or not I do so from a sufficiently principled stance. Below are the most recent three I’ve managed (there are, as always, others I wanted to do, but ran out of time for). It seems evident from a glance that they function as mini-reviews, and so might help draw attention to a trio of what I think are fine books. I hope I can also see a couple of simple governing impulses: generosity, honesty, specificity, and separation.
The blurb most obviously differs from an actual review in that the principle of generosity is necessary, rather than optional. In fact, I tend to think it a fairly good thing in reviewing too, but only because I dislike the ‘brave truth-sayer’ pose of the reviewer actually out to establish or mantain a reputation by other means than their mere poetry.
When this happens at an early stage in the reviewer’s lifecycle, the lauding of some hopeful or knifing of the hapless can escalate to an attempt to knock spots off the cosy coterie of elderly poet/reviewers for their inability to laud or knife appropriately. As many of these may well have graduated from exactly the same nasty rep buildin n spots knockin skool, it may then be identified as conforming to a pack behaviour, that stage of struggle with the dominant which is the opposite of any progressive or rebellious stance being struck.
Of course the same urge to atavism or the tribal is as strong in those more elderly poet/reviewers, and, as it is usually to them that appeals for both blurbs and reviews are sent, it behoves them to consider their privilege at such moments as gatekeepers to the art as well as the business of poetry.
An important function of the blurb-writer, then, may be to appeal to the potential reader on behalf of the particular book as much as the particular poet, as an instance of something they must read, rather than as a conveniently shaped stone to fling at or to be flung by the, usually, alpha male. That also gives the reader the impression that poetry may not be, as it too often appears, about poets howling in pain and derision about poetry.
The blurb should stand outside that ring. Its function is to suggest that poetry may be a pursuit and a perception, rather than an in-fight and an always-further-in-crowd. And this consideration of the relationship between book and reader requires generosity.
Honesty, then, becomes the necessary check on your enthusiasm: if you really don’t feel that way about the poet, or, as sometimes happens, about this particular book by that particular poet, don’t do it. Things that puff and pop – popcorn and meringues in particular – are marvellous in their place, but the evidently false-because-insincere claim does the poet concerned as much damage as the nasty-for-selfish reasons review.
(There now follows a short interlude in which I think about peanut meringues:
The best confirmation of that honesty takes us back to a key part of reviewing: specificity in the form of quotation – something which can, briefly, underscore the point being made. Too many blurbs fall into portentous pronouncement that cannot be assessed because the very thing, the poem, is not there. It is the equivalent of the waving of the arms when, you know, when, you know…
One phrase is enough to establish the distinctness of the voice, and hence the sincerity of the blurbist. If it’s not in the blurb, you fear it may not be in the book either.
The final category is perhaps the most difficult: separation. We all already know that the poet, the publisher, approaches someone who will be at least sympathetic to what the book is setting out to do. But that sympathy cannot amount to patronage, or some version of the blessing of the prefiguring author. So a line must be established between affinity and affiliation. The independence of the poet being blurbed is as important as the ability of the reader to draw their own conclusion about the genealogy that may or may not be being alluded to.
So, how do I do? These are three younger Scottish poets in the sense that they are younger than me – that’s becoming increasingly easy to accomplish. They are all male (which is already prompting me to seek out those blurbs I have done slightly less recently for women poets). Two are first collections from a single enterprising Scottish press, Freight, the other is from my own publisher, Bloodaxe Books. A.B. Jackson’s second collection is a PBS Recommendation. Russell Jones’s I first saw as part of his PhD submission. And, finally, I should just add that Harry Giles’s blurb is only longer because, in Pascal’s phrase, ‘I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.’
1 Tonguit, by Harry Giles
Harry Gile’s impressive first collection shows every sign of a particularly Scottish alertness to language, political radicalism, and intellectual play. So particularly Scottish, in fact, as to be specifically Orcadian, his language flickers adroitly between that island’s idioms, and the urban and literary Scots of Morgan or Leonard or Kinloch, then expands to take down the discourses of power, infecting and subverting the texts of our political and economic masters. This is a poet who understands from his use of Scots that all language, especially the language we use in a poem, is simultaneously intimate and estranging, and he uses the full palette of substitution, interrogation, translation, and variation, to explore the beautiful and frightening consequences. Most importantly, he does all this with tenderness as well as tenacity, deploying lightness as much as logopoeia.
From the song of a fossilised cricket to what will happen geologically when “a’ the seas gang dry” (and in a pantoum too); from the blue ghosts swimming in a shut pool to a habbie have-at-you aimed at a dull councillor; from reinventing the language of love by deploying the toponyms of fantasy fiction (how often have I read a reference to Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘Zothique’ in a contemporary poem? – mebbe no that often) to a gentle encounter with a formerly pierced partner – this is a considerable lyric and satiric gift wielded in critique of simplistic models of identity or of poetics, and in praise of the utmost imaginative diversity.
From its opening salvo, aimed at a nation wha ‘wadna ken hits gowk fae hits gadjie’, through its depiction of the ‘Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ ‘sittin in his airmchair in the mids o the junction’ weeping, to its closing subversion of Alasdair Gray’s famous dictum, ‘lurk as if you live in the early days of a better sedition’, Tonguit shows the sharpest new tongue in Scotland at its most seditious, liveliest, and visionary best.
Order it here.
2 The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping, by Russell Jones
Russell Jones’s collection moves from the micro to the macro and back with an alert alacrity that marks him out as a younger Scottish writer of real promise. This quality of attention demonstrates itself in both his language and his level of engagement: syllable meets chromasome, minute particular collides with particle, sonnet sequence essays a society. There is a Morganic faith in form, in information, and in format’s capacity to frame the universe in a verse, evidenced by an abecedarian sequence of one word poems that recalls Hamilton Finlay at his wittiest. In all this, the deities are in the details, as it were, be they a telling snippet of recorded dialect, the ‘origami feet’ of a kingfisher, or the way a station ‘is painted darker by the rain’. The tenderness with which they are recorded, the equal compassion for individuals caught in catastrophe or lost in introspection, makes this collection as impressive as it is engaging.
Order it here.
3 The Wilderness Party, by A.B. Jackson
‘Demons occupy the air’ in A.B. Jackson’s new collection, but, as Dracula once remarked, what sweet music they make. There is a gothic edge to the lyricism and a witty eye for the disquieting, but what distinguishes this work is a genuine curiosity about how we could still classify and evaluate meaning. The idea of the apocryphal provides a counter to less original poets’ dependence on the anecdotal: what is it like, these poems ask, to exist outside or on the fringes of sacred space, where ‘The risen Elvis/rolls away his rhinestone?’ Only half in love with the music of categories, Jackson asks: how shall we live in a world which presents itself as something to be decoded rather than experienced? Writing with equal facility of mice and mammoths, of Gethsemane and Guantanamo, these are canticles of praise to the wily as well as to the wonderful: ‘Long live critters, in caves, in earth, in ashes.’
Order it here.