A Few Words on Blurbs

One of my go-to moves in a poetry-literature class is to look at a book's cover before we get into the poetry itself (not all my students, I should say, are fans of this exercise). I offer the caveat that the poet doesn't necessarily have much input to the book's cover, but quite often the design choices start with the poet. Students readily understand that the cover is about marketing and branding.

Invariably, we get to the back side of the book cover, where we come into contact with blurbs, which can range from a pithy single sentence to a 200-word  paragraph.  We note how often the book may be praised for it being accessible, or how it is an "important" voice, or how the book is changing the face of American poetry. After a while, they kind of look and read the same. I ask the students what's the evident purpose of the blurbs, first by considering who is writing them and to whom are they writing.

Rarely do my students recognize any of the names of the blurbing, which is an odd phenomenon if you think of blurbs as a kind of celebrity endorsement. I'll assist by identifying the blurb writer, usually by university affiliation or major book award. It becomes apparent to my students that the blurb is about asserting some kind of tangible legitimacy, whether its attaining academic approval or street cred.

But the audience question is where it gets interesting, as we first land on the idea that the blurbs are clearly written for people who read a lot of poetry, if they are not poets themselves. But typically, we go further, where the blurb ends up being more about the blurb writer than the book itself. Blurbs as endorsements tend to mark blurb writers, signifying their wisdom, taste, and intelligence. The overreaching claims, yes, we don't take them on face value. It's also a kind of transaction back to the writer of the poetry itself--a kind of public letter of recommendation that validates the poet and the blurb writer simultaneously.

My own blurby reception has run the usual course.

First book, blurbs by the readers/jurors who evaluated the book.

Second book, blurbs by well known poets who were my teachers.

Third book, blurbs by friend writers.

It was with my fourth book, published at a time that I knew I was going to step away from poetry publishing, that I departed from the script. Now, if I were bold, I wouldn't have had any blurb (I'm thinking of just how cool Anne Carson has been with Nox). I decided to solicit blurbs by acquaintances who published only one book. Oh, it seemed generous on my part, yielding space not to the usual big name writer, but to "emerging" writers. But was that not a way of saying that I still had game, getting these younger voices to say that my work was still hep.  And then I wondered, too, if not two of my blurb writers, being assistant professors, wouldn't list their professional service to include these blurbs in their annual reviews.

Yes, there are blurbs written genuinely, lovingly, enthusiastically, selflessly, but even those become something else the second they are cut and paste onto the back of the book cover.

Me, I kind of wish for a book of poetry that's blurbed in the worst way imaginable, in those impossible large fonts that proclaim "Mesmerizing!" "Terrifying!" "Wicked Clever!" "Sexy!" Best if they are written by celebrities like Dr. Phil, Reese Witherspoon, Rhianna.