Thursday, September 1, 2022

Phil Hall : Blurbs





To be asked to write a blurb for a new book is always an honour.

But I came slowly to realize that for me the decision to write a blurb for someone or not—had to be a policy, not a book-by-book decision.

Any one book and any one book—equal. Any one person and any one person—equals.

I wanted equality in my decision to write any blurb, because poetry is not politics, inequality is politics.

I would write poems about the hand-over-hand indelicacies that sustain equality.

I wanted the honour of each request to be equal, the books equal, the poets equal, despite the quality of the work, or the requester’s status.

The way citizens and their votes are equal. One plus one. Not ONE plus one. Supposedly.

The way any two objects are inexactly the same. A door knob and a grass blade. Coral, corral, carrel, carol and choral. Tree, purse and waterfall.

We are not talking classical logic here, but magical logic. “X is Y and is Z” says Borges.

Things are not like each other, but equal. Lack of simile = democracy. Lack of metaphor = equality.

Each new book makes the same worn gesture, yet is a furthering—a sign of hope.

Or as the Hare said, “Each new book is a sign of hop.”

Tortoise: “Keep making jokes, you loser.”

Either write a blurb for each request, or don’t write any.

Avoid subjectivity: don’t talk about yourself, or a book’s “subject”—only the method of the poems is worth discussing.

Avoid objectivity: literary distancism.

Be political—in the old sense of that word—I mean human communally.

It is that word “quality” that is the problem. Quality and equality are at odds.

And of course the high hat of the word “status” is a problem too.

Either don’t vote, or believe the lies we use to control ourselves and keep us separate.

But my honest reader’s response to each book would not be the same. Could not.

If I were able to be that uncritical, that generous, that unpolitical—no poem I wrote would be any good would it?

We can’t all be bpNichol or bill bissett. Why not? And are my assumptions about these two generous careers mere cartoons of real men?

Steve McCaffery, writing in defence of bill bissett’s work, says: “Clearly a critical approach will not do. What we need is a stance of affirmation to the texts.”

The word “career” sounds strange in reference to Nichol or bissett—the mountains are moving too fast to provide footholds for exegesis or blurbs.

I love some books, hate others, and some I cannot comprehend—yet or ever. I would like or dislike most books casually, indifferently.

At preference-level, one book does not equal one book. And they are often like each other.

Tropes begin as disguised imitations.

“Unique” is grease squirting from a giant tube used in a kid’s play—hear the squeak of it. Laugh along.

And it is “indifferently” that is the other problem.

No one wants a bad blurb. No one wants an indifferent review. The semblance of uniqueness is best.

No one wants a blurb that quibbles, or qualifies its faint praise. Not bad is worse than an F.

Some say that the field for poetry is so small there should be no negative reviews.

But the absence of negative reviews might be why we are coming to have no reviews at all...

What if I wrote one generic blurb with blank spaces for each new author’s name and book title—this would undermine the intent of having a blurb on a book.

To see the same blurb twice on different books would destroy the illusion of sincerity.

Here is someone the buyer of the book might have heard of—someone who recommends this book in a quick crisp way that encourages purchase. This was the original illusion.

The word “sincerity” is another problem.

Then gradually, as the pool of blurbists widened and got shallow, it happened that too many blurb writers weren’t famous enough.

So publishers started adding credentials along with the blurbist’s name: author of the award-winning etc.

The hidden message of this addition of credentials is: Here is someone you’ve never heard of, but should have, someone obviously better qualified to judge this work than you are.

The phrases “might have heard of” and “famous enough” touch on the flattery implicit in each request to write a blurb.

Even to refuse to write a blurb is a kind of self-flattery that implies a ranking system that denies equality:

Thank you for your letter of support for my application—I got the Blurb Explorations Grant!

And am off to Florence for three months to work on the blurb for your book. My assistant will be in touch when I return.

Otherwise, a person could ask his mother or her podiatrist or their snake charmer to write a blurb.

If this happened, people would soon see that a blurb is a big like—as in “my poem has received 2000 likes.”

And a like—which appears to be human but might not be—has a marketing side—an aggressive side—which is called a “click” or a “hit.”

One like = one like—one click = one click—one hit = one hit. Anonymity. But not in a good way. A countable / bankable anonymity.

Not as in democracy—supposedly—but as in digital totalitarianism more likely—sheep-dogging disguised as a free-for-all.

I deserve the honour of being asked to write a blurb for you, thank you, but my refusal keeps me in a position of elevation above your book.

As would the acceptance of your request. If I were to write a blurb for you—you’d resent it.

Equal means: you write a blurb for me, I’ll write one for you.

But your name on my book might be out of proportion to my name on yours.

It is not easy to say no without arrogance. It is not easy to say yes without arrogance.

Arrogance is here somewhere, slightly. Either way. Perhaps it implies a teacherly relationship.

If not that, maybe it implies Old Home Week.

The Tortoise and the Hare having a beer together after the race.

An unpublished poet reading the blurb thinks: All these big shots know each other, nobody knows me.

Thus my policy of always saying yes to a request for a blurb came slowly to look like a kind of lying:

I love every book I am asked to write a blurb for. I will find exuberant ways to sound as if this is true.

It was a generous lying, out of enthusiasm for the whole enterprise of our poetry publishing culture. A journalist might call my enthusiasm—Nationalism.

But still, it was lying. Why was I so hungry for the tiny bits of pride that writing blurbs gave me?

Or worse, was it self-promotion?

I am going to get my name out there everywhere, on the backs of as many books by other people as possible.

Eventually, someone buying your book, or your book, will think—Why don’t I buy one by this blurber?

Admit it, there is something dishonest about blurbs.

Especially those blurbs that cleverly cobble quotes from the book itself—to make a sort of Frankenstein sentence.

While “wending [a] way toward oblivion” this poet “undermines the over-soul” with “a streetwise grace” that is “calm as...loosestrife.”

As if the book were praising itself with the help of a respectable volunteer coach.

Here, the word “respectable” is the problem.

As if to put out on a small table in a mall free samples of a new relish. Want to try some?

If nothing else, this is a dishonesty of quoting—in graduate school we learned that ellipsis is a great tool for lying, or at best a bridge over what doesn’t support one’s thesis.

I would let each stanza here be a long equation’s step-guess away from that dishonesty.

An honest blurb would say: This poet was my student. This poet is one of my oldest friends.

I don’t like the poems here, but I’ve always liked the poet who wrote them. So I felt obliged to write this blurb.

If I were sent a single poem, a page or two, would I write a blurb for it? No. Why for a book?

It is the event of publication I am asked to celebrate, not the work.

I used to agonize over the blurbs I wrote. Each blurb became a pill-sized thesis.

Often, what I started to say would lead me astray into a poem of my own...

Hey, I just wrote a poem better than anything in your new book. Here’s your stupid blurb.

Often, what I wrote in a blurb would get sent back to me by the requester. Could I please change one phrase in what I’d written?

Sometimes it ended up feeling as if the poet had written their own blurb with my name attached to it.

Often, the publisher would not even use what I had lost sleep over. The poet had asked too many people for blurbs.

Then I’d feel a bit chumped—I thought I had been asked because I was special to that poet who asked—not just another name on a promo wish-list.

Or maybe the poet had not even passed on to the publisher the blurb I wrote.

Then I’d suspect that my blurb hadn’t been used because I hadn’t made it gung ho enough.

I was trying to not go overboard with the lying while I was lying.

When the book came out, I’d see the blurbs that were used—it would be as if we blurbers had been in competition.

The blurb at the top of the back page will be from the most prominent writer.

The blurbists are seen to be scrambling for the top of the page like frogs in a milk can.

Best Book of the Year always loses out to No Other Book in My Lifetime.

And if your blurb makes it to the front of the book you are a god (of frogs) who sways economy.

Here is one sample of a blurb I wrote that didn’t get used:

The haiku on page 17 is now my new Bible. Each day I choose one line and study it. I am taken everywhere, gently and eruditely—in a three-day lesson cycle. I predict many followers.

Or maybe my blurb hadn’t been used because a blurb had been procured from a more important writer than I am.

Some famous poets get known as notoriously prolific (terrific) blurb writers. It becomes an art form.

It is a wonder Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje have time to do any other kinds of writing.

“Thanks to all our generous and enthusiastic Moms and Dads,” say the eternal children in us.

The Collected Blurbs of Molly Peacock. To dignify, call them “endorsements.” 

Even the word “important” is a problem. New Grub Street. Blurb Street?

So in 2007 I came up with a policy—I stopped writing blurbs for anyone.

Which means I also stopped asking anyone to write blurbs for me.

Well, sometimes I have asked if I might quote from something praise-worthy someone sent me in a letter or email.

I reassure myself that—though this will look like a blurb when it appears on my book—it’s origin is very different. No begging.

But there is no end to lying, as long as “sincerity” rules.

No more blurbs. Then I felt curmudgeonly. I had walked away from my community. 

Congratulations! But no, I will do nothing to help your new book win anything. Sorry.

Was I sorry? Not really. Was I approaching equality, or just being mean?

Everyone around the cheese table is talking about everyone else’s work, and their own—and I am standing in the garden alone, hogging my opinions to myself.

Is my silence righteous or humble? Populism has made me a snob.

Increasingly, that word opinion sounds like an onion with pins in it.

I used to write reviews for Books In Canada when it was a glossy magazine in the 80s—I wake up some nights so ashamed of the dumb quick things I wrote in reviews then.

In those years, I see now, I was typing borrowed opinions about the works of others. They were tame, similar to me, and nearby. I should have been reading and reading, wider and wilder. Not spouting off.

The small pond. But now there are almost no reviews published. Notices of publication are not reviews.

Long ago, before reviews, there were Introductions and Dedications—even earlier than that there were distinguished Patrons—or smashed presses.

Are blurbs killing the review? Or did blurb culture surge ahead in reaction to a dearth of reviews...

“A review was only a sacred grove where quotes could be harvested.” Blurb Culture—a chilling phrase.

And the blurbs are getting fatter and fatter—blubbers—blubs—eurekas are diluted into paragraphs.

Maybe I will come to recognize how my decision to stop writing blurbs was really the first step toward stopping my poem-making altogether.

No more poems. Those little one-page boxes that the magazines like—poems start to look like blurbs...

“No more little square ones,” he said. And then jumped. And jumped. And jumped...

But as long as I don’t believe in poetry as closure, I might keep writing it.

After I wasn’t writing blurbs anymore, I was able to fully realize why I don’t believe in them. 

Inevitably, our literary positioning—inequality—turns enthusiasm into a system of promotion.

From a spontaneous Holy Cow—to calculated Bland Tropes.

True, as I say, my torturous thinking about blurbs comes from a democratic impulse. Or did.

Any one book = any one book. Each word = any word. One letter = any other letter. Spellers defunct.

Sure let’s be guild-ecstatic about each others’ books—I am so happy for the words you have chosen and arranged...

But this dishonest interplay of pander and praise cannot keep us clear from systematization.

The unrequested response—a letter or an email of praise arriving unbidden—is more honest and more important to the poet who receives it—than any blurb.

Less corruptible. Less corrupting. That postcard will ride the fridge for years.

Taking my lead from something Cyril Connelly says in Enemies of Promise, I have sometimes sent a bit of money—a bill—to thank someone for a poem I read in a journal.

Hey, good poem, go out have a coffee and toast on me.

The essay review as well is almost extinct. And that insulting sub-head “the long read” goes even further toward our humiliation—by its posted warning.

Then they will break up an article with photos and side-bars so it doesn’t seem so daunting.

Even to say: a quote from a review—begins to sound redundantly pompous now—like a pipe smoked in a live play.

The audience can see the smoke wafting from the stage toward them, and can smell the funk of it.

But also the word blurb—coined 1907—sounds so cheapo, like candy floss. Like blurt.

Or maybe blurb is exactly the right word in response to a cheapening of praise, a commodification of praise.

An actual blurt would be much better. But blurbs are almost never blurts—too calculated.

One time I was teaching a night school course, and I asked the students to write a short review of a book of poems. I thought it was a clever way to make them read a book.

I put on a table a free sampling of books of poems—probably review copies I had ended up with and didn’t care to keep—and they each picked one.

The following week, one young woman submitted as her review a list of short expletives.

Sensational!—Buy this book!—Superbly Out to Lunch!—Remarkably scintillating! 

This is what she thought a book review was. Who was I to disillusion this natural-born blurber?

Every blurb I composed—back in the day—came to feel as if it were a key to appreciation. I was cutting—with a deadline—a metaphor with the right teeth.

My very first appearance on the back of someone’s book was not a blurb but a quote from a little article I wrote about a poetry reading.

It appears on the back of Eugene McNamara’s first book of short stories, Salt.

In The Lance—the student newspaper—in the 70s—when I was an undergraduate at the University of Windsor, I wrote: McNamara is a cross between Captain Ahab and Winnie the Pooh.

Why Gene ever chose this to go on the back of his book I have no idea! It still embarrasses me.

Luckily, university libraries bind their old titles, and whatever is on the cover gets lost.

I was young—is no excuse. I am old—is becoming no excuse either.

Gene was a playful, kind man. Perhaps he preferred the absurdity and outright amateurism of my quote to some quote that sounded like a pompous old pipe in a play by Ibsen.

After a snorting laugh, perhaps he used it on his book—as a gift to me. A lesson, too.

After that, I was always much more careful, more restrained, about what I said in a review or a blurb.

But not careful enough. Or maybe the lesson was to be more absurd, less restrained.

If things and words are equal, and books are equal, and poets are equal—why try to be definitive, exacting or conclusive?

Why not celebrate each new book by destroying the ranking system? Dadaism, ridiculousness.

This book is An Artist of the Floating World meets The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists. They are introduced to each other by Fear of Flying.

Now that I have stopped writing blurbs, something else McCaffery says about bissett’s work seems to have a more general meaning:

“So the books are not to be conceived from the viewpoint of their utility, but from their character as flow, intensity and force:

the force of words through and between books as if language whilst inhering in the book form, releases a non-verbal energy above the surface of the book.”

Flow, intensity, force, non-verbal energy. Blurblessness. Not what inheres, but what interheres.

Or was it 2011 that I stopped writing blurbs? Even this later date means 12 years of no blurbs by me.

If I have ever said no to your request for a blurb, Dear Friend, this essay-poem is for you.

Our true form is the blurb—
Ron Silliman

The absurdity of such a long essay-poem written about blurbs!

In the Museum of Blurbs there is an empty room I go to—to sit in by myself—no bench, no surveillance camera, no guard.

I sit on the floor. I read a battered paper book. Then I get to my feet and leave the room. I leave the book on the floor.

When I come back next week, the book will be gone. The room is not serviced. It rejuvenates itself.

Once again, there will be no evidence of my ever having read a book there, as I lower myself to the floor and begin to read another secondhand paperback...

Later, as I leave the Museum, I hear someone say, “I stopped smoking 20 years ago.”

Someone else replies,”I stopped drinking 27 years ago.”

Someone else says, “I haven’t voted since 1984.”

They agree they are healthier, but lonely. As am I.



Ph . Otty Lake . 2022





Phil Hall has two new books coming out this fall: The Ash Bell (Beautiful Outlaw Press), and The Essential Eugene McNamara (Porcupine’s Quill). In 2011/12 he won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in English, and Ontario’s Trillium Book Award. He has been twice nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Guthrie Clothing: The Poetry of Phil Hall appeared in 2015 from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. He lives near Perth, Ontario.



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