Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Poetry Looking for Blurbs



There are hills of poetry books from my desk to the door, crying. They want to be read. Some are by friends, who need to be read carefully. Others are by friends of friends, who want blurbs. Others are from publishers sending books by people I don't know, who want blurbs. I used to be a blurb-meister, but I've lost the knack. Robert Duncan had a generic blurb: "There is no match for this book." That was mean. Equally unfeeling was this, by another mean person: "I never read anything like it." Allen Ginsberg used to be the most generous master of the generic blurb. On countless covers of poets' books, he said something like, "In the neon-fried lonely American night moves hammer-verse by (enter name), ringing ballsy lyric ballad news."

It's not that easy. Here is friend Chris Tysh, poet, with terrifically titled book: Continuity Girl. The title alone is classic, good for a novel. But Chris hates novels. "Each novel savages its audience in advance," she writes in a poem dedicated to the late novelist Kathy Acker. This is indeed the poetry of a "continuity girl," who like that professional in the movie business, makes sure that clothes and seasons match. But, unlike the movie professional, this CG ensures continuity between very different fields: languages, countries, poetries, man to woman and back, past to present. The title is just ironic enough to make one anxious. Chris was born and raised in France, lives in Detroit, writes poetry that is simultaneously cerebral and physical, and is now fascinated by her past. Lines like, "nostalgia's detachable value pops open/where I hang far from home/finger on the buzzer," are utterances of a Leap Girl, not a Continuity one. The sexual value of the past, always prized among conventional poets, is dangerous territory for a cerebral gaucho. Happily (for her) she says nothing about what precisely makes this piece of the past buzzer-worthy.

And then I have friends like David Bristol, author of Toad, steadily amazed at the blithe world, in complete sentences. "The child is told to take the peach,/dripping juice, outside to finish." OK, this is the concrete instance of (possibly) nostalgia that Chris would rather die than explain. Bristol fears no explanation, but is a lot less mysterious. He wants to be read, understood, praised, patted on the back. Chris would rather not have any of that. There is a lot of food in David's poems -- pears, corn, chicken, green beans -- but he doesn't make me hungry. He overheaps the plate. Chris starves me.

I have no trouble with Romanian-born Nina Cassian, author of Take My Word for It, a book of poetry she translated herself into English. Profoundly serious, but perfectly aware of the tenuousness of her art, she quotes Jean Cocteau, "This poem is neither beautiful nor ugly/It has other virtues," and then goes on to worry matters of life and death. Cocteau's couplet is the ultimate blurb, which is why blurbing is impossible. Most poetry books are neither beautiful nor ugly, they have other virtues. You never read anything like them. There ain't no match for it, neither.

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