Brief Guide to the Backs of Poetry Books

Amit Majmudar
August 22, 2013
Comments 3

Here’s what you need to interpret the mysterious coded language on the backs of poetry books.

1. Watch out for eclecticism and egalitarianism promised through the high-culture/pop-culture mashup. In the poetry of X, John Dryden has a beer with John Mellencamp, while a down-and-out Tu Fu sings karaoke hits from the 90’s. The elite is merged with the pop; the foreign is made American. Or the alternative construction: In poems that range from ancient Sumer to summer camp, with textual play that ranges from the Mayan Popol-Vuh to People magazine, Poet Y’s Spam Filter Elegy heralds an exciting new voice in American poetry. They are reassuring you that the poet is not a snob, that the poet is “of the people.” Egalitarian, democratic, demotic; very likely to write in a prosey, discursive free verse, usually in the style known as First Person Anecdotal. All “cultural products” are created equal. The blurb pretends that page poetry is not an inherently aristocratic art form. (What percentage of page-poetry readers in the United States have a college education? 95%? 98%?)

2. Red flag: “Expands the possibilities of the language.” Any blurb that refers to “language” and its extension, expansion, or any other kind of physical deformation; that refers to “provisional meaning”; any reference to an envelope being pushed; “daring” and “syntactic” used within two sentences of each other: Such blurbs are code for a specific subculture of American poetry that finds “innovative” ways to be ugly. Very likely to lack punctuation. Systematic, unexamined use of nonsequiturs, sentence fragments. Likely to be nominated for a major national prize.

3. Money-metaphors often govern the adjectives used to describe writing. Beware! “Lush” or “rich” generally indicate a poverty of argument; this is your standard six-tercet image pile-up. The tercets themselves will often have no musical justification for their tercet-hood. It will be a visual or typographical effect. “Spare” or “economical” usually indicate a wealth of white space. The return key is pressed twice after each linebreak. Couplets float free, two words to a line. Often, in “spare” poetry, a word or phrase will be printed in isolation from other words, surrounded by white space like the smear of antibiotic in a petrie dish.

4.  Another caveat emptor: Reinvigorates the [      ] form. Plug any given form into the brackets; statistically most likely the sonnet. Generally the book will be a slew of examples of some very old form, only made “American” and “modern” by stuffing them full of mundane and prosaic content. Often anxiously, eagerly “pop,” similarly to defuse the accusation of musty oldness. A crown of sonnets about Tom Cruise. Said sonnets will not rhyme or scan, will lack a volta, and will have more than fourteen lines. Still, a “crown” of “sonnets.” Why? Because a sonnet can be anything, people! It doesn’t have to be stiff! It can live and breathe and sing the blues! “Stiff” formalism is the supreme evil, to the American poetic mind. Hence the superior “flexibility” of the “loose” hexameter, the “loose” iambic line. Stiff implies dead; stiff implies the penises of dead European males. Form is associated with logic, which is, apparently, unpoetic. Strict or stiff form doesn’t let you flow. Implicit in that use of the word “flow”: The assumption that only irregular rhythms—the rhythms of “free” verse and prose, which in most “plainspoken” American poetry since Frost are effectively the same thing—flow. (The exact opposite reasoning pertains to rap, where the word flow implies rhythm and rhyme; to falter in either of these is to break the flow.) To reassure you, the blurb will praise formal Poet Z for how Poet Z subverts or explodes the form in question. Implicit in these words are revolutionary, fight-the-power violence; which makes sense, because poetic form has been associated, in late 20th century American poetry, with the political right–due (I presume) to the “culture wars.” As if one kind of conservatism had anything to do with the other. As if the American poet espousing form were not marrying into a minority.

3 thoughts on “Brief Guide to the Backs of Poetry Books

  1. I enjoyed this piece for its spot on humor, and my friends and I have been passing it around on FB. I especially enjoyed Majmudar’s points regarding the association between formal poets and the political right (or at least conservatism). Having written a formal poetry book (albeit a “loose” one, as this article would rightly charge!) and a free verse book, I’ve been surprised at the different audiences for both, as well as the tension between the two. I have always found writing formal poetry to be a useful background with which to approach free verse, and vice verse, but I have also found myself to be in the minority in this outlook.

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