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Blurb Me This (A Modest Proposal)

As a kid, I can remember reading the backs and sides of cereal boxes as I chomped down unhealthy bowls of sugar-laced cereal (thank you, Kellogg’s and Post!). Nowadays, I do the same for books that are lying around—even after I’ve finished reading them.

You know what THAT means. It means I read the equivalent of sugar-laced ingredients on the backs of poetry books: blurbs. Only if you dig a little do you often learn that blurbs are written by a poet’s teachers or fellow university workers or fellow alums.

But what else is new? You scratch my back, I scratch yours, and why not? What really gets you is the similarity of so many blurbs, the way they are obviously a pain in the neck to the person who was asked to WRITE them.

This can be discovered by the simple formula known as A=#Ls (Aggravation = the Number of “Luminous’s”). If your blurbs are so luminous they glow gaudily like Christmas lights on a July night, your book is as sweet a Tony Tiger’s Sugar-Frosted Flakes.

Nowhere is this worse than in a poetry book that actually uses the word “luminous” in its title. I give you Czeslaw Milosz’s A Book of Luminous Things.¬†As you might expect, the blurb from The Houston Chronicle on the back reads, “A luminous anthology about luminous thoughts and things.”

Hoo, boy. Houston, we have a problem.

Other words we need to watch out for: “stunning,” “rare,” “unforgettable,” “breathtaking,” “fierce,” “remarkable,” “memorable,” “profound,” “arresting,” “evocative,” and, of course, “beauty” and “achievement.” For example:

“Jane Hirshfield is one of our finest, most memorable contemporary poets.” — David Baker

“Scrupulously attentive, rigorously self-questioning, What the Living Do is an achievement of remarkable power.” — Mark Doty

“The landscape of Transtr√∂mer’s poetry… is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images.” — Robin Robertson

“Tomasz Rozycki’s Colonies is one of the most remarkable sonnet sequences of our time…” — Susan Stewart

“Another breathtaking collection…” — Booklist

“I’m stunned by the power of these poems…” — Marie Howe

Pity the blurb writer, asked by a friend or colleague to compose a blurb using a Blurb Dictionary of Words that is only three pages long. Talk about a challenge!

Why not dispense with blurbs entirely, then? Why not let the reader (or shopper in a bookstore) consider each work a tabula rasa? As a teacher, I prefer not hearing the previous grade’s teachers’ thoughts on any given student. I prefer to arrive at my own conclusions. See me for a blurb in October, in other words–one written by me.

Wouldn’t this be a luminous way of doing things? Stunningly fierce and fair? A memorably profound shift in how things are done in the publishing world?

Be remarkable. Say yes.