Wine critic Robert Parker shot to fame in the early 1980s. It was said that within seconds of tasting a vintage he could identify a wine the public would love. He was not out to pay homage to tradition. Parker was, instead, a supreme consumer: His self-professed hero was no scion of the ancient families of first-growth chateaux but the consumer advocate, Ralph Nader.
While the populist bent of his recommendations earned him a wide following, Parker became famous because he invented a new way to talk about wine. His tasting notes didn’t bear glib phrases like “pleasant bouquet” or “fruity finish,” the docile jargon used by generations of wine critics. Parker’s rhetorical flourishes read more like Symbolist poetry than consumer advocacy. Here are a couple of his judgments on recent productions of Petrus, a wine that can fetch thousands of dollars per bottle among collectors:
(1) 1989 Petrus Pomerol: “. . . is more backward and tannic, this coming across as marginally more structured than the opulent and flashy 1990. Both wines are phenomenally rich and well-endowed, with that sweet inner-core of fruit that possesses layers of intensity. The colors are nearly opaque purple, and the noses are similar, with offerings of jammy black fruits, intertwined with scents of tea, overripe cherries, oranges, and an exotic coconut/caramel component. Both are massive and youthful . . .”
(2) 2000 Petrus Pomerol: “A magical effort . . . The nose roars after several minutes, offering up scents of smoke, blackberries, cherries, licorice, and an unmistakable truffle/underbrush element. On the palate, this enormous effort is reminiscent of a dry vintage port, with fabulous ripeness, a huge, unctuous texture, enormous body, and a colossal 65-second finish . . . macho/masculine with more obvious tannin and structure than the seamless 1998.”
What to make of scorched earth? Exotic coconut/caramel components? Macho/masculine? Unctuous texture? The pleasure of reading this kind of “critical” prose is not whether it makes literal sense. Parker’s writing is as purple as the product he recommends, but when one is mulling about the wine racks after a long day at the office, this is pretty entertaining stuff. Indeed, Parker’s prose style has dominated the genre. His imitators invoke cat pee, olives, sweat, boxwood, pencil lead, and even diesel fuel in praise of a favored vintage. One may wonder how these flavors recommend a wine. No matter. If it hints of the Parker aura, it must be good.
Like tasting notes, a book’s jacket copy blurbs are recommendations—a way to convey the product’s style and promise. A blurb, in this respect, is a kind of mini-book review, and the eminence of the recommending writer lends credence to the praise. A few words of approval are by no means as thoroughgoing as an essay in a literary periodical; but the point is not entirely different, at least if the writer’s loyalty is to the reader. Honest book reviews toe an ethical line, and jacket commendations aspire to a similar integrity of judgment; a good plug turns you on to the right book for the right reasons.
Now a blurb is also, of course, a marketing device, a puff to encourage a purchase. The interests of the publisher are also at stake. But honest commerce builds trust. It was once possible, for example, for John Betjeman to state simply on the flap of the 1974 third edition of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings that “This tenderly observant poet writes clearly, rhythmically, and thoughtfully about what all of us can understand. . . .” Betjeman assumes here a universal standard for poetry, writing with the sense that even the most private human experience can be widely understood when rendered artfully. His endorsement spoke to the virtues of Larkin’s poetry with the interests, and the likely experience, of the audience in mind.
Unfortunately, more than a few poetry book jackets in recent years contain wild-eyed rhapsodies that seem barely related to the works they recommend. Parker summoned outrageous metaphors to praise a good vintage and occasionally he lost himself in his flights. But there is a grounding purpose to his style, which describes complex sensual experiences with similarly complex images whose daring and poetic sensuality evokes something of the taste they aspire to describe. Though contemporary blurb writers share, superficially, some of Parker’s lexical flair, they lack his underlying fidelity to the actual experience. Theirs is a style that has grown deadened to its own communicative roots; it is mannered into verbal burlesque. The reader of today’s blurbs is lost amid a forest of symbols.
Here are a few sample blurbs that tell the story of the contemporary poetry endorsement. I present them in no particular order:
(1) “As consciousness turns out to be nothing less than one infinity surrounding every thought, so here, ‘Marked / by the spaces,’ poetry proves to be an infinite, tender inundation of our syllables by lore, by grace expansive and underway: Karla Kelsey is a poet of knowledge given wings of a dove . . .” – Donald Revell on the back cover of Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary, by Karla Kelsey (Ashanta Press, 2005).
(2) “Martine Bellen’s The Vulnerability of Order brings to contemporary poetics an acute, agile intelligence revealed in a dazzling array of linguistic orders, as vulnerable as they are powerful. Her inquiry into the nature of spirit is informed by interlocking knowledge, from a variety of religious practices to biographical incidents in the lives of seven heretical women. Preceded as much by Emily Dickinson’s perceptual condensation as by Marianne Moore’s love for the objective real, Bellen has opened new enchantments in the oldest of human places . . .” – Ann Lauterbach on the back cover of The Vulnerability of Order, by Martine Bellen (Copper Canyon Press, 2001).
(3) “Vitreous dazzles in the way the first pictures of the earth must have dazzled. This amazing collection exists in the vast distance between the body and the body perceived. Each poem makes alien both the form and the function of our most essential organs through its innate understanding that we will succumb as easily to pollutants as we do to that caressing hand on our cheek. David Ray Vance, in this stunning book, offers a clinical yet intimate look at our modes of perceiving our haunting and vulnerable physicality.” – Claudia Rankine on the back cover of Vitreous, by David Ray Vance (Del Sol Press, 2007).
The striking aspect of each of these “recommendations” is how much they labor to express not simply praise but a specific and rarefied style of praise. The authors ache to lend significance—but to what? What is that which is “nothing less than one infinity surrounding every thought”? What is “the objective real,” other than perhaps a tautology? What is “the vast distance between the body and the body perceived” that we all apparently experience? The images are as convoluted as the cloying literary piety that guides them.
The writers of these blurbs appear more interested in sounding informed than in making genuine judgments. They do not aim to offer critical insight, but to confirm a disposition and reinforce the mindset of the coterie that has already bought into the pretense. In short, the character of recent blurbs reveals a hothouse environment where extravagance is commonplace, although we are not even lucky enough to have stumbled onto an art-for-art’s-sake sensibility. Oscar Wilde declared, “All art is useless,” and meant it. But he did not mean that all art should be senseless, and he certainly didn’t declare that all criticism should be incoherent.
Even senior poets issue gushing, inscrutable blessings when the time comes to deliver a public statement. Of Gordon Massman’s The Numbers, the respected poet Jack Meyers, a professor of creative writing at Southern Methodist University, wrote:
Gordon Massman’s decades-long sequence of poems . . . is a hydra-headed, incantatory howl honoring the appetite that gorges on the spillage from the riptides of desire and its near-spiritual flesh-fruits. In other words, it’s a good antidote to not feeling alive.
When Meyers refers to a “decades-long” sequence of poems, one can only guess that he means a decades-long effort to create and compile the poems. From there on, his language reaches a level of absurdity that is disquieting. As a poet, Meyers should know that metaphor must have at least some grounding in experience. The phrase “a hydra-headed, incantatory howl” is at least a little poetically tantalizing, but how does a “hydra-headed, incantatory howl” go about “honoring” the “appetite that gorges on the spillage from the riptides of desire?” And what is “spillage” from something that presumably consumes all around it (a riptide)? And how does “spillage” have “flesh-fruits?” Or is it the “riptides of desire” that have flesh-fruits? But wait, what is a “flesh-fruit” and how is it “near-spiritual?” And why, oh why, does Meyers add “in other words,” as if he were about to explain himself?
So much for the decades-long effort of the poet. With Meyers and others pitch-forking out nonsense plaudits, figurative language has become so debased that what is really expressed is a morass of anxieties. Poetry culture is desperate for significance and jacket accolades exist to cajole or intimidate the reader rather than win him over. The pressure is pervasive: An aspiring poet must show up at the publisher’s doorstep with these meaningless blurbs already in hand.
Not that I am recommending the return of the humorless drudge. The Oxford professor F.R. Leavis once infamously scolded Shakespeare for mixing metaphors in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. The audacity of that too-fastidious judgment has always taken my breath away, but at least Leavis meant to help his students. Jack Meyers’s endorsement, on the other hand, reflects a kind of verbal nihilism. He comes not to praise poetry, but to bury it in follies.
In short, blurb writers like Meyers imitate the style of Robert Parker’s wine tasting notes at their worst: An irrational exuberance marks the effort. Yet even at its most indulgent, Parker’s style still derives from a wish to inform his audience. He picks his flavor analogies scrupulously, and behind his spectrum of wild comparisons lies a notion of ultra-concrete sensory experience. His intention is to render as accurately as possible a real, and subtle, experience. Although Parker reads like Symbolist poetry, his tasting notes might be closer in spirit to photorealist painting. When Parker says he tastes “scorched earth” or “exotic caramel/coconut components,” he means just that. Indeed, chemical analysis by scientists curious about Parker’s sensory acuity has shown that some wines contain compounds that affect the palate just as do the exotic elements he claims to discern. Parker, it seems, is a genuine prodigy of the physical elements of taste.
When we consider Parker’s use of language, we can turn to Oscar Wilde again, who claimed that London fog didn’t exist until the Impressionists painted it. Wilde was not denying the presence of ground-level clouds in Britain before J.M.W. Turner or Monet. He meant that London fog didn’t have the iconic appearance with which it is now inextricably perceived until the Impressionists made it part of their visual lexicon—London fog didn’t exist as such. Likewise, Parker unlocked for the middle class a dimension of tasting nuances previously available only to the wealthy or the specialists. For the blurb writers I’ve cited, the opposite is true. Their purpose is not so much to instruct an experience as to assert an occult knowledge. They have entirely forgotten the mission of their language; they are burnt out on meaning. Reality is a mere cognitive projection for them, a construct of which they have grown weary; consequently, their effusions reflect contempt for the game.
* * *
On my bookshelves I have a number of volumes by important poets that display no endorsements whatsoever. My collection includes a 1934 first edition of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Amaranth, a 1971 edition of The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, and a title as late as 1988, W.S. Merwin’s own The Rain in the Trees. The accomplishment of these poets was publicly renowned already, and no external support was required. These uncluttered covers attest that genius establishes its own measure. But the contemporary jacket endorsement seems ashamed of the notion that all verse must aspire to excellence. We are coached to expect something less-than-great by the obfuscating chat of these advocates. But by nature poetry yearns to be nonpareil, which is perhaps why Coleridge defined poetry (with deceptive simplicity) as “the best words in the best order.” Every book ought to take a shot at eternity.
What advice is there, then, for those who aspire to the modest virtue of an honest endorsement? George Orwell observed in his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” that bad writing is marked by stale imagery and a lack of precision. He equates public speech of this sort with propaganda. In response, Orwell recommends an author ask himself these questions when sitting down to write:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Those recommending a poet via book jacket promotions should confront the same questions. Critics must not set up mysterious barricades around the works they praise. In the wrong hands, a few favorable words become not sage advice but a vanity that contributes to the death of art. It is one thing to employ exotic rhetoric as a temporary verbal spark in service of a common understanding; it is another to make exoticism an end in itself. A writer should never fear elegance and fullness. Behind ostentation, however, lurks the threat of mannerism and obscurantism, and more darkly a desire to protect the tribe—in Orwell’s terms, propaganda. When this happens, the buyer standing at the rack will inevitably ask: Cat piss? Diesel? Do I really want to drink that?