In praise of the praise of poetry.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 5 2008 5:48 PM

New Literary Art Form Discovered!

In praise of the praise of poetry.

I believe I've discovered a previously unrecognized genre of contemporary writing that deserves commendation for its distinctiveness and frequent excellence. It's practiced mainly by contemporary poets, but it's not poetry. In fact—at least for me—it's much better than most contemporary poetry, in the sense that it's much more readable, much better crafted, and often beautifully compressed in a dazzling haikulike way.

It's something that gives people like me who don't find themselves drawn to much contemporary poetry a sense of the verbal facility of contemporary poets—and contemporary poetry critics—when they're writing prose about contemporary poetry.

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The past century has taught us that good writing can appear in unexpected forms: film scripts, Sopranos-type series, the storytelling of R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman, for instance. And writing about poetry, particularly praising contemporary poetry, is a fine but extremely difficult art. It has to distill the presumed poetic genius of the writer being praised in a way that at the very least equals the supposed brilliance of the work itself. So in a way it's more elevated than prose; it's prose-poetry (remember that?) about poetry.

Recently, British poet * James Fenton cited something that the mandarin of poetic modernism, T.S. Eliot, wrote about the supremely difficult and delicate art of blurbing poetry:

"Everyone engaged in publishing," Eliot wrote when he was an editor at the august London house Faber & Faber, "knows what a difficult art blurb-writing is; every publisher who is also an author considers this form of composition more arduous than any other that he practises. But nobody knows the utmost difficulty until he has to write blurbs for poetry: especially when some are to appear in the same catalogue. If you praise highly, the reviewer may devote a paragraph to ridiculing the publisher's pretensions; if you try understatement, the reviewer may remark that even the publisher doesn't seem to think much of this book: I have had both experiences."

Let me explain the roundabout way it came to me, the discovery that the praise of contemporary poetry, either in blurbs or reviews, is itself a neglected form of poetry, meta-poetry. Even if it comes from the most corrupt and sordid favor-trading, grant-grubbing, academic back-scratching sources, it's clear that those who are good at it are so very good at it that their work rises above its origins and deserves special recognition. It is not some degraded adjunct of contemporary poetry but perhaps its very apotheosis. It would be a tragedy to lose the poetry, of course, but to lose the even more brilliant blurbs! Sometimes I wonder whether in fact the poetry being praised even exists or has been dreamed up to provide the rationale for the praise.

In any case, my recognition of this underappreciated genre began with my attempt to find a proper way to praise Keats' ode "To Autumn." A poem whose melancholy perfections I've had a lifelong obsession with.

With autumn—and specifically Sept. 19—coming upon us, I wanted to commemorate Sept. 19, the day in 1819 when a tubercular, slowly dying young Keats took a walk on the hills outside Winchester overlooking the just-harvested stubble fields and watched

... barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.

as he would put it in the poem he wrote in the aftermath.