I recently read the blurb for a collection of poems which was so tangled in its own imitation of ”critical jargon” that the writer could claim, apparently without irony or humor, that the poet creates metaphors from syntax. I spent so much time wondering how I could create a metaphor without syntax that I forgot everything else about the book.
So it was refreshing to pick up Tom Pickard’s Tiepin Errors, and read this quote on the back. The fact that the quote is attributed to one Basil Bunting means it’s also functioning as an endorsement: “approval and envy” means a great deal coming from who it does.
I’ve just been reading his poems with approval and envy. His ear for rhythm is exceedingly delicate, his syntax strong and terse, and his vocabulary free of any fancy work. He seems to able to select at will the detail which creates a whole scene or action, He has made several unusual forms his own.
This is my ideal blurb. It clearly states why a reader might find the poems of interest as poems. You do need to be tuned into those key terms; rhythm, syntax, vocabulary and why they might be crucial and appreciate the kind of poem it endorses. But read the poems, and it is a fair description. Examples could be given from the collection to support each of those claims.
However, the publisher obviously thought more was necessary and the page slides away from Bunting’s precise compliment into a different register altogether: the register of the anonymous blurb writer:
Tom Pickard’s poems of love, sex, politics and war are searing in their directness and emotional power. His political poetry is unflinchingly honest…
It’s hard to believe that this is targeting the same potential reader. It’s an almost parodic example of a use of language directly opposite to the one the Bunting quote admires or performs.
Leaving aside the problem of distinguishing between love and sex or politics and war, what is ‘searing’ doing in that first sentence? It’s the kind of vapid qualifier you hear on the news or in celebrity interviews….how does a poem sear? What does it sear? If it’s the reader, why would you want to read something that did that to you unless you were a paid up member of the masochists union. Why does ‘Honest’ need an adjective and why “unflinchingly”. How do you tell if a poem flinches or it's honest?
We’re in the world where the nouns go hobbling round in need of crutches because no one is really listening anymore. The kind of person who is solicited by this slush is not used to paying attention to words So why is it on the back of a collection of poetry that demands and rewards attention?
PS; Great title, great tie, and for what it’s worth, Bunting was right about the poems.