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Friday, November 03, 2006

Commendatory Verse: Its Time is NOW.

Having recently gone through the process of asking people I know to blurb a book I worked on, I'm feeling a bit down on the blurb genre. It just seems so... empty.

"This illuminating book reminds us all that the important aspects of its topic are essential objects of study for beginning students and advanced scholars alike. The author's scintillating analysis of that topic guides us through its intricacies, revealing in the process new ways of seeing that will stay with us for years to come."

Blah blah blah. That wasn't even a fun parody to write! It's a sure sign that a form of writing is dead to the world if its satirical versions are as boring as the thing itself. So, to give blurbiage a shot in the arm, I recommend that we look back to its shining Golden Age: the early seventeenth century!* In short: from now on, all blurbs should be written in verse. And some in italicized Latin verse.

Here, for example, is what Stanley Fish wrote for the essay collection "Renaissance Literature and its Formal Engagements" (which, incidentally, has a wonderful essay in it by Stephen Cohen, whose new book I'm looking forward to reading):

Despite innumerable casual disparagements of formalism, it has always been with us and will always be with us so long as there is something called a literary object that solicits our literary attention. These essays brilliantly display the pleasures of formalism and consitute a rigorous and thrilling demonstration of its indispensability.

Kind of a pat on the back for formalism, more than anything else, but whatever. Here is how it should have been written:

Despite innumerable disparagements
Of formalism and its ilk,
This book contains nine marriage tents
Where form and modern thought drink love's milk.
And if there is a literary object,
(Yea, that there is, methinks we can agree)
Then formalism is a worthy project,
As these essays show quite brilliantly.

Don't you want to buy the book now? And don't you now believe that Stanley Fish has actually thought a bit about what he wants to say about it? And aren't you wondering what "love's milk" is? (It's just a convenient rhyme, people... I do these rather quickly). Look, I know it doesn't scan well, and it's kind of nonsensical, and it has one misplaced line of Jacobean-speak, but take a gander at this bit of puffery written by Thomas Randolph for the 1630 edition of James Shirley's play, The Grateful Servant:

I don't know about you, but this totally makes me want to read The Grateful Servant, along with everything Thomas Randolph ever wrote. (I encourage my co-bloggers and our readers to write in with some good examples of their own.) On the flip side, imagine what would have happened had Ben Jonson hurriedly blurbed the first folio: "This collection of plays shows a writer at his best, offering a great variety of comedies, tragedies, and histories that are not of an age, but for all time. If you like Aristophanes, Terence, and Plautus, you'll love Shakespeare." The book wouldn't have sold well, there wouldn't have been second, third, and fourth printings, and boom: I'm out of a job. Thank you, 400-year-old verse blurbing, for keeping me off the streets!

So the next time you're asked to blurb something, do consider alexandrine couplets or at least blank verse. You will be resuscitating a dying form, and probably saving the job of an English professor in the distant future.

*The early seventeenth century: shining Golden Age of EVERYTHING.

  • At 11/03/2006 03:43:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    This laudatory post is for all time,
    Not made for any single age of rhyme,
    It roused me from post-teaching stupor groggy,
    Because it's filled with so much goodness bloggy.

    --"Heroic couplets on Truewit's post"


  • At 11/03/2006 05:16:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    O Thomas Randolph is the man!
    His fulminations always scan.
    I write no sycophronia
    Nor indite with ironia.

    --"On T.R.'s fulminations"


  • At 11/03/2006 05:39:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    What exactly do we think sycophronian means? It's not in OED.

    -phron seems to come from Latin phronesis = wisdom or prudence.

    syco- is from the Greek word for fig (the fruit). Sycophant literally means fig-shower, whatever the hell that means. OED pretty much throws up its figurative hands on this one: "The origin of the Gr. word, lit. = ‘fig-shower’, has not been satisfactorily accounted for. The explanation, long current, that it orig. meant an informer against the unlawful exportation of figs cannot be substantiated. It is possible that the term referred orig. to the gesture of ‘making a fig’ or had an obscene implication."

    So, does sycophronian mean "relating to fig-wisdom"? uh... no. Maybe "relating to apparent wisdom that is really servile flattery"?

    Hence, "sycophronian buskin" = "high poetic terms in the tragic vein, seemingly wise but really merely flattering"??

    Best I can do. EEBO turns up no other uses of the word in its full-text search. No other results in Literature Online either. Thoughts? (I mean, "thoughts other than that I should be doing real work instead of this.")


  • At 11/05/2006 07:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    How about fourteeners?

    The field of early modern drama here is redefined,
    That scholars splashing in its wake might educate their minds.
    Its individual essays are definitive reports
    Of everything that wights today are pond’ring in their thoughts;
    Its striking provocations do o’er-leap the lumpish few
    That might have questionèd their worth in MaRDiE or SQ.
    The combination of these works harmoniously dost give
    A book important, inclusive and most innovative.

    (Freely adapted from Peter Stallybrass's blurb for A New History of Early English Drama.)


  • At 11/05/2006 12:07:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Anonymous!! I will expect some assistance from you when my book is ready to see the light of day. Fantastic.


  • At 11/06/2006 11:46:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I hope that self-praise is made acceptable by formal irony.

    “Coming Up Short”

    The perspicacious commentary
    On this blog illuminates every
    Early modern question with nary
    An omission, gap, or scantily
    Covered crux; while we don’t want to praise
    Ourselves – at least not too frequently –
    We like to think we’ve anatomized
    This field and all of our scholarly
    Obsessions, foibles, fears, envies, lies,
    The groundless anxieties, petty
    Rivalries; and also all of those
    Solitary moments when the whole
    Enterprise seems worth while, suddenly.


  • At 11/07/2006 12:57:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Highly Miltonic in its persistent enjambment, Inkhorn. And its (intermittent) rejection of rhyme. As for scanning, well, even Milton nods occasionally.


  • At 11/07/2006 01:02:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Ok, I just got it: each line comes up one syllable short of a pentameter? You clever bastard.


  • At 11/07/2006 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    13 lines, 9 beats per line -- you see the deal. The rhyme is intermittent because I had to adapt the sonnet form to deal with the missing line; I decided to leave one line unrhymed, and to stick it in the middle: the word "praise" has no echo. Continuing my formal satire.


  • At 11/07/2006 11:25:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Are you considering "whole" and "those" to rhyme? hmm...

    Nonetheless, it's fucking brilliant.


  • At 11/07/2006 11:42:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Well, yeah, some of the rhymes are weak. I was initially going to use the internal rhyme near the end (Renaissance/nonchalance) as a proper part of the scheme, but when you enjamb that much, too intense a rhyme actually sounds weird, I think -- reinforces the line against the sentence too much. So I went with assonance, I guess. Emphasis on the ass.


  • At 11/08/2006 12:09:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Can we start another blog just for commendatory verse, please? Inkhorn... very well played.


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