Thursday, 20 September 2007

Don't believe the hype

I'd have to say I wasn't one of those who was bowled over by Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night-time when it came out a few years back. It was a perfectly enjoyable read, but a bit uninvolving, and I didn't think the central character particularly captured the psyche of an Asperger's Syndrome sufferer (from my admittedly very limited experience of them).
When Haddon's first poetry collection, The Talking Horse And The Sad Girl And The Village Under The Sea, came out in 2005, I read a few reviews of it (they were very mixed), and forgot about it.
Recently, though, I've been trying to give the credit card a rest and borrowing poetry collections from the library, rather than splashing out, and when I was there last Friday I saw Haddon's book and grabbed it. I'd have to say, it's certainly a lot better than the bad reviews it got (and than the one on Amazon - it sounds like the reviewer has some bizarre ideas on poetry in general). On the other hand, it doesn't really live up to the most positive reviews, or to the synopsis, that says:
"That Mark Haddon's first book after 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' was a poetry collection perhaps came as a surprise to his legions of fans; that it is a collection of such virtuosity and range did not. The gifts so admired in Haddon's prose are in strong evidence here too - the humanity of his voices, the dark humour and the uncanny ventriloquism - but Haddon is also a writer of considerable seriousness, lyric power and surreal invention, and "The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea" combines bittersweet love-lyrics, lucid and bold new versions of Horace, comic set-pieces, lullabies, wry postmodern shenanigans (including a note from the official board of censors on '18' certificate poetry), and an entire John Buchan novel condensed to five pages. Consolidating Haddon's reputation as one of our most powerful myth-weavers and spell-makers, 'The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea' also confirms him as one of the most outrageous and freewheeling imaginations at work in contemporary literature."
I presume that was taken from the blurb (I haven't got the book to hand at the moment), and it does rather overdo it, and therein lies the problem, I think. I'm sure the more outrageous claims just put reviewers backs up, and do the poet no favours. For example, "such virtuosity and range" - really? Honestly? "Surreal invention" - the surrealism is rather clumsily done, I thought, and easily the worst thing about the collection. "Uncanny ventriloquism" - no, I can't go for that (see earlier comments on the novel). And finally, "one of our most powerful myth-weavers and spell-makers" and "one of the most outrageous and freewheeling imaginations at work in contemporary literature." Oh come on! In what way outrageous? And where are these myths, exactly?
This isn't intended as an anti-Haddon diatribe. The same could apply to any number of recent poetry collections - I understand the need to market them, but surely making wildly overblown claims just turns the book-buying public off in the long run? I've enjoyed the collection on the whole, but very much despite the extravagant claims made for it.
Understatement is, we're always told, very much the order of the day in contemporary poetry. Perhaps reviewers should use a little now and then.


Andrew Shields said...

My favorite blurbs are always poems, and here is my favorite blurb:


This is not necessary. This is neither
Crucial nor salvation. It is no hymn
To harmonize the choirs of seraphim,
Nor any generation's bold bellwether
Leading the flock, no iridescent feather
Dropped from the Muse's wing. It does not limn,
Or speak in tongues, or voice the mute, or dim
Outmoded theories with its fireworks. Rather

This is flawed and mortal, and its stains
Bear the evidence of taking pains.
It did not have to happen, won't illumine
The smirch of history, the future's omen.
Necessity is merely what sustains —
It's what we do not need that makes us human.

by A. E. Stallings

Matt Merritt said...

I like it!
Actually, though, it's interesting that blurbs next to never include poems or parts of them.

Andrew Philip said...

Not quite true, Matt: if I remember rightly, the backs of Carcanet books begin with an excerpt from the collection and the blurbs below often quote lines.

Andrew Shields said...

Many German collections have no blurbs, just one poem from the collection. Very cool.

Matt Merritt said...

I'd forgotten Carcanet, Andrew, and you're right, although they do tend to go for flowery blurbs too. I like the German idea.