Thursday, August 20, 2009

Poetry lives, it thrives, it has purchase. And a pension

Poetry does encompass all sorts of odd configurations and rethinkings, it seems to me , and will continue to do so regardless of anyone's well-worded attempts to put a fence around the form and preserve it's purity. Language , we tend to forget, is a living thing , used by millions , billions of us around the globe to get across the complexity of experience with a finite vocabulary, and to encompass new successes, new disasters. It's a malleable entity, and while the meanings of words and their syntactical constructions change with constant use, tempered by technology, politics, pop cultural, language and it's literary forms, the novel,the poem, the play, the short story, wind up settling down into a semblance of order, structure, coherence. Frayed, changed, tweaked, but in tact.

I'm not a Flarf fan--I will take William Burroughs, Godard and Pynchon over the easy ironies of a generation of bright scribes who seem intent, to hammer the remaining life from the concept of irony--but those who've been around poetry classes, workshops, reading series and have written three decades worth of material trying to simultaneously debunk previous standards and extend them yet further, we've seen this energy before. This is to be expected and desired; while there's only so many intellections one can play their variations upon in the attempt to develop an original poetic and aesthetic with which to nestle their work at a theoretical distance from a casual reader, the real energy is in the work itself, the actual poems that get written with the attitude to "make it new". Verve and innovation are what poetry constantly needs to keep in a relevant resource for reader desiring something other than coldness of a sober prose.

It's not that I don't get Flarf, but rather that the kids have discovered my old toys in the attic, in the form of old avant gardisms and mouldy experimentalism, and who have painted the notions in colors of their choosing. An aesthetic that generally suggests a preference for inappropriate juxtapositions of rhetorical pitch and tone, practitioners of flarf scour the Internet for the convolutions, crazed coinages, conflations and confusions an unmonitored language finds itself subjected to; the findings are brought back to the reader (anyone eager to be in on the joke) in poetic form,shall we say, in an effort to bring an x-ray to the pinched seriousness of a literary establishment's endeavors to pass itself off as essential to existence. It is, we guess correctly, a joke. If that's the case, it's a joke that gets told over and over, the thinking being, it seems, that a concept gets more profound and funnier with frequency. I used to have great fun with the find and replace mechanisms embedded in Word documents; I would cut and paste a straight forward NYTimes article detailing some bloodless activity only wonks would be interested in, and then used find and replace to switch-out appropriate ones for ones that were non sequiturs. Finding and replacing all uses of the article "The", for example, replacing it with with a nonsense sentence like "Jesus, your breath makes want to eat Cheeze Whiz Hunger Punks". And so on. It was instant Dada, incredibly funny, but after the glee came the tedium of just doing something in an attempt to re-ignite a mania that had passed. Flarf seems a more grandiose version of that and, as with many experimental movements of the passing moment, the rationalizations for their perpetuation is more artful than the work itself.

Poetry , meantime,will withstand this assault as it withstood the valiant energies of my contemporaries and I, the best of their efforts will be absorbed, the best work will find homes in appropriate anthologies and web site archives, and another group of writers, some years younger, will begin their attempt to usurp the current residents at the top of the heap.

One might call this a dialectic, a cycle; one might also consider terming it a pathology, having as much to do with vanity, ego, status and the conviction that one's generation is the last word at the end of history. Language and it's attendant form, poetry, however, goes on. We still breath, it still thrives.


  1. I don't know that much about flarf. It sounds like it would be crappy most of the time, but hopefully there are some practitioners out there who only begin with the random quality of the exercise, and then work the material into something that can connect with people, make them see things in a new way, maybe.

    It does seem like that new generations need to destroy some aspect of the previous generation's work. I guess it's up to how creative they can be after the destruction that determines the value of the new generation.

    Incidentally, I was just reading James Breslin's "From Modern to Contemporary." He makes an interesting case that the first generation after modernism (Lowell, Ransom, Berryman, Roethke, etc) appeared to accept the earlier generation's ideals about what poetry should be (i.e. New Criticism's ideals), but Breslin's point is that they effectively domesticated the most radical things about modernism. In other words, they set out to embrace rather than destroy the previous generation -- though they paradoxically warped it into a less radical shape.

    Anyway, thanks for the fascinating post. I'll have to check out this flarf stuff.

  2. Anonymous9:32 PM PDT

    I think it's that no one wants to give up their seat, like musical chairs, and were Flarf to take off and become, one day, a 'classic' sort of poetry, those who had become the most successful at it would in many ways do things that would make it difficult for the new generation to get in on their grand joke. And so the new generation decides to write a new one.

  3. Anonymous10:24 AM PDT

    What Flarf books? What did you think?

  4. Well, yes I suppose this is a legitimate controversy highlighting issues of form vs. content and whether any expression no matter how crude or recondite is worthy of exposure, but COME ON, is this really as worthwhile as the devastating sounds found HERE:

  5. Man, I'm feelin' just like a newborn colt
    I'm gonna hit these chicks with a Martian jolt
    'Cause I'm a red-hot daddy with a thousand volts
    I'm the Fang
    I'm the Fang
    I'm the Fang

    Now, I meet this Earth cat and he says, 'Hi, you all'
    'Man, you real nervous, you feel like a ball?'
    I said, 'Sure, daddy" he said, 'Let's find a hole'
    Ah - he didn't know I was a Fang
    The Fang
    The Fang

    This song, I'd say, deserves respect because it's not an ordinary stretch of wierdness--anyone can make funny faces, babble nonsense verse, or dance spastically at inopportune moments. That's just willful and repetitious non-conformism available on any cable channel. Norvus concentrated his strangeness into a creaky but appealing tune that focuses free-associative tendencies into a self-declaring narrative; a man finds himself in alien terrain and defends himself with a loud and purposeful bit of boasting. It's not all different from the hip hop aesthetic of a systematic fuck you
    of assertion. This is friendlier, more approachable; it's threat is cushioned with humor. It is unique and, I'd say, definitely art , exquisite on its own terms.


Comments are moderated due to spam. But commentaries, opinions and other remarks about the posts are always welcome! I apologize for the inconvenience.