Saturday, December 04, 2004

Parsing Flarf

I heard a fair lady sigh: 'I wish someone would write a good treatise on prosody.'

Ezra Pound, 'Treatise on Metre' (ABC of Reading)

A poet who writes prose poems is like a grammarian who parses sentences into words. Having chosen the on the face of it least complicated approach to lineation, the poet must now accomplish the (necessary) versification, the rhythm and the rhyme of the strophe, in the smooth (unintentional) space between each single word (intentionally) chosen, and must accomplish the requisite ideoplasty, not as an accumulation of aesthetic feelings (protopoetic emotional content) line by line, but, again, in the concatenation individual words and bits of punctuation. This, in fact, allows for a high degree of prosodic subtlety, and here as elsewhere flarf offers a unique opportunity to both the critic and the poet.

["A poet who writes prose poems is like a grammarian who parses sentences into words," I wrote, but I wonder if the force of the point is obvious. Consider the fact that grammarians normally parse into "grammatical units" or "parts of speech", the joints or articulations of which are not located unambiguously in the spaces between each word. The poet (like Kitasono, whom I've dealt with previously in regard to ideoplasty) often approaches prosody at the level of the line. My own belief is that grammar is constitutively a matter of individual word usage; and, indeed, one meaning of the word "parse" is to situate a word grammatically in its context (describing its inflection, etc.).]

A colleague drew my attention to a mystery I had not noticed when I composed (if that is the right the word) "The Anodyne Pillow". I googled its title and my poem is, in fact, the whole text provided by the search engine (at the time of this writing, Google continues to return only one hit.) He, however, had found, in his own search, a slightly different text, he said (wanting to know why I had made the changes that I seemed to have made.) Looking into it, I discovered something odd. Try googling only

"locality to the spring"


You end up getting four strangely similar texts, which are also strangely similar to "The Anodyne Pillow", but (strangely) the list does not include it.

... well curve. Indeed, the basilica nearby the pillow silk thai trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. An irreverently ...

... Indeed, the basilica nearby the car interior upholstery trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. candle centerpiece floating glass,
...

... curve. Indeed, the basilica nearby the motorcycle oil trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. winchester gun collector. ...

... a well curve. Indeed, the basilica nearby the dba filing trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. An irreverently ...

This cannot be a coincidence, we think, and our natural impulse is to click ourselves onto the pages indicated. The critic who tries this will notice that the text is not available at the source indicated by Google. Indeed, even the domain names alone (www.mdmk.org, for example) redirects you first to adfarm.mediaplex.com and then, you guessed it, to search.ebay.com, i.e., you've been baited and switched. This is true of all the hits, as was true of our remarkably similar "anodyne pillow" search.

I hope there is someone who can explain to me how this sort of "marketing" works, but the very fact that there are machines out there that are ready to construct language for the purpose of being searched is very important to flarf.

After all, I had simply been working on my series of critical pieces under the title "The Annotated Pilot" and had grown tired. I let my mind wander, doing the James Joyce thing, and came on the words "anodyne pillow", which I liked immediately, given my mood. So I searched "the public mind" for precursors to exonerate my innovation and, lo and behold, discovered (it seemed) that someone some time ago had tried to sell a pillow by calling it "anodyne", meaning "mentally soothing", I took it, or perhaps "metalic" (like electrolyized aluminium). In any case, the phrase "anodyne pillow", i.e., the grammatical form where anodyne modifies a pillow, was not my own creation but, I thought, someone else's.

There is a lot of grammatical garbage out there it seems. Palinurus sayeth "the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." Flarfists should take it all in stride, of course, though the commercial applications, as it were, are disturbing. If marketeers are putting words together at random, then perhaps Google will not serve the purpose I had hoped in regard to prosody. I thought Google could determine interesting proportions in various word combinations, distinguishing orthodox from original grammar (in order, of course, to avoid the latter). I do not want to give the power to determine orthodoxy to e-bay's henchmen.

Can self-respecting poets really apply the luminous ideoplastic of "the basilica nearby the motorcycle oil" or the "frippery at some saggy panorama" to their work knowing what their source may be? Are we back to searching through the whole language within, word by word, hoping to be blessed by the muses?

I leave it as a question.

1 comment:

Laura Carter said...

Of course, you know I will never argue against the idea of *M(m)use*, but perhaps a good international thesaurus or one of the fabulously detailed on-line versions of Webster's will have to suffice the internal language, that, unfortunately, I don't seem to possess.

I'm really enjoying this. Keep it up!