Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Poetics of Inaccrochability

You mustn't write anything that is inaccrochable. There is no point in it. It's wrong and it's silly.

Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast, Ch. 2, p. 20

In truth, I had not thought of flarf as the poetry of discomfort, but as a radical application of modern technology to the liberation of the individual from his talent, allowing "emotions which he has never experienced [to] serve his turn as well as those familiar to him." (Eliot) One of the most insidious functions of the art world is to erect a "personality", or sometimes a whole "community", around the smallest indication of real talent. When artists themselves try to carry out this function it becomes, as John Latta notes, and I think rightly (I think), a way of circling the wagons round one's flurf. It is a way of protecting society from what Irving Layton called "talented sickies" (poets).

That is, I think Gary's poetics are alarming (at first I just found them surprising) precisely because they suggest an intention to be both discomforting and perfectly harmless. It can probably most easily be seen in his suggestion that flarf was originally conceived as an attempt to be "inappropriate" in "private"(!). Now, I don't for a minute think that he will think this is a fair way of stating his intentions. But I do think flarf's mission of actually being inappropriate (or at least truly risking it) and therefore actually making discomfort manifest is undermined by articulating its poetics in the way Gary does: by disqualifying some approaches to its criticism and qualifying others, i.e., by identifying those who do and do not get it.

And, in a way, just as I finally prefer Elvis Costello to Johnny Rotten, Steve Nieve to Sid Vicious, the Attractions to the Sex Pistols, as, let us say, artists, I also think (but as yet really only suspect) that "what works" about flarf is not the discomfort of its results (or the discomfort that results from it) but the way it arranges materials that were obviously unprepared to become poetry, thereby allowing (forcing) the reader to engage with the work much more directly and rendering a good deal of traditional criticism (which always in one way or another insulates the poem with the personality of its author) irrelevant.

I think Google is an important tool to this end, but I'm sure that the Flarf Collective has discovered many more ways about it. I hope, of course, that some reverse engineering is possible even with Advanced Flarf. Ultimately, I want to suggest, it would be disappointing if any of the enjoyment of flarf depended on anything like erudite obscurity. Nothing, I had hoped, was hidden in flarf.

When Stein instructed Hemingway not to write anything inaccrochable she meant "like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either." In a sense, as I understand Gary's remarks, flarf was an attempt to break this rule. To be wrong and silly. But once we understand this intention (and Gary is explicitly asking us to), once we "get it", we can safely buy and hang it in our anthologies (which might be Kasey's point in advertising the death of flarf).

The trouble with that small segment of the public that is seriously interested in poetry is that once they believe that something is poetry it cannot but comfort them. When I discovered flarf (and I mean real, bona fide, certified, locally produced flarf now), I found it comforting. What people do with popsicles I already knew.


Michael said...


I've been pretty sympathetic towards your arguments in this thread, but I wonder if the seeming dismissiveness of popsicles (yes I'm being serious) isn't symptomatic of a basic critical stance in your writing (again, I'm just wondering, I don't know your criticism well enough to say): that is, a dismissiveness of *content* as a category relevant to your concerns. I have no doubt that you know a few things people do with popsicles but are you honestly that bored with what popsicles do in this poem? (apologies for the screwed up linebreaks):


At the same time, it has to be distinguished, I think, from feminine hysteria, which is covert and isolated; it is much more difficult for a woman to perform hysteria and/or silliness in public, the social opprobrium far more severe.
––Maria Damon

Pussy ... anti-woman conspiracy theory involving a popsicle

Across the street in front of the Pussy Cat Theatre
I watched two women on the next blanket pass a popsicle

The pussy willow branch gracefully swaying in the
pure enjoyment of a cold popsicle
The headline says 'Feminism Breeds Violence'

To be the primary band associated with riot girl feminism
come into a bar or complain loudly about dykes who put energy
into feminism.
I like to go out with guys and talk about pussy. ... Holy Christ on a
popsicle stick!
She made me tea and gave me a popsicle, showed me
I'm a pussy... since, y'know... Feminism is the advocacy of political
Dwarves - Let's Fuck - Blood Guts & Pussy
Pursue her, she might fall into the clutches of feminism
I asked Dan if he could sign Popsicle Toes
would probably sell her machine and continue marketing pussy ...
Pierce Brosnan is a pussy prettyboy. ... Maybe a housewife
don't take away her feminism mind poison
the thing is THERE––like a popsicle or something
something *fun*. Go sit in the sun with a popsicle.

Or, more importantly, to popsicles in the poem that inspired the above, Katie Degentesh's astounding "The Popsicle: An Essay"?

It doesn't seem to me that form and content are so easily separated -- your interest in source material should tell you that.

I wonder too, just as an example, whether it matters to you that TS Eliot's poetic *content* suggests the emotional range of a lovesick teenager -- it certainly does to me: e.g. it makes whatever formal inventiveness there is to find in his work seem rather grudgingly executed and it makes his FH Bradley-ish philosophy and criticism seem that much more sophmoric and exclusionary.

If nothing else, flarf is about headlong cultural engagement -- this seems to be what Stan Apps is trying to say, and to hazard a guess as to what this quality of this engagement might be. In contrast, Eliot (and I supose this is why I think of him here) gives one the impression that a single popsicle does tragic violence to his tongue.

Beware the popsicles, they are not what they seem!

Thomas Basbøll said...

Dear Mike (Magee?)

The short answer is, yes, my attitude to the popsicles indicates my critical stance. Popsicles are not what they seem: they are forms.

My interest in the sources of flarf is peculiar because, once one understands what they are, they undermine themselves as "content". So my interest here is one that can't survive the scrutiny it proposes.

Tony has been trying to salvage the sources as such, i.e., he has been suggesting that reading a flarf poem involves (re)imagining the contexts that produced their content. In my opinion, flarf is interesting in its use of sources that are obviously of no interest whatsoever--precisely because, I might add, it is often easily situated in "the emotional range of a lovesick teenager".

I hope I didn't say that the poem would have been better off without the popsicles. I did say that the popsicles do not bring me discomfort (or get me thinking that it must have been uncomfortable to write it). In fact, I think this poem gets us feeling more precise, more intense, more useful things about feminism (often despite that movement's programmes).

Obviously I think you're being too hard on Eliot, but we can always take that issue up. Most of Eliot's contemporaries had emotional lives that would seem silly to us, and found themselves (meaningfully) in social situations that we'd find absurd. I think this is just a question of Eliot being the past that we know more than because Eliot is what we know. (That could have been said better.)

I think part of my proposal here, and I want to say this seriously, that is, as something that might be contested and shown to be wrong (because it is my concern to be right about this), is that there is something "wrong and silly" about thinking that putting a few words together on a page could ever constitute "headlong cultural engagement".

This what Eliot nailed better than anyone: criticism must be about poetry as poetry, not as culture, or politics, or philosophy, or history. And once we see this we see also that poetry (as poetry not as a conversation piece in some other pursuit) is mainly "a superior amusement".

Good poems always recognize this limitation. Flarf, I think, forces humility willy-nilly upon itself by making its procedure so obvious and its depth so easy to fathom. What we're talking about, it seems to me, is whether flarf can accomplish "its" goals in direct opposition to the goals of its authors. I think it can, and Gary's position is an indication that it does.

I hope I'm not straining your sympathies. I still see myself as very much a minority, outside voice in this discussion and am really just appreciative of the interest in my views and trying to acknowledge it as best as I can. For me, the question of what flarf is keeps feeding back into the question of what poetry is. So I don't think it's an empty exercise to wonder what criticism in Eliot's key would make of it.

I do know we're so beyond that now.

Thanks again,

Michael said...

Thomas, thanks for the reply -- I'm glad we can still have a reasoned back-and-forth about this stuff. It may be that the blogs are not fit for a fully developed conversation along these lines but my increasing suspicion is that the question of Eliot is not incidental to the question of Flarf. It may be true that "most of Eliots contemporaries had emotional lives that would seem silly to us" but among his contemporaries were, I'd say, a few people wearing their big boy pants while Eliot wore his GoodNite rubber undies -- they would include John Dewey and Kenneth Burke. Works like Dewey's ART AS EXPERIENCE and Burke's PHILOSOPHY OF LITERARY FORM make Eliot, in my opinion, seem young and amateurish. Forget for a minute that Eliot's politics such compared with theirs, he's also simply not in the same leaugue with them as a thinker. (There's a reason that Adorno praises Dewey in AESTHETIC THEORY. Does he even know Eliot exists?) And the poets who come out of this Dewey/Burke nexus (WC Williams, Zukofsky, Stein, Langston Hughes to name a few of their contemporaries) construe the world in a way that contrasts directly with Eliot. My book EMANCIPATING PRAGMATISM maps out the poethics (to use Joan Retalak's term) of this contra-Eliot tradition -- and I see that poethics as simpatico with Flarf, albeit in a very complex "uncomfortable" way.

David Leftwich said...

This just maybe late night gibberish (and a bit of devil’s advocacy), but what if the point of flarf (and maybe all poetry) is that it is simply fun, “a superior amusement.” Are we taking flarf too seriously? Is the joke on us? Flarf reminds me of Dada and Duchamp humorously thumbing their noses at formal art and society, and they seem to be comfortable with that aspect of it. Maybe that’s what Gary and others were driving at. Yet, I also wonder is everyone a bit uncomfortable admitting that flarf can be funny, that poetry is aesthetically enjoyable. Is all this post-poetic act theorizing exposing a pragmatic, puritanical streak that is uncomfortable with the sheer joy of art? We can’t admit that at some level it is fun and unproductive, so we construct elaborate theories to justify spending hours reading or writing poetry? I admit I don’t think I agree with this. I think that poetry does have cultural significance. Doesn’t it? That critical theory has a role. Doesn’t it?

What sparked this line of thought was an essay by Barbara Guest, titled “Wounded Joy”, in which she writes:

“In the youth of my poetry I was fortunate to be surrounded by painters in the Art movement of Abstract Expressionism and I learned from them.
First I noticed these painters appeared to have a lot more joy than did the poets. They were more playful! Their ideas were exploding on the canvas and they had a sense of freedom the poets were only beginning to learn from them.”
Are we strapping our selves to a gurney of serious theory and forgetting the joy and playful side of art? Just some late night food for thought…I may wake up with a throbbing blog-over, and regret this whole incident as I toss my smoke-filled jacket in the washer and fumble with the child-proof aspirin bottle.

TM said...

I had some ideas for you I thought were relevant and was gonna post my longish comments here but now I've gone and done it Gary's blog, in the comments box there. You're free to check them out. My stance is very very much the stance of an outsider (I'm Finnish).