Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Spirit of Flarf

The arts have a complex relation to society.

William Carlos Williams

The word Flarf has a definite meaning when applied to language derived from the Internet and to the literature written in that language. I've lifted the structure of that sentence from Erza Pound's Spirit of Romance (p. 11.) And, indeed, like the Troubadours, Flarfists are "melting the common tongue and fashioning it in new harmonies" (SoR, p. 22). But Flarf is not essentially Internet collage nor is all Internet collage Flarf. Rather, Flarf is a particular way of articulating emotions under particular conditions (roughly: war in an age of terror), working with particular linguistic constraints (or, more accurately, working on a pretty generous linguistic platform).

The Internet is to Flarf what Pound said Latin was for Romance, i.e., the source of its derivation. That is an important point. "Rome civilized BY LANGUAGE" (ABC, p. 33). Today, we are civilized by the Internet and, since "[our] language is in the care of [our] writers", it is only natural that our poets look for their materials online. ("I am SO stupid!", "That is SO cool!", etc.) Mike Magee has invoked William Carlos Williams' introduction to The Wedge (1944) in his characterization of Flarf. Williams emphasized that the poet makes a poem, that the poet does not say something with a poem, and that the poet "takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them" (SE, p. 257).

This, I'd say, applies more less directly to Flarf and I'd add that Google gives a (disconcertingly) concrete sense to "words as he finds them". But it is important to keep in mind that if he were satirizing the places he had found them, or in any other way using the words ironically, he would then be saying something, and this the poet does not do. Or so I want to argue.

All this is a warm-up to looking at some poems directly. What I want to stress is that the procedures by which a poem is made cannot account for its effects. At most, we can appeal to a procedure in order to explain how it was possible to make a particular poem. And this will of course only be a necessary where it amazes us. I take much of R. J. McCaffery's recent "simple" argument to be saying that the qualities of a number of poems I am currently enjoying are "outside the scope of the possible". If that is the case, then one of us is clearly wrong.

I don't want to deal with the question of whether or not Flarf is pretentious because it presupposes that Flarf is "crap". R. J. is working with a perception of Flarf that includes too many "random lines" read with too little charity (in the hermeneutic sense of reading for greatest possible coherence). He takes the word Flarf to denote a programme that is, with the greatest of "ease", churning out aesthetically indistinguishable lumps of (since they claim to be poems) "pretentious" nonsense. By contrast, I use the word Flarf to indicate a quality or set of qualities of poems, using "qualities" here in the laudative sense. That is, I use Flarf as a concept to guide my sensitivity for how particular groups of words come to constitute "such [an] intensity of perception that [they live] with an intrinsic movement of their own" (Willliams, p. 257), or "equations for the human emotions" (Pound, p. 14).

I will be spending a few posts now in an attempt to identify those qualities, with the side-project of identifying them independent of a possible satirical project, which some of the poets and some of their promoters seem to insist upon.

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