Thursday, March 30, 2006

Elite Flarf

I'm looking forward to seeing how R. J. McCaffery's still somewhat general indictment of Flarf as "elitist and obscure" and founded on "false consciousness", along with his endorsement of Dan Hoy's thesis, viz., that it "pretty much surrenders the technique of collage to a set of corporate algorithms (that control the rankings of the google search engine)", plays out in his analysis of particular poems.

One poem I'm rereading often these days is Gardner's "I Am So Stupid".

the garden will love me
the pollination will love me
that stupid girl from Sweden will love me
I can’t believe you slept with her

I need some of that sweet toxic love
pouring through my vernacular
how did I get so dumb? What’s wrong with me?
in the same way I love it, I also hate that I love it

I am so walking across a county
I am so stupid that I cannot rely on birds
I’d rather take a test

It seems to me that the only way to construe these lines as elitist and obscure (let alone "corporate") is to think they mean something very different than what is right there on the page.

I think the same can be said of another current favourite: Gary Sullivan's "On Speaking in Public". Here again, it is only if we suppose that "the point" of the poem is for someone to make an ass of themselves by "not getting it" that any sort of elitism would make sense. This, also, is why I resist the satirical construal of Flarf. I like it best when it's just saying what it's saying.

There must be a difference between writing top notch poetry and being elitist. Just as there must a difference between being in good shape and being a formalist.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Extreme War Poetry

Picking up on an idea of Jordan Davis', Kasey would have us imagine the extreme possibility of "a poem that, for example, ended the war in Iraq. Or started a whole new war." I can imagine neither. In fact, it doesn't jibe well with my understanding of what war is or what poetry is.

Picking up on another idea of Jordan's, the reason for this may that "poems don't consume petroleum". Wars, of course, do. But they also, it is said, secure the oil fields.

It looks like we might be talking about this a bit on the Lucipo list.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Keats and Yeats are on your side

One of the most impressive tribute albums I've ever heard has to be The Smiths is dead (Les Inrockuptibles, France, 1996). Billy Bragg and Supergrass do excellent versions of "Never Had No One Ever" and "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others". Placebo does an amazing rendition of "Bigmouth Strikes Again". For some reason, however, the Frank and Walters (whom I don't know anything about), have chosen to engage in a strange act of misprision.

Keats and Yeats are on your side
why can't they be on mine?

To see the enormity of this misreading, compare Morrissey's original,which is among my favourite pop lyrics:

Keats and Yeats are on your side
but you lose because Wilde is on mine

All this is just a longwinded intro to a later post in which I intend to unpack the anti-Palinurian sentiment of those two lines. I have my own ideas about what they mean, but any suggestions are, as always, welcome. If anyone wants to defend the Frank and Walters, I'm all ears too.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Explication de Texte 3: emotion

J. A. Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory tells us that the word "strophe" is sometimes synonymous with "stanza" (especially in an ode) and sometimes (which I think is roughly the same thing in another form) "the unit or verse paragraph in free verse". That is also how I use it, making it homologous with the philosophical "remark". It is a group of words that achieves a specifiable poetic (or philosophical) effect.

In that sense, Kasey Mohammad's "Wallace Stevens" consists of four strophes (and Part I of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations consists of 693 remarks.) The first and last address the form of perception: intuition, in the Kantian sense. "Imagine" in the first becomes "look" in the fourth. "Evil" in the first becomes "numb" in the fourth. The second and third strophe present two simple images (emotional-conceptual complexes): an inner-city tragedy (the cliché of such a tragedy) and (in what may be the most interesting single impression in the poem) a guy standing beside the speaker, fuming like Cyndi Lauper, Björk and small, young Japanese women that write for people on drugs (and/or in high places). (I had a different interpretation of the fuming earlier; I like this one better.)

We are here being given a glimpse into the imagination of the Wallace Stevens of evil (some would argue that Wallace Stevens is the Wallace Stevens of evil, of course) and the corresponding numb eye that is already surveying the present as "the total past" (i.e., the present as the total expression of everything that has gone before). The emotion of a poem is always that with which we become contemporary, however. That which joins us to time.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Explication de Texte 2: sources

The ostensible source of "Music Theory" is the experience of the poet. The poem reports on something that "happened". But it is, of course, not important whether or not it is true or accurate: what is important is that for the poem to work the teacher and the students must plausibly exist. The poem's emotion depends upon our ability to imagine the scene and to identify with the teacher. The poem does not "work" if we identify with the students. The materials, more importantly, are arranged around a point of view that asserts itself as poetic, a particular sensivity, an aesthetic "rightness" precedes the reading of the poem.

"Wallace Stevens" accomplishes itself as a poem by the arrangement of materials that are not in and of themselves poetic. Flarf is made out of materials that are unprepared for poetry; the materials used stand in an arbitrary relation to the emotion presented in the poem. Below are the sources I was able to find. As usual, their critical effect is minimal and negative, i.e., all we learn by discovering the sources is that they do not explain the poesy of the poem. They do not account for the emotion available in the poem. And yet, there is nothing else to the poem but their arrangement. This may seem like a banal point, but it ought to sharpen our sense of the contribution that poetry makes to language. It ought to make it somewhat clearer what poetry is.

3. Wallace Stevens

I couldn't have imagined, nor could you have less imagined, anything so worthy of America, had you not been there and done things, oh so many things, there.

Ahmed Balfouni, "Top 10 American Poets" in
Neo-comintern Electronic Magazine #187,
January 27, 2002

You're an evil motherfucker if, when somebody dies and you were THERE contributing to the damn shit, you're an evil motherfucker if you say, well, he did it to himself. Of COURSE he did it to himself. And I thought it was a riot, at the time, contributing to it. Look, man, it is actually pretty fucking FAR from a riot. And you got fucked up with Wallace Stevens? Hart Crane? And you're proud of it? Well, FUCK you, Peter Rabbit. I miss everyone I've ever known. Even those I did not like.

Kevin McGowin, The Benny Poda Years, Chapter 20

Track 10 is “Angel Blake.” This is Glenn Danzig at his finest: slow, heavy and richly textured with his sotto-voce tenor. Lyrically, Danzig is the Wallace Stevens of Evil. “Angel Blake” is a haunting tale; and simply a beautiful song. Here is the perfect example of a man getting better with age. He certainly has come such a long way from, “I turned into a Martian…”

Mick Stingley, Review of Danzig 777: I Luciferi

Oh yeah
In france a skinny man
Died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle
And soon she did the same
At home there are seventeen-year-old boys
And their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called the disciples
High on crack, totin? a machine gun

Prince, "Sign of the Times" Like small, young Japanese women, Kirsten can dress like Cyndi Lauper circa 1983, or like Bjork circa anytime, or like Betsey Johnson on crack (redundant ...

(This archive seems to have been deleted)

3) "Interactive writing for sexually active teens" -BMC

4) "Hot shit off the dome for the mentally infirm" -Rickey Petersen

5) "Leaky cow udder writing for milk-starved sycophants" -Melatonin

6) "Hi-fi writing for high people" -Gnarly Wayne

7) "Wisecracks for wise people on crack" -BMC

"Top 10 Rejected N-Com Tag-lines" in
Neo-comintern Electronic Magazine #187,
January 27, 2002

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Explication de Texte 1

If we compare Ryan G. Van Cleave's "Music Theory as, or the Magical Breasts of Britney Spears" with Kasey Mohammad's "Wallace Stevens", I think the virtues of Flarf can be seen quite clearly.

At a general level, both poems combine references to literature with references to popular music and both poems evoke the vernacular. More specifically, both poems seem to turn on an error in this combination. Van Cleave's speaker mistakenly tells his students that the Parthenon is in Rome. He calls this a "boo-boo" and later says, "I wanted to Ctrl+Alt+Delete the/ whole / thing, reboot the damn class". Mohammad's much less definable voice simply notes someone "fuming" next to him (over the practice of "writing for high people") and offers an apologetic, "my bad, people /I could fast-forward life/ and look at all this with a numb eye/ to be like the total past". Note that the word "bad" here is a noun, like "boo-boo". Note the reference to technological mediations of experience that foster the dream of reversibility.

The differences begin with the choice of poets and pop icons. Britney Spears vs. Danzig, Walt Whitman vs. Wallace Stevens. In Van Cleave's poem this is no contest; it is clear that Britney Spears really doesn't belong in a poetry classroom. But Mohammad, in part because he draws his language verbatim from a positive review of Danzig's album 777: I Lucifero, makes the confrontation a fair and interesting one. Mohammad is not defending Stevens against vulgarization, he is exposing him to it. Van Cleave, however, is clearly simply shaking his head at "a pack of beaky, cheeky geeks who can't understand/ that their / trajectory in the universe is one of their own making,/ fueled / not by sugary gimmicks or cool turtle bone shades, but/ curiosity".

I think Van Cleave is trying to satirize his students but really just succeeds in moralizing from his superior position as their teacher. There is nothing to suggest that "Wallace Stevens", however, is satire. What vices are being ridiculed? What values are being defended? Nor is he making fun of anything. Rather, he is coordinating a field of social forces (heavy metal and high literature, crack heads and thin, Japanese women), he is writing down a particular emotional equation.

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.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Word For/Word #9

"neither you nor your double can have the final say"

The new Word For/Word is here. Check out the lovely poems by Adam Clay, Kate Greenstreet and Justin Marks. And me.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

(Stupid) Question

for Simon DeDeo

Has Drew Gardner accomplished with Flarf what Tao Lin was unable to accomplish with a litany?

Mr. Pound and Mr. Rockefeller Go to the Bank

Any general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it. If Mr. Rockefeller draws a cheque for a million dollars it is good. If I draw one for million it is a joke, a hoax, it has no value. If it is taken seriously, the writing of it becomes a criminal act.

Ezra Pound (ABC, p. 25)

The latest round of talk about Flarf has an interesting feature that I would like to get at by way of an analogy. Suppose you overhear someone at a party telling a bigoted joke. On that day, let's say, you're in the kind of mood when you say, "Bigot! Asshole! Fuckface!" He quickly changes his tune. "It was just a joke," he says. He might even apologize and admit that it was a stupid thing to say. Except, he actually doesn't like "those people", you soon find out. This comes out because, for some reason, you started to defend those people. (What you forgot was that in order to mount this defense you had to accept the bigot's original category.) In the course of the discussion, you find out he has a series of uninformed opinions about "them". These opinions are not as vulgar as the original joke, which he has taken back, but they are nothing more than unfounded generalizations about a group of people he knows nothing about. When pressed, he finds examples of all manner of perverts and reprobates among "those people". You tell him that "they" can't be responsible for the failings of individuals and that the examples he cites are, in most cases, ordinary human imperfection magnified by a crusade against a larger foe. In other cases, there is talk of individuals no one has ever claimed to be especially proud of. Finally, to show his openmindedness about it all, he challenges you to find just a handful of "decent people" among "them" that he will then "civilly" measure his judgment (of all of them) against. After all, he's not prejudiced, he assures you, somewhat offended that you might have ever entertained the idea.

(To avoid a needless misunderstanding: I am not saying that Seth Abramson is a bigot. I'm saying he is arguing like one.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

How to Read (Instead of Just Fucking Around on the Internet)

Hang a painting by Carlo Dolci beside a Cosimo Tura. You cannot prevent Mr. Buggins from preferring the former, but you can very seriously impede his setting up a false tradition of teaching on the assumption that Tura has never existed, or that the qualities of the Tura are non-existent or outside the scope of the possible.

Ezra Pound
ABC of Reading, p. 26

Monday, March 06, 2006

Resistance to Criticism

Seth Abramson is "suspicious of any poetics which resists criticism". In an earlier post, I said I disagreed with the idea "that it is ridiculous to have critical opinions", which I don't today think is one of the Flarflist's ideas (but I go back and forth on this). Certainly Kasey's poetry and criticism suggest that it is possible to write Flarf and respect the formation of critical opinion. But my own take on Flarf has in fact sometimes been to posit or imagine a "disconcerted critic" who is unable to apply familiar critical tools in reading the poems (Mr. Abramson?). My readings often try to imagine exactly how this critic feels and that image becomes part of the effect of the poem; once that reader has been shaken off, we get the critic who finds the poem open and walks right in (i.e. the reader of Ben Lerner's and Tony Tost's poems, to take some paradigmatic examples of this opennes without begging the question of flarfiness: these are not Flarfists.)

Picking up on McCaffery's suggestion that "there's a legitimate place for a small set of 'avant-flarf' poems being produced every so often", Abramson says the following, which puzzles me a bit:

while there might be much to defend in a single flarf poem--and while the concept itself may, like so many other, more interesting sorts of poetics do, engender some excellent and necessary dialogue on meta-topics--it's unclear what if any additional value is derived from the 836th flarf poem, as opposed to the first. The "point" (as it were) has already been made, and since the poetics which underscores that point is not itself intended to elicit any visceral enjoyment or comprehension in the reader--or, if it does, it is somewhat "beside the point"--why beat a dead horse?

What I don't understand is whether he means that the effect of that "single" poem will simply be that "point" he is talking about. That is, is there anything besides the "point" (I keep the scare-quotes because I don't think Flarf is best understood as making a point) "to defend in a single flarf poem", on this view? Can we imagine saying this sort of thing about imagist or confessional or nature poetry? I think the reason to produce a great deal more flarf all the time (not every so often) is to see what it can do and make it work better. But the reason to keep the good ones on your bookshelf is because they afford real (actual, serious) aesthetic pleasure. They are able to take note of emotions that are very difficult (and perhaps impossible) to register by other means. But I have a long way to go before I'll convince very many people about that, I expect.

Close Reading Assignment

Joshua Clover draws our attention to the work of Ryan G. Van Cleave. It was possible to find what looks like the title track of The Magical Breasts of Britney Spears, of which Billy Collins blurbs as follows.

By writing so unabashedly about the glitter, the effluvia, the very Britney of contemporary American life, Ryan Van Cleave may have shortened the shelf-life of these poems, but few readers of today will be able to resist his supercharged language and unbound satirical exuberance.

It got me thinking about why I like Kasey Mohammad's "Wallace Stevens" in Deer Head Nation, which Charles Bernstein blurbed "this vibrant, hilarious, and often chilling rearticulation of the culture that defines-unless we define it first."

Explication de texte later.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Contra Flarphilia

It is important to dissociate criticism of Flarf from criticism of the hype that surrounds Flarf. Since I admittedly contribute to the hype, I have to be sensitive to both kinds, though I find the former more interesting. It is also increasingly rare. Most of the critical intensity is now focused on the appreciation of Flarf rather than on the poetry. (New criticism began by shifting attention off of the poet and onto the poem; we now seem to need a shift of attention off the critic and onto the poem.)

Dan Hoy's essay is of course in this category of critical criticism (rather than literary criticism). R. J. McCaffery and Seth Abramson can be read the same way, I think. Julie Carter offers some heckling here. What they all share is a negative reaction to the positive feelings that go with Flarf, which in McCaffery's variant amounts to construing the excitement as "pretentious". This reminds me of Norman Mailer's dismissal of Beckett on the basis of its positive reception by people he believed were snobs. As his wife put it after they finally did go to see the play, "Baby, you fucked up." (This anecdote comes from Mailer's Advertisements for Myself.) I hope some of these critics of "the love of Flarf" will one day come around, as Mailer did, and admit that they dislike people like me more than they dislike the poems. People have been asking whether the poems "live up to" the hype, when the poems are actually far more interesting than the hype. That is, I hope one day Seth Abramson will count at least ten or fifteen poems that are distinctly flarfy as also somewhat "actual".

In an interesting twist, Abramson warns his readers that "negative remarks about flarf made in a public forum are likely to be met with death threats, cocaine-fuelled internet rants, disinvitations to AWP parties, and/or a vicious cartoon-based lampoon featuring naked stick-figures and much playground-grade scatological buffoonery." It's reasonably precise hyperbole as far as it goes, but I should add that positive remarks about Flarf have also been ridiculed (mine, for example).

I'm beginning to think this reaction from the Flarflist and its promoters (including its non-response to Hoy's essay at Jacket) attempts to perform the idea that it is ridiculous to have critical opinions (Sullivan's spoof reviews of Flarf seem a part of this performance) whether positive or negative. If that's the case, today I disagree with the Flarflist Collective. I'm confident that Flarf can be assimilated by the more or less orthodox critical opinion (though not without making some necessary changes, which is something that McCaffery and I seem to agree about). What is ridiculous, I think, is having an opinion about the marginal utility of the 835th work of Flarf without reading, say, seventeen such works very closely first.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


From Dan Hoy's "The Virtual Dependency of the Post-Avant and the Problematics of Flarf" (Jacket 29):

What I mean to emphasize is that [Flarf] is also a conduit of corporate ideology. You might as well be using Jay Leno’s monologue to induce a meditative fugue — and what kind of sensibility is he transferring to the subconscious of those who fall asleep and slumber to his words every weeknight?

From Drew Gardner's "Chicks Dig War":

Your mission, captain, is complete:
enjoy the spoils of war.
It's so romantic.
chicks dig war (especially chicks on the pill).
The experience is just magical.
Oh, and you can get a really awesome war on.
Chicks like a nice war.

From Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot":

I am fairly proficient in martial arts, but I am not a pilot.

Repeat after me, 'I am not the pilot,
I will not attempt to fly the ship.'

Folks I am not a pilot and therefore
I am not at the glamorous end of the sword.

I have no feelings for the machine.

With a little bit of Googling, the following sources turn up: Maxim online, Gregory Raj ("Guru to the Stars"), Boeing, Star Trek Voyager. These are obviously "corporate" sources in some sense. But I simply can't see how this fact explains anything about the poems in their final form. I don't see how the passages I have quoted here are "conduits" for the ideologies of Maxim, Boeing, Raj or the Star Trek franchise. But I'm willing to discuss it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Reliable Critic

For an example of the exact opposite of what I just complained about, see Simon Dedeo's Rhubarb is Susan (here's one about Kate Greenstreet.) Statements in re measurements made.

The Unreliable Critic

The critic who doesn't make a personal statement, in re measurements he himself has made is merely an unreliable critic. He is not a measurer but a repeater of other men's results.
KRINO, to pick out for oneself, to choose. That's what the word means." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, p. 30)

I'm doing two things these days that are having a peculiar mutually reinforcing effect on each other. First, I'm reading a handful of good books of poetry (Petroleum Hat and A Defense of Poetry are on the top of the pile right now.) Second, I'm trying to articulate my response to Dan Hoy's essay in Jacket. What these two activities are teaching me (or confirming for me) is that it is pointless to discuss poetry without reference to specific poems. I don't necessarily mean new critical close reading, I just mean that attacking people's critical faculties (which is pretty much all he cites my work in order to do) without identifying even a single specific error of critical judgment (which he does not do) is less than constructive as criticism goes. The best response to Hoy at this point is just to quote from the work of Sullivan, Mohammad, and Gardner. [Update: Jacket 30 looks promising here.] In fact, just quoting "I Am Not the Pilot" and "Chicks Dig War" alongside their sources is the most definitive refutation of Hoy's criticism that I can think of right now. I just don't see any corporate bias there.