Friday, February 27, 2009

Flarf Reading #5

Degentesh, Katie. "I Certainly Feel Useless at Times". The Anger Scale. Combo Books. Pages 18-19.

Katie Degentesh writes some of the "easiest" Flarf I have read, which is to say, the most lyrical, perhaps the most directly useful. Let's begin with a definition.

A lyric is usually fairly short, not often longer than fifty or sixty lines, and often only between a dozen and thirty lines; and it usually expresses the fellings and thoughts of a single speaker (not necessarily the poet himself) in a personal and subjective fashion. (J.A. Cuddon's DLTALT, p. 515)

Well, that certainly describes the individual poems of The Anger Scale. Each "feeling" is defined (if not straighforwardly) by a question from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Normally, these questions would be answered simply "true" or "false". Degentesh writes a poem instead.

"I Certainly Feel Useless at Times" is easy to read because it sticks to the point. Its speaker is "an old, wire-twisting, engineer/inventor type" and although Google-sculpting always allows for (and risks) contradicting such descriptions, shifting between voices without any clear markers (like so much modernist poetry in the Pound tradition also does), there is no reason to be puzzled by the subjectivity that emerges here.

As the title suggests (though Flarf's titles are by no means always this suggestive), our engineer is feeling useless and, you guessed it, his inadequacy has to do with women. Being older, he worries about competition:

In the end it is pretty damn reprehensible
to be a younger, more vigorous man than myself.

But he understands something that younger men do not: "women in this society are oppressed". And they are oppressed by the very rituals by which men try to win their favours.

There is a memory in this poem of a relationship betweeen the engineer and a so-called liberated woman. It begins with one of those rituals, which the engineer seems to have pulled off successfully (if somewhat oddly):

Now is the time to tell her how gorgeous she is
giving her peanut butter sandwiches
stuck together with foreign coins

Secretly it pleased her, and she
held her head higher than ever again

feeling a glory in so rolling
that is four times as dear
as any other in North America

Can we not agree that this is finely wrought lyric? That it expresses a feeling clearly and precisely, even where that feeling is (by its nature) full of ambiguity? What gets in the way of the love of these two people is larger than them. But what we have just read tells us (in a sufficiently new way) that so is what they feel in the first place.

Sexual politics is the enemy of romance. And sure enough, it ends badly for this affair.

God will put anyone to use who has the real thing
One time back in 1979 he called an emergency meeting

Then came the massacre of fourteen women
You certainly feel invigorated after that kind of day
It blows the cobwebs back to the sci-fi well

Remember that he had been worried about men "more vigorous" than himself. Now he feels invigorated. In 1979, the battle of the sexes no doubt required an emergency meeting in Heaven. I recently saw Eve Sussman's The Rape of the Sabine Women and I don't think the comparison is forced. I think this poem is a great example of how Flarf effects a a Kopóltuš in the debris of one or another Khurbn.


Kirby Olson said...

but it's only mocking the idea of a "subjective response," and isn't itself, any kind of response, except one that indulges in mockery.

I think this art form is for people who haven't figured out a way to feel at home in the world, or to have their own stance vis a vis the world.

I think it's shocking that anyone could mock the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. It's been in use since the 1930s and has helped innumerable millions to discover what's wrong with them.

I can't understand the use of this poetry. Among other problems, the print size is so tiny.

Even in that way, it seems for very young people, people who don't have children yet, and who never will. These are poems for people who aren't aware that they have feet.

Which is ok. I'm just giving you a little feedback.

Kirby Olson said...

It's identical in voice, and style, to Magee's poem. I was only kidding when I said that I had already read all of Flarf when I had read that poem, but now I think I am right. I have read all of Flarf.

I think it's possible to discover one poem from each group -- and to show how it covers all the other poems written by members of that group.

In this way we could get through literary history much more quickly, saving lots of time in terms of years spent in graduate school. You could master a whole period in about twenty minutes.

Thomas Basbøll said...

It's funny you raise the question of poems for people who haven't had children yet. I thought about that a little when reading "I Sometimes Tease Animals". It seems to me that Degentesh manages to write about "the family" without making any assumptions about the reader's or the writer's experience in that area.

I never know if you're kidding. This is a great remark: "I think it's shocking that anyone could mock the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. It's been in use since the 1930s and has helped innumerable millions to discover what's wrong with them."

That said, as always, I defy you to locate the sense in which any particular poem in The Anger Scale "mocks" the test.

Kirby Olson said...

It will be a day or so before I can get back to you -- I'm tied up with travelling, and putting children to bed, Thomas.

I should always try to use a baseball metaphor when I write to you, in honor of your last name.

I saw a weird documentary on Cuban baseball this morning, and how all of Cuba cares so much about the game.

Sometimes you find strange commonalities in the oddest places.

I can't help but laugh, but I really do try to be serious.

My sense was that she is mocking the test. I read several on-line reviews, and a bunch of her poems in Jacket.

I'll try to catch this one as it goes nearly over the wall, and fire it to home plate, but it will take two days, alas.

Kirby Olson said...

Flarf seems to me to be refreshingly frivolous. I like some of the parameters. I really do. I liked Magee's poem, and liked how Moo had a cow over it. In lieu of Liu, moo. I coiuld milk that for a bit, but there are tiny creatures to attend. Have you got kids?