Friday, November 26, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part I

Flarf is not just a principle of literary composition. It is also a principle of literary criticism. And it is not so much a principle as a procedure. I think it is important to understand that procedure, in terms of its consequences both for reading and for writing. In the spring of 2003, I discovered Flarf by accident and carried out a full annotated study of one of its exemplars. I want to present my results of the study and speculations about the genre here over the next few weeks.

This post is a bit long, and a bit old hat as far as I can tell from other discussions of Flarf I've been able to find. I wanted to start by collecting some material for comparative analysis.

I actually encountered Flarf, Tost and contemporary American poetry at the exact same moment. Until then I hadn't really been interested in current poetry and poetics. A natural question (Who the hell is Nicholas Gurley?) and a universal source of answers (Google) was the beginning an epiphany for me. It is possible to reconstruct something of the experience very simply. Just now I entered the phrase

"Folks I am not a pilot and therefore"

into Google and got two hits. One of them was Tony Tost's I Am Not the Pilot (Cortland Review, 22, Feb. 2003.) The other is a page at Boeing's website where F-4 Phantom pilots and crew pay their respects to that plane. The very same result can be returned with the search phrase "glamorous end of the sword". You can also try "I, Nicholas Gurley, am not a pilot" for a similar effect.

Then I tried

"if I lower my head now and listen"

And got over 25 hits, all of them to Billy Collins' I Ask You (Cortland Review, 7, May 1999) including what appears to be a translation into Chinese and a posting of the entire poem to a blog called Totalitarianism Today without comment. That last fact made me chuckle.

Next I entered the phrase

"there is nothing that I need"

And got over 600 hits. The 15th was to a listserv archive where Collins' poem was again quoted in full.

The preceding hits (1-14) consisted of the following material. I quote here only the text that Google provides from the web page refered to (the refrain is not an error).

He chose the way of the cross: There is nowhere you must go. In His body was ample payment: There is nothing that I need. Because

When you are in the mind, everything I am saying will seem false. But I wish to tell you that for myself there is nothing that I need.

It’s a language I have ceased to need. There is nothing I have to wake for.There is nothing that I need to sleep from. I have no dreams.

thee. I smiled at the genie And said please forgive me, But there is nothing that I long for There is nothing that I need. For I

each beat. 4) I am relaxed and I have all the time I need. 5) There is nothing that I need or want to do at this moment. 6 ) I will

builder of my experience. I usually don’t ask for anything as there is nothing that I need at this point. I do however sometimes

LMU: Poetry is not my salvation because I need no salvation. There is nothing that I need to be redeemed from. MD: What about teaching?

I've been thinking about putting a 2nd card in that also has FM radio capability and want to make sure there is nothing that I need to be concerned about.

The panel issued a statement describing Bush and Cheney as "forthcoming and candid." "There is nothing that I need from the president that we didn't get today

I think I went a little overboard this year!! I sorted through it to see what I might need and, trust me when I say, there is NOTHING that I need!!

and me! I am quite public about my being HIV Positive and feel there is nothing that I need to apologise for in my past. Certainly

am. There is nothing that I need but your saving grace and there is no need that I could ever have that is deeper that this one.

me. Now, there is nothing that I need that I would want them to buy for me. Let me revise that, there is NOTHING that I NEED. There

The panel issued a statement describing Bush and Cheney as "forthcoming and candid." "There is nothing that I need from the president that we didn't get today

These searches constitute physical properties of the poems: mechanical properties, aspects of their machinery. That a single line in a poem returns two hits (one of which is to the poem itself) when Googled is a fact about the poem. That one line in another poem returns 25 hits (all of them references to the poem itself) and another returns more than 600, the first 14 of which together comprise a poem of comparable quality to the source is a fact about that source. (I say "comparable" very imprecisely. I hope to be more precise about this later.)

They are facts about the poems and about their grammar. They are facts about the language that I think are well worth looking into. They are the new facts of literary criticism.


TT said...

Needless to say I'm really interested in what you're doing here. On the "Gurley" side: I got an email from Nicholas Gurley in April that read thus:

"Mr. Tony Tost,

I was searching my name on the Internet, and I was quite amazed to see that it has appeared in one of your poems! In fact, I was stunned to see a large chunk of my PGG article - which I wrote when I was 16 years old, in one of your poems. I just wanted to say hi and meet the famous poet who liked my writing. =)

On an off-hand note, it turns out that it was my brother that ended up becoming a pilot - I guess he got his membership! (If you remember my article, you'll understand what I mean....)"

Good stuff.


Thomas said...

Thanks for the note, Tony. I'll have to take up the question of the sense in which flarf's sources indicate that the poet "likes the writing" of the source, especially given the role of "The Poet" in "I Am Not the Pilot" (see my next post). Making a still larger mountain of this molehill, we might also investigate the arbitrary relation of the source to the poet's memory and/or Google's present algorithm and cache. Looking forward to your comments and corrections, of course.

And, Laura, I'm also working (in my mind) on thing called "Blog, Flarf and the End of Academic Writing". Who needs footnote, bibliographies and indexes when you've got Google?

Thomas said...

I've been thinking about syntax lately, actually, but it'll be a while before I have anything interesting to say I think. The Chicago Manual of Style distinguishes "grammar" from from "word usage" in a way that Wittgenstein does not (and therefore disconcerts me). He would speak of the grammar of words themselves. There is something about the division of linguistic studies into syntax, semantics and pragmatics that completely misses the point of "meaning is use". Once you have that division, and syntactical "parts of speech" to look for, I think many of the issues I want to deal with are closed off.

Lastly, I'm sure my conception of Flarf is simpleminded in relation to the mainstream poetry project. I'm dealing with a little corner of it that I can understand, and which I think does have implications that are larger than we might immediately think.

Amanda Silbernagel said...

This is fucking fascinating. I'm really enjoying/glad I discovered your blog! Keep it up, AS