Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part III

So you won't find much technical
information here. Just my emotions :)


The Nicholas Gurley passage of "I Am Not the Pilot" (Tony Tost, Cortland Review 22, Feb. 2003) occupies seven lines (ll. 22-28) of a seventy line poem. The Maria Excerpt, which will concern us here, occupies eleven (ll. 44-54). These quantities are only interesting in their critical effects on Google searches, i.e., in so far as they determine the Googable properties of the poem. The Maria Excerpt is an especially interesting example of this effect.

If we enter line 45

"When I take off within the airplane"

into Google we get, at first pass, exactly one hit. Searches that return very few hits are normally indicative of high grade ideoplastic (the material from which good flarf is wrought) because it specifies a source. Compare, for example, the line immediately preceding this one, line 44.

"No, I am not a pilot."

Here you get 29 hits displayed, only the second to last of which is the real source, viz. Maria's page about skydiving (though the first, interestingly, is Tony's poem.) I don't want to say that nothing interesting can be gleaned from the content samples that Google provides (or even from clicking yourself onto the pages provided), but the sense of the line is rendered vague. The light the search sheds on the poem, we might say, is "diffuse": it has no clear focus, and the theme of the poem therefore loses its edge.

What is strange about a single hit in the case of line 45 is that "I Am Not the Pilot" is known to be available online and is not identified by Google. The mystery is solved by reading the fine print. Google has "omitted some entries very similar to the 1 already displayed" in order to "show you the most relevant results". And, sure enough, if we ask Google to repeat the search without this ommission, Tony's poem is hit. That is, the poem we are investigating is not, according to the machinery of the search engine, considered "relevant". Google was not able to distinguish Tony's poetry significantly from Maria's prose, which reads:

No, I am not a pilot. When I take off within the airplane and feel beneath my feet that lonely piece of the ground mysteriously flying in the sky my only desire is to leave it ASAP and fly "on my own". Because I know how my parachute works but know nothing about the strange sounds the airplane makes sometimes, what do that dozens of airplane indicators mean, what does the pilot thinks... So you won't find much technical information here. Just my emotions :)

Tony has fixed the language a little (Maria, it should be noted, is Russian) and, more importantly, has dropped the last two sentences (even though they refer back to the opening lines of his poem). I was struck by Tony's reading of K. Silem Mohammad's "Mars Needs Terrorists".

by fixing his general processes and sources, Mohammad presents as variables not his own emotions, thoughts and imaginings but (as noted above) those of his sources.

Flarf is a system of notation, but I am not sure that what it notes down are the emotions of the sources. Rather it uses the materials provided by others in their attempts to note, not just emotions, but thoughts and images, or simply inventories, lists, half-thoughts, exclamations, slogans, etc. The flarfist or flarfer may use three half-thoughts, two items off a list, a couple of loose emotions and an image to present (note), in the poem, a single, well-wrought and useful emotion. The emotions in the source are, I would argue, incidental to the poem--something which is often very clear once the source has been located.

In short, I think the first part of Tony's statement is correct. Flarf spares the reader the variable of the poet's own emotions. But the second part is not right, and that is not why the sources are interesting. What is interesting about the sources is their automatic availability to the reader. By using Googable sources, the poet makes the field of his sources surveyable, we are afforded a clear view of the grammar of the language that the poet uses and, in the usual way, "corrects", that is, "uses well".

The well-wroughtness of "I Am Not the Pilot" may be contrasted with less intense uses of the same language, whether in other poetry or in offhanded prose, like that of Maria. To return to Borges's observation about The Wasteland, I'd like to put the contrast more starkly than I did in the last post. If the "erudite obscurity" of modernist poetry disconcerts the critics (while giving them something to do), flarf should disconcert the critics (because it leaves them so little to do) with its rudimentary perspicuity. The difference between the un-wrought and the well-wrought word is on the surface of flarf, where it belongs.


TT said...


I'm really enjoying reading this a great deal. On the variable idea: when I'm saying that the source of the Flarf language is the variable, I'm basically thinking of a casual reading situation in which a reader has a Flarf poem, knows the processes involved, but isn't actually looking up the sources.

I'm just trying to get at the sensation I have reading a lot of Kasey's poems where I'm not only reading his presentation of the poem and the phantom-fictional narrator who would be uttering the poem as it is seen on the page, but also trying to imagine the situations & contexts for the original statements. This sensation is strongest for me in "Does Your Poetry Hold Up?" from Hanging Out With Pablo & Jennifer, and also in certain individual lines, like in "The Led Zeppelin Experience" and the line "it’s a wonder why your husband left you and you’re all alone" which is more devastating in a Flarf poem than in a non-Flarf because I'm left imagining someone writing this in a social situation (though it could just be from a short story, I should Google it) & Kasey un-earthing it. So instead of tracking the poet's emotional/intellectual life (though the poet's selections reveals emotion) I'm trying to track the emotional/intellectual lives of this imagined (from the reader's pov) populace being tapped for poems.

It just seems like an interesting dramatic arrangement. I just posted last night a Flarf poem using Robert Duncan's "My Mother Would Be a Falconress" as the rhetorical model; inspired by your Flarf postings, I tried Googling the opening words of each line and re-constructed Duncan's private poem with public discourse. I wonder if this is introducing too many variables: the poem itself and its imagined speaker; the original authors of the phrases used; myself as conceptualizer, editor and arranger; Duncan & his original intentions; the differences & distances between all these. I don't know. I think next I'm going to try and compose a Flarf version of one of Pound's WWII broadcasts.


Thomas said...

Glad you like it, Tony. Not surprisingly, you raise some issues that are central to everything I think I'm trying to do here, so I'll be returning to probably all of these things again. Here are some quick thoughts.

To my mind, "tracking the poet's emotional/intellectual life" was always a mistake. My hope for flarf has been that it severely undermines that approach and therefore brings our attention back to the poetry. I think you and I agree with Eliot on this. But I think your reading threatens to shift our attention elsewhere once again as we "try to track the emotional/intellectual lives of [the] imagined ... populace being tapped for poems." But "tapping the populace" in search of poetry would be like tapping the ocean in search of fish. The populace, the source of our ideoplastic, does not make poems, it just talks. We (you) take what is "in the talk" and fashion poems out of it. The process is more perspicuous now, and that's the liberating moment of flarf, but the work remains superior to the talk in its articulateness.

I think the "casual reading situation in which a reader has a Flarf poem, knows the processes involved, but isn't actually looking up the sources," will soon be a thing of the past and this is in fact the "modernism" or even "futurism" of flarf. Your situation assumes that poems are essentially made of paper, and that you hold them in your hand far away from any other relevant media. Which is to say you've got a seriously pre-McLuhan poetics here trying to make sense of a seriously post-McLuhan phenomenon (seriously BEYOND McLuhan.) But poems are no longer made of paper. They are made of of searchable and copypastable "pages", meaning that your reader (who doesn't, say, know the name of Gurley) WILL find the source and may do so before reaching the end of the poem.

I don't know. There's something about the line I'm taking here that makes me uneasy. I'm sure we'll get close to the bottom of it as we proceed.

Thomas said...

closeR, I meant. . .

Laura: I'm working on an idea called "Parsing Flarf" in part to satisfy your call for a syntax of flarf and in part because of a problem that arose in the reading of that poem about Tony's/Duncan's/everyman's mother, reminding of the way I groped and fumbled my way through "Pilot" last year.

"I tear at the ivory teeth of an insatiable piano"

returns only Tony's poem but

"I tear at the ivory teeth"

returns also Tania Brewer's source because she's got a line break where Tony doesn't. But

"I tear at the ivory teeth" "of an insatiable piano"

also finds the source. And this suggests a critical method of passing through each line of the poem with a set of double quotes, "parsing" it to see how this reconfigures the hitlist. This may be a way of finding joints in the grammar as a function of actual (i.e., Googable) usage.