Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Flarf" [sic]

I was obliged to learn that my results (which I had communicated in lectures, typescripts and discussions), variously misunderstood, more or less mangled or watered down, were in circulation. This stung my vanity and I had difficulty quieting it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Some of this chatter puts me in a somewhat difficult position. The chatter is definitely gratifying, even interesting, on one level. But reading much of it, one can feel the need to fight for the right to have one's work experienced without a lot of others' verbiage encrusting it, making it literally invisible.

Gary Sullivan

Gary Sullivan has found it encumbent on him to point out that I am not qualified to opine on the nature of flarf (first here then here). Indeed, I have the sense that I have just been disqualified.

His concerns seem to divide into two overarching issues. The first has to do with "the right to have one's work experienced" in a particular way and the second has to do with the accuracy of the description offered by critics of flarf.

Over the past year, I have been trying to address some of my concerns in terms of flarf. Gary construes this as my attempt to reimagine flarf in my own terms, which is to say, he imagines that I am trying to explain what he and his friends are "doing" (his scare quotes). In fact, I have mainly been trying to understand a particular species of beauty in recent poetry, specifically, a particular lightness that pleases me; and to connect this to certain technological developments that appear to be defining my age (Google).

To call that an interest in "flarf" may have been rash. For, obviously, if flarf is poetry that can be traced back to 11th Street in Brooklyn around the turn of the century then I have not, as Gary points out, done the corresponding "leg work" ["footwork"]. Indeed, I am not familiar enough with any particular body of work, whether individual or communal, to even begin to offer a "slant" (let alone an "academic" slant) on a "movement". I think the movement or community effort that Gary is defending from misappropriation is entitled, perhaps, to its indignation at the way I've been bandying the word around and, certainly, to its condescending smile.

But, like T. S. Eliot ("The Perfect Critic"), I am

inclined to believe that the 'historical' and the 'philosophical' critics had better be called historians and philosophers quite simply. As for the rest, there are merely various degrees of intelligence.

Gary proposes to group the various degrees of intelligence that have been applied to flarf in terms of whether or not they belong to a particular list, community or group of friends: at bottom, in terms of whether or not he knows who they are. This operation is so counter to my own inclinations, both historical and philosophical, that I'm certain that his sense of "flarf" is nothing like mine (especially when applied as a kind of honorific). Finding my own tentative observations about Hannah Weiner and flarf grouped ramshackle (and, I take it, on this occasion largely unread) with a bunch of other remarks that happen to use the same word is embarrassing. Because, in a sense, Mr. Sullivan is right. Construed as talk about flarf, my efforts amount to idle "chatter".

I was really only trying to find out what it was that appealled to me about "I Am Not the Pilot". I quickly discovered that it had been Google-sculpted and found in this an explanation for its spritely lack of vanity (I'm not trying to be very precise about this just now). This also seemed to me to be what "The Flarf Files" were driving at. Flarf appeared to me to be a way of making it new by depriving the poet of some habitual vanities. And this definition seemed to apply to the material I was looking at, whatever its origin.

Now, what Gary is saying this week is that his community would prefer not to be reduced to simple formulae. What they are doing may be many other things. There may be other ways of "risking inappropriateness" (i.e., having done with poetic vanity) than to replace one's muse with Google. But to my mind, Google is an effective icon for the demystification of linguistic inspiration.

I was suprised to learn that at least one member of the community that "invented" (again, Gary's quotes) flarf would feel threatened in any way by academic criticism, especially in the nascent form of the blogosphere. I'd have liked to think that my remarks were simply beading up on flarf's feathery back (its swan costume, yes?). But I was never trying to do an anthropology of flarf or its social history. I was trying figure out what made a number of poems I was suddenly discovering so good.

I don't know if I'm going to keep calling it "flarf". This may be the final [just another] indication that our age, like all ages, is more complex than a single movement's experiments. I imagine it's a bit like the role of "imagism" in "modernism". Any history of early twenty-first century poetry will very probably have to mention flarf. But that won't be enough. Also, in such a history, flarf will doubtless be represented by a reductive sample of works and poets. Critical work like mine will no doubt then appear partly laughable, even lamentable. Flarfy?

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