Saturday, February 28, 2009

Flarf Reading #6

Tarzan. 2006. "Tarzan Workshop". Jacket 30.

I'm going to respect the pseudononymous publication of this poem. It is one example I have been able to find of a "mocking" or "satirical" piece of Flarf. Or rather, it is at least alleged to be Flarf, published as such in Jacket 30. But I don't really get anything distinctively "flarfy" out of it. I don't see how it accomplishes itself as a poem.

Yes, I do feel silly using the phrase "accomplishes itself as a poem"; it is so much like saying it does not "feel earned". But my enjoyment of Flarf lies in watching a poem just barely accomplish itself. This one seems to me to fail and its failure is not interesting. That's because it is also, I would argue, trying to do something else. Watch Tim Peterson perform it:

If poetry workshops were a more mainstream part of popular culture, this could be an SNL sketch (if done in costume and with a bit more rehearsal). Even if workshops were as straighforwardly ridiculous as this poem suggests (and I am not at all sure that they are, though I have never participated in one), making fun of them in this way is hardly poetry. I don't see this poem doing anything else.

This reading is important, at least to me, because there is the view that Flarf is intended to fail largely as this poem fails. On this view, I am as ridiculous as Tarzan and what he represents. I think a good poem is a real accomplishment and I think Flarf has produced many good poems. This is one of the few pieces I'm going to read in this series that I don't think is one of them.

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.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Flarf Reading #4

Mohammad, K. Silem. 2003. "Mars Needs Terrorists". Deer Head Nation. Tougher Disguises Press. Pages 27-31.

Critics also need to fail. I can't think of anything to say about this poem. It challenges me a bit like Ben Lerner's "Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan". But only as a critic. I know how to enjoy Lerner's poem. I don't (yet) know how to enjoy "Mars Needs Terrorists". I know it is "the best American poetry" there is (2004) and I own the issue of Kiosk it appeared in (No. 2). I also like many of the other poems in Deer Head Nation. I will return to this one.

[Update: Jonathan Mayhew thinks it is both brilliant and seminal. That's reason enough to discover its virtues.]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Flarf Reading #3

Gardner, Drew. 2005. "Control Is a Beautiful Thing". Petroleum Hat. Roof Books. Pages 71-2.

I was going to stay clear of too many polemics. But my first two readings have had a "corrective" bent anyway, and Kirby's comment to my last reading is well worth countering, if only because it is representative, not least because its general claim is based, he notes, on his familiarity with one (1) poem.

The main problem is that [Flarf] is by its very nature an aesthetically challenged movement in that it doesn't permit lyrical intensity, but is content with a certain half-assed wobbling.

When I read it, I was immediately reminded of Dorothy Sayers. In his "Simple Art of Murder", Raymond Chandler quotes from her introduction to the Omnibus of Crime. The detective story, she says, "does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest aims of literary achievement". Chandler's reply is terse and precise: "The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius, but an art which is capable of it is not 'by hypothesis' incapable of anything."

Drew Gardner's "Control Is a Beautiful Thing" may or may not be a work of genius, I want to say, but an art that is capable of it is not "by its very nature" challenged in any way, nor prohited from anything. Something like that. The poem does not wobble, though it perhaps quivers, and while it's theme is arguably a certain kind of equivocality, there is nothing half-assed about the poem.

It has a very definite mood and a very precise emotion in view. Like "I Am Beautiful", "Control" has a single speaking subject that unproblematically (if this time reluctantly) calls itself "I". There is a "liquid inside" it and "the liquid isn't sticky or confused". The trick is just to keep it, or something like it, from "rolling away". The subject seems to move between the office ("I sat at my desk") and the apartment ("I got home") and has spent some time in "training courses" of various kinds (which you get home from just as they begin). The subject has hands (which are sometimes washed) and emotions ("flecks of rage") and appears to have some experience with what William S. Burroughs called "the crime of separate action": "I'm sure my other half/will use its hands for this." What other half? "I just looked in the mirror/and my head was there again."

Two passages represent the concrete and abstract components of the mood that the poem presents—the emotion that the poem "controls" if you will—"the problem":

The liquid isn't sticky or confused
I move several times a day
directly toward the problem

Then, later:

it was no problem
you can pull
this into the new range
that meets the beautiful sounds,
like a silver shaped cylinder
floating outside your bedroom window.

It is not simply incorrect to say that Flarf "doesn't permit lyrical intensity". Flarf arguably makes a lyrical intensity possible, at least within a certain "range" that we might otherwise "never use". Were it not for Flarf, Mesmer's "ballerina with a clown face encased in a big beautiful teardrop", like Gardner's "silver shaped cylinder floating outside your bedroom window", would be well-nigh impossible.

I'm grateful to Tony for his elegant rephrasing of one of my theses: poetry doesn't make us feel better emotions; it makes us feel emotions better. Here, the poem does not make us feel better about control, but better able to feel control.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Flarf Reading #2

Mesmer, Sharon. 2007. "I Am Beautiful". Annoying Diabetic Bitch. Combo Books. Page 55.

Flarf does not mock the language of its sources, it simply uses it. Often, of course, it uses it for purposes beyond those originally intended. Sometimes more purposefully but often actually less purposefully, at least at the level of the individual line. We will, however, get nowhere in our understanding of Flarf if we imagine that there is some interestingly Bloomian "clinamen" or "swerve", or some sort of irony, sarcasm, or satire, in the relation between the intentions of Flarf and the intentions of its sources. They are as related as the purpose of a tree in a forest is related to the purpose of the hardwood floor in your living room.

"I Am Beautiful" is a great example. While the language has been gathered from personal web pages, obscure songs (like Dax Riggs's "In Death I'm Only Hiding"), and popular culture (like the 2004 movie Sideways), the most interesting reading is one in which we take seriously the recurrence of the "I" as a single speaking subject, and let it bring all the emotions together into the one intense and singular, but of course always fragile, sentiment of the title.

There are moments of real referentiality. We all know what "Al Gore" and "no fucking Merlot" stand for. In fact, it is with the connection of the speaker's sense of her own "famous and gorgeous" body (and soul) to the connoiseur's famous vitriol and the environmentalist's famous spam ("I am also really sick of getting emails from Al Gore./Fuck you, Al Gore, you fucking loser") that a rapport with the reader also becomes possible. There is nothing ironic, mocking, satirical, or sarcastic about the tenderness we next come to feel for this "ballerina with a clown face encased in a big beautiful teardrop". We are now willing not to hate her just because she is beautiful. We are, perhaps, even again becoming capable of loving her outright—for, not despite, her beautiful body, her beautiful soul. And "Daniel"? Well, yes, of course. We "fucking hate that song" too.

Last thought: though I love Sharon Mesmer's delivery in readings as-is, I have found the image of Elizabeth Alexander's "poet's voice" reading the poem (and other poems, like "Squid versus Assclown" and "I Accidently Ate Some Chicken") through a PA system aimed at the Washington monument useful when approaching her work.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Flarf Reading #1

Mohammad, K. Silem. "Does Your Poetry Hold Up?" in Hanging Out with Pablo and Jennifer. Duration Press. (PDF)

If all the judgments that are gathered in this poem were laughable, the poem would be merely satirical. It would mock the pretensions of the editor, or the genuflections of the aspiring poet. But it does not do this. Instead, it shows us what "your poetry" means by showing us how the phrase can be used. You are now free to use "your poetry" as you choose, as your needs require.

This poem says "have done with judgment" but it does not imagine that judgments will go away. It says you will have to proceed and the judging will continue too. It offers no position of ironic superiority: some of the judgments will be right.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Flarf's Biggest Fan

Maybe I think everyone should take a month off and just let John Latta and Thomas Basboll blog for awhile, and then jump back in and try to meet them at the pitch they're playing in.

Tony Tost

I missed the recent flurry of activity about Flarf centred around Dale Smith's Possum Ego. Some key contributions seem to include Kent's remarks and Kasey's, and, very notably, Tony's (first comment), in which he says some very nice things about my approach to Flarf. I think Tony is right to insist on the Google aspect, and I continue to be puzzled by the "community spirit" of the Flarf List. It has been suggested that its reaction to criticism and its insistence on being read "closely" is itself part of "the joke". I don't know. And I don't really care. Even if some sort of joke is ultimately "on me", I have found reading Flarf in my own way very rewarding. In fact, reading through the posts and comments, some of which are quite extensive, I don't think there is any hope that I can find a position to occupy and defend, so I'm just going to make it my goal to make Tony Tost Flarf's biggest fan. That is, I'm going to take up his challenge and read at least one flarfy poem every day for a month and write a post about it. My model will be Jonathan's various reading and listening projects over at Bemsha Swing. Feel free to prod and spur me if I miss a day.

Tomorrow, then, I will answer the question, "Does Your Poetry Hold Up?" (PDF)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lovely as a Pendulum

Flipping through The Spice-Box of Earth, I just noticed Leonard Cohen's "The Girl Toy". Its theme is reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Sandman", about a beautiful automaton. Two lines struck me immediately:

where now the weeds involved the trees

which is the image of an untended garden, and

she lovely as a pendulum,

which is the image of a beautiful girl, offered in contrast to "he obese and old", which precedes it. I suspect that the second of these was the first line Cohen wrote. He wrote the poem, I want to say, in order to use that line. One knows women who are lovely as pendulums but one cannot use that image without explaining it. Cohen gives us a metaphor: a girl made by a clockmaker who has "learned to work in flesh".

Let the weeds involve the trees, I say; my girl is lovely as a pendulum. [She is a clockwork made of flesh.] I think we here have a poem that has made it possible to say such things. And that, after all, is what poems are for.

Friday, February 13, 2009

New Jacket

Jacket 36 is now online. I have an article in there about Nabokov's "rain sparkling crystograms". It's done very much in the spirit of my "Interaction of Cheese" in Fascile 1. I like this style, and I have one more like this in the works.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Listening to Andrew Hill's Black Fire. Does anybody know what "cantarnos" means? I'm assuming it can be traced back to canto and canzone. But the Spanish dictionaries I've consulted come up empty. "Cantaro" however means jug. Perhaps my jug of song is empty?

[Update: Jonathan has the answer (in comments): "To sing to us."]

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Point of Entry

I really like Jonathan's 300 jazz albums series. Tonight, I've decided that what I mean by jazz is somehow marked (but not bounded) by Cannonball Adderly's Somethin' Else and Andrew Hill's Point of Departure. That's a rough gesture, of course. But it means that a song like "I'm Just a Lucky So and So", which I love and sing for my children before they go to sleep, isn't quite "jazz". What I'm saying is probably that when someone says "jazz", as in "I don't like jazz," or, "I love jazz," I assume they mean something that was recorded in the late 1950s or (especially) early 60s.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Sorry, Old Man

The worst story I ever heard about Jack Kennedy was that he sat on his boat one day eating chicken and threw the half-chewed bones into the sea.

Norman Mailer (PP, p. 101)

The worst joke I ever heard Barry Obama tell was the one about Rahm Emanuel teaching poor kids how to swear. He didn't say it like that, of course. What he said was:

This whole myth of Rahm being this "tough guy" mean is just not true. At least once a week he spends time teaching profanity to underprivileged children.

And he really did put the word "profanity" in italics (watch the video). There was nowhere to go with the joke after he had used such a sanitized term for swearing. He delivered the two key facts in the wrong order. But my complaint is not about his knack for standup; it's about his sense of humour. The joke used "underprivileged" in the most patronizing way possible, i.e., as a simple backdrop for an act of charity. Hi guys, I just got off Airforce One ("it's niiiice!") and now I'm making a poor joke. But he didn't even have decency to call them poor. A poor joke, indeed. Then again, he was on TV, so what do you expect? But these are the things one was worried about.

Throwing a chicken bone into the sea is bad because it shows no feeling for the root of death, which is burial. Of course Kennedy might have muttered, "Sorry, old man," as he tossed the bone. That is the difficulty with anecdotes. One cannot determine the nuance. (PP, p. 102)

I don't know what Obama might have muttered to restore our hope in his nuances. But we'll be watching.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Redistribution of Wealth

John Thune's ability to "put things very simply in perspective" is exemplary. Josh Marshall at TPM perceives an opening for some work across the aisle. I also have a somewhat modest proposal. A trillion may seem like a lot of money, but it's really only about 3500 dollars per American. Okay, that's a lot of money for some people and it wouldn't help the stagnant economy very much if the government just appropriated it. But the idea gets me thinking. A trillion is only a million million dollars and there are something like 10 million millionaires in the US. So if they each "gave" 100,000 dollars (i.e., if they were expropriated) you'd have the trillion right there. Of course that wouldn't be fair to those who just barely have a net worth of a million. That's fine. Just scale the program to net worth. So a billionaire would pay more than a mere multi-millionaire. These guys will probably earn it all back anyway by hook or crook, so the adjustment would be temporary, but at least the proverbial "taxpayer" won't get the bill. The reduced purchasing power, meanwhile, would only be felt in the "high-end" market, so it would be a truly progressive program. Alternatively, yes, Americans could just stack up their unemployed somewhere and eat their kids.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Obiter Dicta

Literature teaches us what words mean,
how to use them.

Is that enough?

If we knew what all the words meant,
if we knew 'only' what words meant,

would that suffice?

Genius & Tyranny 4

Genius is established by insight, whereas wisdom sees through it all, even through the insight, and thus sees right through itself. The genius does not see through himself, has no insight into himself. (That is his particular sadness.) He is not freed from knowing, but is beholden to the knowledge he has gathered for himself.

The genius is not, of course, easily understood. He is often not understood at all. But the genius himself understands. He understands completely. He has become the tyrant of his own understanding. That is his knowledge.

Tyranny is established by conquest, whereas love conquers all, even the conquering, and thus itself. The tyrant does not conquer also himself, has no dominion over himself. (Will we grant the sadness of the tyrant?) He is not freed from power, but is beholden to the power he has gathered for himself.

The tyrant is not merely obeyed. Or rather, the tyrant is often not even obeyed. At bottom, it is the tyrant who obeys. Fully and completely obeys. He has become the genius of his own obedience. That is his power.

Genius & Tyranny 3

Tyranny is, let's say, a configuration of power, as genius is a configuration of knowledge. In both cases the configuration is oriented around a personality (the tyrant, the genius) who centers it.

There are other, less personal, ways to define a focus of knowledge and power. The touchstone of knowledge is truth, for example, while the touchstone of power is justice. Wisdom is a kind of absolute knowledge. And the only absolute power is, of course, love.

One might say: if my experience was all truth and wisdom, justice and love, how could the genius or the tyrant hold me in awe?

Genius is the takeover of knowledge by a strong personality. That personality may, of course, be one's own, but it is nonetheless a takeover, a knowledge-grab. (Just as the tyrant seizes power personally.) The genius renders truth and wisdom irrelevant, puts them out of the game. Genius is a way of knowing without respect for truth or wisdom. Could we perhaps say that genius does not transcend knowledge, that it remains immanent to the knowing it achieves?

But only if ... a big IF ... genius is like tyranny, homologous with it. Tyranny is power without respect for justice or love—power without decency. Is it not that tyranny fails to transcend power, that it remains immanent to the dominion it acquires?

And so there is a "tyrant of the intellect", i.e., a genius, as there is a "genius of volition", i.e., a tyrant.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Genius & Tyranny 2

Genius is to knowledge what tyranny is to power especially in their reception. The genius and the tyrant are celebrated in similar ways by "lesser" knowers and powers, i.e., minor scientists and politicians. We honour their "greatness" only by exposing our smallness.

All this is still a question. It is easier to accept this point in re the tyrant than the genius, isn't it? That's the whole point of the homologies.

Genius & Tyranny

It's an incomplete thought, but a homology just occured me. I could be wrong about this.

Genius is to knowledge as tyranny is to power. And, as we know, honesty is to knowledge as decency is to power. This could have interesting implications. One might be that honesty and decency are inversely proportionate to, respectively, genius and tyranny. Honesty and decency affect the conditions of possibility of knowledge and power.

You only need tyrants where there is no decency. You only become one if you have none. You only need geniuses where there is no honesty. You only become one if you have none. (Pause for thought.)

Whether in the society or the individual, genius is neither possible nor necessary under conditions of complete honesty. Likewise, tyranny is neither necessary nor possible under conditions of complete decency. The decent man cannot be and need not be a tyrant. Nor can the tyrant reach him. The honest man has no need to be a genius, nor can he ever become one. And the genius has nothing to teach him.