Flarf is Exhibit A in what I think of as pretentious contemporary poetry. The word “Flarf” is one of those jargony ex post rationales for something we’ve all done as bored undergraduates; assembling a crappy poem out of lines not our own for the purposes of mocking something. But now it’s been recontextualized as something edgy, artistic, and manifesto-bound (will look nice on a CV, I’ll bet, just in time for next years AWP).
You can read a collection of Flarf here: http://mainstreampoetry.blogspot.com/
And the Eletronic Poetry Center at Buffalo has a collection of statements on the origins of Flarf, including some by the self-declared “inventor” of Flarf, Gary Sullivan.
Flarf, like language poetry in general (or most of what you find linked off Ron’s blog, whatever it calls itself), annoys me insofar as it elbows its way into what could be a productive discussion on substantive topics. For the moment, let’s call it Avant-Flarf, since I’m not sure there’s a substantive difference in the “product.”
A-F poetry can certainly be used, mandala like, to illustrate a number of now-becoming-tired “truths,” such as these gleaned from this Flarf Explication website: http://flarfclosereadings.wordpress.com/ (which gives us the French for "explication of a text" - éxplication de texte. I guess the English equivalent would have been confusing or something.)
We fully recognize that, like much non-traditional poetry, flarf often assembles language in ways that do not accord with normative grammar and syntax, thus rendering the idea of a poem’s “paraphrasable content” problematic while insisting on the presence of meaning nevertheless. We also recognize that, contrary to “new critical” ideology, a poem is not a stable, timeless expression of universally acknowledgeable meaning but a socially, culturally and historically contingent human artifact.
The problem is that these ideas are not inextricably bound up in, or exclusively illustrated by, A-F poetry. It’s possible to reach these same conclusions by analyzing “traditional poetry” which, might actually call your attention to (and focus it on) something important.
I’m not going to limit what that “something important” might be, but given the state of the country and how humans are treating their fellow humans, I will definitively say that the 835th piece of Flarf is not really adding to the dialogue. In fact, one could say the law of diminishing returns has long since eviscerated most of the avant-guard, especially because contemporary analysis of “traditional poetry” is no longer bound, as it were, by the focus of that poetry; critics are certainly free, in a post-Derridian world, to point out what the text does not address – silences, marginalizations, ellipses, echoes, palimpsestic impressions, and so forth.
Thus Flarfthors (lookie, I coined a term, break out Wikipedia) seem to be a mere link in an academic production chain:
- Flarfthors write “bare template/empty set/open vessel/mandala” poetry which contains some interesting lines (to the individual reader) but does not avail itself of any coherent narrative, musicality, or serious examination of the human condition.
- The academics/explicators (often Flarfthors themselves) step in and have a fairly interesting discussion on contemporary issues which touch on culture, language, meaning, politics, expectations, narratives, cognition, etc. (I actually think this dialogue is useful and productive.)
- To keep this machine of academic dialogue and criticism running, and injection of A-F poetry is required to be squirted into the gears every so often. As A-F poetry will never take a definitive stand on anything, it will never grit up the academic wheels by providing troubling contradictions.
One added bonus (not the least significant) is that Flarfthors, by producing “work” that incorporates an element of the random, effectively insulate themselves from criticism about the primary work. The poems themselves can be (and often are) forgotten or elided completely as the conversation unfolds. When they are considered, they can also be garnished with interchangeable praise gleaned from and reinforcing that above mentioned academic dialogue. (That’s to say a poem can be “blank,” and X might be discussed via that poem. Thus more poems (or that poem) might be praised as being cleverly indicative of X. The problem is that you could remove X and put in Y or Z or Q or * or $.)
Obviously, the tragedy of this paradigm is that the poets have been effectively silenced or cowed into producing interchangeable works. I mean, it’s completely possible to write a corpus of Flarf/Avant, seal it off for 10 years, then use it for whatever academic/poetical discussions this group of theorists will be having 10 years from now. Sure, we might want to randomly dust in whatever new words/usages may have arisen, it’s but basically one-size-fits-all. Say what you will about Baraka, but the man spoke in the poems themselves. He didn’t create a more or less empty vessel and speak to it’s significance after the fact.
Not to ghettoize (Buffalo joke inserted here), but I think there’s a legitimate place for a small set of A-F poems being produced every so often. But I think literary history, as it’s presented, has romanticized the idea of the A-G, and taught that there’s some kind of simplified “evolutionary” process where the status-quo is challenged by a handful of unified avant-guard and creates a kind of Hegelian triad resulting in a synthesis. Thus poetry is reified and kept “abreast” of modern life, much like any product is continually updated. However, the reality of the situation is that you have many kinds of “branches” from the mainstream of poetry, some of which branch off and grow upward, some of which shoot off on right angles, some of which shoot off and then cut down/backward. Literary history, like all other kinds of history, tends to focus on the victors, not the could-have-beens, and even then it only selects for situations where a successful or significant transition occurs. Thus it seems that all the great poets were revolutionary for their time. Eliot’s minions get short shrift and we focus on other poets with different voices entering the dialogue (e.g., Auden, Kavanaugh)
But this false impression of the genealogy of literature results in some very young and ardent poets trying to get on the A-G/A-F train, not for any love of poetry per se (perhaps) but for love of the academic lifestyle and the (important) conversations and discussions that are currently taking place there.
As an aside, there are a lot of antecedents to what is becoming “the official story” of Flarf: I knew a guy in the early 90s who used to take published poems and reorder them into completely new poems, using each and every word of the original. Also in 96, a bunch of my grad school friends and I wrote deliberately crappy poetry and sent it into poetry.com for a lark (apparently that’s also Flarf, or something like it, at least according to Kasey Mohammed and Gary Sullivan). I think it was 97, but a workshop fellow of mine submitted some found poems based on cut-up marketing e-mail. I know that Kelli Agodon has a similar type of poem from not too long after that.
I’m **not** saying that my friends and I “invented” flarf, because I’m pretty sure that young undergrads/grads everywhere have sniggered and shot off a letter to poetry.com (which for those non-poets out there is a tiered marketing scheme designed to get you to buy heavily marked up books of any and all poetry that gets sent in to the “contest” that they run; “Congrats, your (purile) poem won, if you’d like a (faux) leather volume featuring your poetry (and 500 other “winners”), please pay us $85.”
What I am saying is that this kind of thing is *nothing* new, and it does not cry out for a jargony name or academic dialogue.