I’m going to try to begin to respond to Thomas re: Flarf. I’ll do this in a few posts. This one will set the background, the next will look at the specific examples Thomas has chosen and Thomas' own response to them.
For background reading, I’d suggest skimming my Airy Poetics posts for a general idea of where I’m coming from (or just when I prompt you in the this post).
I recommend Stephen Burt’s Close Calls With Nonsense as a generally accepted thumbnail of contemporary poetry’s roots, and dealing with difficulty. However, hold off on the part where he talks about new poets, because I'd like to use some of his examples sans authors in this post.
Steve Kowit’s The Mystique of the Difficult Poem deals with the fetishizing of “difficulty” in contemporary poems.
And Brendan Galvin’s The Mumbling of Young Werther: Angst by Blueprint in Contemporary Poetry provides a lucid and expandable critique of 1970s "soft" or quasi-surrealism.
You might also want to look at Dan Hoy’s critique of Flarf: The Virtual Dependency of the Post-Avant and the Problematics of Flarf: What Happens when Poets Spend Too Much Time Fucking Around on the Internet, although I pull a few threads from this essay I take a different tack. (Shoot – he also uses the word "zeitgeist.")
There's also Mary Karr’s “Against Decoration” (which I can’t find on-line – help?), and I think Hoagland might have a recent essay in Poetry that has bearing on this as well, but I haven’t read it.
My work here is done.
Actually I suppose I should connect some ideas. Many of these ideas pose a chicken-egg problem, so don’t read them as being ordered below in any kind of causative way. I also deliberately pruned some very interesting branches of thought in the interests of time.
But some basic themes: there’s a disconnect between how many poets are taught (at least via the university and university-orbit publications) to view their poetics’ genealogies and the actual patterns/waves/cross-currents of influence, primary, secondary, and tertiary. I’ll argue there’s a disconnect (similar mechanism) between what poets see their projects accomplishing in light of this problematic genealogy and what the “actual effects” of those projects are. Short form of the argument – “Saying X does Y does not make it so.” Further, there’s a clear divergence in how the “common” reader, as opposed to the poets, might view both the substance and the import of the poets and their poems. By “common reader,” in this case, I mean someone who lies outside the accepted paradigms university-orbit poetry world, but has nonetheless managed to read some poetry.
Schools and Genealogies: The implications of a false thumbnail.
First off, if you skim through the Burt essay, you’ll notice he takes a school based approach and uses anthologies as high water marks. It’s essentially a genealogy of poetics, focusing on which groups of authors influenced which groups of authors. It’s not entirely inaccurate, and he’s certainly right that this is the sort of common “history” that most academics assume/teach; post-80s, it’s what most of the young poets learn at universities.
That vision of history ignores a few things – first, poets arise from the people, as it were. Changes in the zeitgeist are going to be reflected in poetry and the arts in general; therefore, you’re really looking at a cross-pollination and importation of ideas from multiple sources and parties, not a linear chain. Certainly post-modernism can be viewed as retaining the structural fetishes of Modernism insofar as many poems simply import structures from other disciplines. The pattern of this importation (or translation if you will) occurs within the limitations of actual poems. Let’s take surrealism as an example.
Surrealism is/was a cross artistic movement that went through several discrete permutations – but it’s important to note that the surrealism is both normative and hierarchical; some mental states are better than others, not all things are equal. One of the phases of surrealism (or subsequent movements, or heirs of) is taken to task by Brendan Galvin in the above essay. But we should note we’re not dealing with a linear chain (which is easiest for “academic analysis”), but an ebb and flow of influences. Bly may have read a lot of Breton, which influences some of his work. CD Wright might read both Bly and Breton – who knows how that influences her? What about a graduate student who reads all three? Or only Celan’s “Todesfuge” (Death-Fuge)?
Further, because surrealism was conceived as a normative project (i.e., one could produce bad/inauthentic/false surrealism) it does not follow that any one surrealist, say Breton, would approve of any of the poetry or poetic effects produced in any of the poems that Galvin criticizes. So it’s not quite as simple as saying that Surrealism influenced a subset of the 1970s generation of American poets who consciously read surrealism and who overtly identified themselves as “surrealists” – not so simple if we mean to imply an essentialist view of “surrealism.”
Essentialism in this context is problematic – it projects certain ends onto effects which might be found in multiple poetics/poems, and thus I think it's an important part of the problem.
I often think poets entirely forget this. Or at least some types of poets, which brings me to an important caveat.
Caveats - Again, Always With the Caveats
When I refer to poets indulging in a kind of false consciousness of their projects, I refer in some sense to all poets, for you cannot learn the history and strategies and permutations of a craft without letting them influence your compositional processes, but I particularly wish to refer to poets whose compositional processes take them fairly far afield from the "common reader". I’d certainly include most AG writing, Flarf, Language Poetry, and in another way Neo-Formalism, in this category. Granted, there is no "common reader," yada, yada, yada. However, assuming arguendo that there is a class of moderately well-read adults in America who read poetry who do not participate in the meta-poetic dialogues, my rough line for demarcation is that poems which require a goodly amount of special training to understand have gone beyond the "common reader," or that the common reader by definition does not posess the poetical capital generated by those dialgoues.
This is one of those chicken-egg moments, for I’ll be talking about this later on. But the basic idea is that if I took a college educated, knows some classical poetry, person and showed them, say, one of the flarf poems I saw earlier, they’d have no idea how to read it or what the intended goals of the poem were. Another way of saying this is that the poem’s import and goals are not to be found within the poem itself – that they rely on an extra-poetical dialogue which is fairly esoteric.
“Saying X does Y does not make it so.” Or “Sez you.”
In some sense the above section is about several types of false consciousness: gaps between how poets perceive what they’re doing and how readers perceive what they’re doing (to put it very simply). Also, the projection of a theory onto what is a (perhaps unknowable) “real world” insofar as it involves poets envisioning their projects as doing/being certain things or having certain effects.
But, regardless of the intention of the poets, we do have to step back and look at the poems on the page, and ask, are they really doing what they were intended to do? From a meta-perspective, although both schools have their excuses, neither Language Poetry or Neo-Formalism has paid off – both schools gnash their teeth at the continued popularity of writers like Collins and Kooser and have no end of belittling things to say about them and their efforts. Of course, these things usually crop up via unfavorable explication, and a goodly number of the Flarfists are involved in such things.
While I will return to the above, I’d first like to propose a method for looking at poetry from another standpoint, which while it might not be neutral or objective, could lend some perspective to us.
The Naked Poem: what does it look like? Who is looking?
From the perspective of randomly pulling books and journals off shelves in the poetry section, the common reader, unless taught to do so by a university, is probably not going to catalogue poets by “influence,” who taught where, which anthology was published first and by whom, or in what journals the poems first appeared, but rather by *the discrete effects of the poetry* (the articulated poetics of the poems), or, for the real plebes among us, accessibility and subject matter. The common reader has little or no recourse to the meta-dialogues on poetry which influence how the poets perceive what they’re doing.
So, I think one could usefully characterize poems by their effects. In the Airy Poetics posts (link to stand alone post), I fooled about with an analytical toy for this end, suggesting that we could begin to look at poems through the following lenses:
True Consciousness v Assertive False Consciousness or Passive False Consciousness
Easy Parse v Difficult Chosen Subject Parse or Difficult/Impossible Structural Subject Parsed
Easy Aesthetics v. Formally Esoteric or Formally Flacid
Politically Left v Politically Right
Open Readership v. Elitist Readership
In that post, I loaded these with caveats, including the fact that many of them overlap, but we could also add many other lenses that are far more specific, like density of language, length of sentences, preponderance of word choice, tone, line-length, lineation strategy (as suggested by poem), etc. Use of more lenses might eventually produce a splitting of poets (as a proxy for discrete movements within their individual oeuvres) into schools which roughly correlate with the genealogical model. However, the interesting thing happens when you use fewer lenses and you start to produce unusual groupings – such as:
Difficult Parse, False Consciousness, Easy Aesthetics – Eliot, Spencer, some Maya Angelou, Muldoon, Surrealism, Ashbery, Stevens
Easy Parse, False Consciousness, Easy Aesthetics – Merrill, P. Larkin, some Maya Angelou, Bukowski, W Matthews, Some Identity Writing, Bly, Sexton, O’Hara, Kooser, Olds, Kippling
See the toy post for more details.
To step back and look at the forest for the moment, common readers are going to assess poetry based on those big lenses, although they might not articulate them as such, and I think it’s a useful perspective to explore, especially if one is at all interested in broadening the audience for poetry. I very much doubt that the “common reader” will engage in a sophisticated poetic analysis from the perspective of post-modern literary theories. I hasten to point out that I think the common reader *is* very sophisticated in terms of being able to parse meaning (think of the tremendous sophistication film analysis that most people in our culture evidence, regardless of terminology used) and recognize aesthetics – but what they don’t do is assign *extra* significance to those meanings and aesthetics, then locate them within the history of poetics and examine how they might a) extend/modify a genealogical thread (which I’ve argued is a limited metaphor anyway) or b) contain a meta-poetical (or even meta-societal) statement, insofar as that statement depends on specialized poetical knowledge. Actually, that’s what the critic’s role has evolved into – the location of the poem at hand within the accepted genealogy of poetry, the explication of the poem and, more importantly to them, the poem’s meta-poetical resonances.
In terms of the above lenses, I’ll argue that the academic critic will naturally prefer (for reasons of job/identity security) poems that have difficult subject/structural parses, esoteric aesthetics, and, of course, elitist readership. We could also add another lens – “written to address issues currently of interest to academics v. not on the MLA radar.” Makes you wonder what aesthetic lines would get crossed for critics to capture that first group while avoiding the second.
The cynical way of looking at the interaction between explication and poetic production was articulated in my first post on Flarf. But it’s one I can stand by. The great Australian poet, A.D. Hope said as much:
The poet trained in a school of creative writing by academic critics and taking a job in the same atmosphere is more and more tempted. . .to produce work which, more or less unconsciously, is written in illustration of current critical theories; and thus reversing the proper order of nature in which the critical theories arise to deal with the independent raw material of the creative imagination. . .What is really disturbing is when the young lover has the professor in bed with him and knows his performance is being graded as a first or second class honours, pass or fail. Writing is, or should be, a single-minded process.
("Literature versus the Universities" in The Cave and the Spring: Essays on Poetry, University of Chicago Press)
I suppose a better way of expressing my “sez you” formula would be:
From the perspective of Poet(X)/in-paradigm critic:
X produces Poem(Y) thinking it does G which has implications for E
(Where G stands for any particular in-paradigm effect (little conception of R (below), or R as seen as a subset of G)
Where as from the perspective of Common Reader:
X produces Y which does R
Where R is seen as being entirely unconnected with E (and there’s little or no concept of G within the Reader’s perspective at all, since they don’t enjoy the in-paradigm privilege of the poet)
Mystique and Difficulty
At this point I’d like to consider Kowit’s essay. In it he critiques “difficulty” as a desirable trait in poetry and provides a series of very amusing quotes from Graham and Bloom regarding difficulty. Obviously, there’s a divergence in valuation of difficulty between Kowit (and myself) and the view espoused by Graham and Bloom. Basically, difficulty is often seen to equate with intelligence. If the poem is “too difficult” then you’re obviously “too stupid” to really “get it.” Elitism in a nutshell. But sometimes difficulty can be simple obscurity – the poem avails itself of a structure unknown to the reader be it shared by other poets or be it a private code. Those who have the key to the code can appear to be intelligent. This obviously ties into and reinforces the “academic paradigm” idea. Or perhaps it should be a complex – the poem-critic-university complex. I don't think that G in my above formula is always going to be include the element of "difficulty," but "difficulty" or obscurism does describe one way of looking at the need for critical intervention between the poem and the reader.
((Aside - Part of me thinks it’s good Graham has seen the light, part of me thinks that before she opens her mouth, she ought to get down on her knees and publicly kiss the asses of the poets who have been taking her “new” approach all along.))
I think much of the culture wars in poetry turn on these kind of things: Difficulty v. Transparency (which I label Easy v. Difficult Parse in the above lenses); the conception of Readership.
So, part of my problem with Flarf (and with much AG poetry in general) is that it’s painfully elitist and obscure, insofar that the explications required to take some kind of deep pleasure/understanding from the poem presuppose a specialized training not available to the casual reader. (For if we were just dealing with pleasure of apprehension, non-AG elements, e.g., the presence of a coherent narrative or “message,” won’t matter one way or the other.)
The other argument, not often publicly advanced, is that AG poetry is *easy* to produce. As Kowit writes, As a fledgling poet I had written enough high-flown gibberish myself to know its seductions. Though I would continue to be read occasional poems and passages in poems that were thrilling, however inexplicable, the business of writing incoherent poetry seemed tiresome, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I’d follow that up, but it’s pretty clear, and sure to draw some howls anyway.
Galvin distinguishes between poems which say they “risk” with poems that actually do: The true risk is still in presenting felt expressions of the way things are, statements that move the inner life of the hearer because they offer him a truth deeper than one he previously knew. This formulation would cut deeply against obscurity and by implication relegate the critic to the corner.
Too abstract? Let’s look at some poems.
How Difficult It Is: Job Security for Critics, or “Sez You Redux"
If we look at the Burt essay he’s got a number of ideas on how to read “new poetry” (which is essentially elliptical/AG/obscurist poetry – flarf also falls loosely in this orbit):
“look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common—do they stand for one another, or for the same thing? Are they opposites, irreconcilable alternatives? Or do they fit together to represent a world? Look for self-descriptive or for frame-breaking moments, when the poem stops to tell you what it describes. . .Use your own frustration, or the poem’s apparent obliquity, as a tool: many of these poems include attacks on assumptions or pretenses that make ordinary conversational language, and newspaper prose, so smooth. . . Look for the patterns you might seek in visual art. Especially if the poem avoids grammatical sense—if it looks like a canvas strewn with phrases—try treating it as just that. Why place the phrases in this, and no other, array? What sort of person would juxtapose them, and why? Do they imply a hierarchy of importance, or a temporal order (“I noticed first this, then that”)?”
To which I think – “Yeah, right.” I mean really, who wants to do this, and to what end? Granted, there are some gains to be had in exploring puzzles and training the self to critically apprehend the world, but I’m not sure why this must occur via poetry. It would seem that if you wanted to embark on a critique of culture or a project to improve the person, there are more direct and effective ways to do so.
In short, the above strategies for reading “new poetry” strike me as an awful lot of work for relatively little gain. Not that strategies themselves are bad, but let’s look at the “difficult” poems they’re applied to. Stripped of their authors (for I don’t wish to consider anything but the lines), here are excerpts that Burt explicates for the unenlightened reader:
Site of their desire: against a long high wall under vapor light
Most likely to succeed: the perpetual starting over
Inside his mouth: night after night after night
Directive: by any means necessary
the fields flooded with milk
the herbs shining on the mountain
the strong salt soil my dear
you stoop to pinch off eatings
while behind you a vast
task is rising
a skein of use
Did we surprise our teachers who had niggling doubts about the picayune brains of small black children who reminded them of clean pickaninnies on a box of laundry soap? How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third longest river of the darkest continent? In the land of the Ibo, the Hausa and the Yoruba, what is the price per barrel of nigrescence?
I’m just another pizza delivery girl
Without a pizza, a raconteur with nothing
To recount. I heavy-breathe by the rabbit
Iconography, refusing to multiply. Mina Loy
Is my favorite video game.
I love blowing up those enemy nouns.
Sometimes you can dismiss poems as being more or less mandalas for critical conversation, rather than carrying specific deep meaning themselves. Although it’s an easy game to play, I’d like to explore that here for a second – the relatively high level of interchangeability of critique. Burt’s made the following critique of one of the above poetry fragments. In context, it seems rather impressive, intellectual, plausible, subtle, so forth. He's offering an explication of a "difficult" poem, to us, the poor stupid readers. But can you (the poor stupid reader) link this passage to any of the excerpts above? For Burt is only referring to one of the passages when he writes:
That artifice can carry meaning in itself: often it tries to demonstrate that selves, personalities, egos, are themselves artificial, effects of a social matrix. Nonetheless, contemporary poems like these hold together if we can imagine a personality behind them. The poem carries, as people do, a social or regional or ethnic context; it leaps, as a person’s thoughts do, from topic to topic, and it lacks—as real people usually lack—a single all-explaining storyline or motive. Being like a person, such a poem can also ask what exactly makes us persons, how we know a person when we see one, or how we tell one another apart.
Or can the passage apply equally to any of the excerpts? All the fragments contain an artifice of one kind or another, from which Burt’s conclusion flows. We can imagine a personality behind each one which might “hold the poem together” (although I’d say this requires a lot of work/projection on the reader’s part *and* that personality isn’t going to be an exclusive one). The poem fragments all carry, as people do, various contents. They all leap from topic to topic. They all lack a single all-explaining storyline, thus, by the logic of the explication, they all can “ask” (bit of a personification fudge here) what exactly makes us persons. Which is a high-falutin' ideer, yep.
Although I’d submit that no common readers will walk away from those fragments with the question “how do we know a person when we see one?” in any level of their consciousness as prompted by the fragments themselves. Did you?
My purpose is not to bash Burt – he’s actually quite a good reader, sensitive to nuance and able to marshall a considerable store of knowledge. My critique is a bit broader than that, and a bit simpler. I pointed out in that initial flarf critique (not that the fragments above are all flarf) that flarf is just the latest gloss on a kind of academic interchangeable poem that privileges an extra-poetic discourse over the poems themselves.
In Galvin’s under-regarded essay, he attacks nonsensically flaccid neo-surrealism in a manner wholly appropriate to critiquing AG/Flarf/Burt’s ”New Poems”:
The effect of such stanzas — and they can be found in nearly every contemporary anthology and in many poetry collections and magazines — is like overhearing a drunken stranger talking to himself in a bar mirror late at night, and about someone we have never met. We aren't admitted to these poems. . .No particulars of their experience are given in a coherent way that might make us assent, "Yes, it is tragic that this has happened to a human being, and we are caught up in this tragedy because we are human, and this could happen to us."
In other words, is there a feeling of inevitability about the poems, or are they merely arranged to resemble necessary statements about experience? A new form of Academicism is at work here. Written by academically-trained writers who teach in writing programs where presumably they seek tenure and promotion as other professors do, these are as much "publications" as they are poems. One sure way to publish is to imitate what is already trendy, rather than taking the time, with attendant risks, to strike off in search of one's own voice.
You’ll notice that these equally apply to the above.
Dan Hoy’s critique of Flarf rightly points out that “google-sculpting” pretty much surrenders the technique of collage to a set of corporate algorithms (that control the rankings of the google search engine). In this way the google-sculpting poet or flarfist isn’t drawing from a random spread of ideas, or sampling the true breadth of the population, but rather they are using a limited set of material (internet) which is ordered for them by a corporation. The implication is that there’s an ordering force at work here, one that is not critiqued but accepted and passed off as random acquisition.
However, I’m more interested in the threads that Hoy leaves unfollowed, particularly in this passage:
In any case, flarf’s Un-P.C. aesthetic aim. . .is a reactionary sentiment left over from the 90s. . .A juvenile strategy like this may be revolutionary in relation to the Mary Olivers of the world, but if one follows Duchamp by dropping the medium as a defining limit so as to engage with poetics as a behavior and way of thinking, it’s not a matter of creating poetry in relation to other poems: ‘poetry’ is simply a byproduct, and what leads to these recursive acts of ‘revolution’ is a defining/ confining of it to the rubric of letters and lettres, text and txt.
Which I think dovetails nicely with what I’ve been saying about poetry as a mandala, or springboard. A bit later he makes a particularly cogent observation about reactionary aesthetics:
As long as poets limit their poetic output to text (which is fine in itself) while also limiting their conception of ‘poetry’ to it, we’re going to keep getting these episodic moonings and middle fingers made against some stuffy fuddy-duddy or otherwise projected entity (in this case ‘acceptable’ poems and poets) under the guise of a critical leveling of the larger culturopolitical establishment. As if any boundaries are transgressed when you hold a protest within the space (material or cognitive) apportioned off for you by the institution you’re protesting against.
I think this is quite resonant. One traditional justification for the AG is a “rebellion” against traditionally stuffy verse and/or the various ‘mind-forged manacles’ which Blake railed against. Recently that’s been any number of justifications which are perhaps most cogently articulated by one of the early Language Poetry poetics: poetry as consciously subverting the expected narrative expectations in poetry by foregrounding the language itself in an effort to create a mode of expression which by its very nature would critique the conventions of bourgeois society, rather than using the traditional poetic modes to mobilize various substantive arguments against elements of that society. More broadly, such writings were seen as challenging and undermining the traditional western conception of communication as a speaker communicating an (often written) message to a listener through a neutral and apolitical medium (language); the language poets would argue that in actuality a large number of assumptions and social conventions entered into the process to shape our understanding. By consciously undermining these assumptions, Langpo was thought subvert the hierarchy of the (meaning controlling) writer and the passive (influenced) reader, not through a metaphysical act of “making the poem/communicating a message/destroying meaning”, but by challenging/frustrating the reader’s assumptions about how language and narrative works, how meaning is generated.)
However the concepts in the previous paragraph are extra-poetical, they’re part of that academic/elitist dialogue that is required for the poems to work as such. Intended effect based on a genelogical and informed meta-poetics perspective v. the actual real-world effects on readers, complicated by the non-exclusionary nature of the intended effect (any old thing could be argued to produce the effect), and the basic boogey-man nature of the force being reacted to.
OK – that’s it for now. I’ll turn to Flarf/Flarf explication itself when I have a moment. For a prefiguring of that argument, and to show how different perspectives can validly be attached to the poems, you might want to look at a previous challenge by Thomas which I took up, where I critiqued K. Mohamed’s reading of two poems. Basically I felt that the readings showed a lot of political bias and were *far* from the polar opposites that K. proposed they were.
My Flarf argument’s going to model that, and be predicated by the above. It might have some interesting quirks (it's in an even rougher draft stage than this piece is) but you can basically guess the shape of it.