Saturday, August 20, 2022


Flarf? Seriously? Sure, and we'll set up a Department of Crayola studies right after this already tedious digital in joke finally stomps the last shimmer of resonance from The Ironic Effect .Flarf is late in the game, I think, attempting to be something that Pop Art was during the Sixties, a species of Capitalist Folk Art where the commercial design of advertising was taken as a worthy aesthetic principle by serious working artists; it presented us with Soup Cans, Colleges with goat heads, American Flags and raunchy car seats , products of design all, and served as a genuinely odd fulfillment of Walter Benjamin's much cited essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Benjamin had thought that mass production of aesthetic objects would cause the mystifying and distancing aura to evaporate from around paintings, sculptures, and the like and allow the rest of us to appreciate, enjoy and be inspired by art in a way that didn't rely on a priesthood of critics and academics to keep us attentively dumbfounded with a theoretical catechism. This was not unlike Martin Luther's spearheading the Protestant Reformation, initiated but the invention of moveable type and the printing of the Bible ; the Catholic Church had lost it's exclusivity as interpreters of The Word, and Luther presented that all a worshiper needed as his Bible and the courage to seek the God of his understanding. Alternative currents within alternative streams makes for intriguing footnotes in literary histories and can give reason for a Cultural Studies major to further beg the question as to how information glut and digital dispersion usurps claims to regional voices and the certainty of the distinct and original voice rising above the rabble, but we have , in essence, the return of the Dada Gesture. The point is to gum up the works and make farting noises in the back row while the admittedly stuffy conversation , quietest and post-avant, drones from the podium. Good for a giggle, but Flarf seems like an undergraduate writing program manifesto that managed to crawl out the Kinko’s copier and land on someone’s accommodating server.

Poetry encompasses all sorts of odd configurations and rethinking, it seems to me , and will continue to do so regardless of anyone's well-worded attempts to put a fence around the form and preserve its purity. Language , we tend to forget, is a living thing , used by millions , billions of us around the globe to get across the complexity of experience with a finite vocabulary, and to encompass new successes, new disasters. It's a malleable entity, and while the meanings of words and their syntactical constructions change with constant use, tempered by technology, politics, pop-cultural, language and its literary forms, the novel,the poem, the play, the short story, wind up settling down into a semblance of order, structure, coherence. Frayed, changed, tweaked, but intact. 

I'm not a Flarf fan--I will take William Burroughs, Godard and Pynchon over the easy ironies of a generation of bright scribes who seem intent, to hammer the remaining life from the concept of irony--but those who've been around poetry classes, workshops, reading series and have written three decades worth of material trying to debunk previous standards simultaneously and extend them yet further, we've seen this energy before. This is to be expected and desired; while there's only so many intellections one can play their variations upon in the attempt to develop an original poetic and aesthetic with which to nestle their work at a theoretical distance from a casual reader, the real energy is in the work itself, the actual poems that get written with the attitude to "make it new". Verve and innovation are what poetry constantly needs to keep in a relevant resource for a reader desiring something more gratifying than having to contend with thick , sober prose paragraphs from authors who cannot stop describing how the universe does and does not work.

 It's not that I don't "get Flarf", but rather that the kids have discovered my old toys in the attic, in the form of old avant gardisms and moldy experimentalism, and who have painted the notions in colors of their choosing. An aesthetic that generally suggests a preference for inappropriate juxtapositions of rhetorical pitch and tone, practitioners of flarf scour the Internet for the convolutions, crazed coinages, conflations, and confusions an unmonitored language finds itself subjected to; the findings are brought back to the reader (anyone eager to be in on the joke) in poetic form, shall we say, in an effort to bring an x-ray to the pinched seriousness of a literary establishment's endeavors to pass itself off as essential to existence. It is, we guess correctly, a joke. If that's the case, it's a joke that gets told over and over, the thinking being, it seems, that a concept gets more profound and funnier with frequency. I used to have great fun with the find and replace mechanisms embedded in Word documents; I would cut and paste a straightforward NYTimes article detailing some bloodless activity only wonks would be interested in, and then used find and replace to switch-out appropriate ones for ones that were non sequiturs. Finding and replacing all uses of the article "The", for example, replacing it with a nonsense sentence like "Jesus, your breath makes want to eat Cheeze Whiz Hunger Punks". And so on. It was instant Dada, incredibly funny, but after the glee came the tedium of just doing something in an attempt to re-ignite a mania that had passed. Flarf seems a more grandiose version of that and, as with many experimental movements of the passing moment, the rationalizations for their perpetuation is more artful than the work itself.

Meantime, poetry withstands this assault as it withstood the valiant energies of my contemporaries and me, the best of their efforts will be absorbed, the best work will find homes in appropriate anthologies and website archives, and another group of writers, some years younger, will begin their attempt to usurp the current residents at the top of the heap. One might call this a dialectic, a cycle; one might also consider terming it a pathology, having as much to do with vanity, ego, status, and the conviction that one's generation is the last word at the end of history. Language and it's attendant form, poetry, however, goes on. We still breath, it still thrives.

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