Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dappled Things and Flarfy Things

So I'm assuming you have all seen the new Dappled Things website and the fifth-anniversary issue, featuring, among others, James Schall, Joseph Bottum, Duncan Stroik, and Joseph Pearce. The new site is lovely and perhaps more "literary" in appearance. The front page also changes more often - right now you can find links to Sarah Ortiz's Etsy store and to the website for the Revised Roman Missal, which contains Matt Alderman's line art. I have high hopes for our little magazine, and I'm pretty excited about the issue we're working on now (watch for poems from Timothy Murphy and Pavel Chichikov).
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In the interest of sampling all things counter, original, spare, strange, I have recently become enamored of flarf (warning: may lead to Trochee Fixation). To be honest, I haven't done a careful analysis of flarf assumptions and politics, or figured out whether the parabens and hormones I am ingesting when I read the stuff are going to kill me in twenty years. All I know is that it tastes awesome, in that fake-Mexican-food-Chalupa-Supreme sort of way. But flarf is such a flaming snow-cone comet of hype and irony that I doubt I will be thinking about it in a few years. Anyway, I was reading the ol' Poetry blog last week when I came across this sneering reaction to an article by Micah Mattix, a professor at Houston Baptist University and one of the poets we recently published in Dappled Things. Basically Mattix says that recent efforts to push flarf as the future of poetry are misguided, since flarf is rooted in the same narrow ideology that gave us Language poetry and its cynical sycophant, the poetry of disjunction (or "elliptical lyric"). Instead of writing flarf, Mattix says, we should write in "natural" poetic forms:
What is needed now is not more ideological poetry but a new discovery of the “fundamental and perennial rules” of poetry. Without rules, there is no order and, therefore, no recognition. In the end, it is this recognition that makes experiencing art worthwhile. Via complex forms, we recognize the paradoxes of our present existence, or our fractured, conflicting selves, our yearning for coherence, transcendence, and closure, and the infinite beauty of the Creator.
Harriet went bananas over this, tittering at the idea of a "right-wing think tank" thinking about flarf (I admit that it is an amusing picture! but you don't have to be liberal to care about poetry), and asserting that Mattix "seemingly hasn’t read anything ever written about poetry or aesthetics." After the offended lefty knee-jerking subsides, the blog goes on to ask a good question: "But which forms, precisely, are “natural?” Which are not? And where (geographically, historically) do these “natural” forms come from?" Mattix replied with a longer dissection of the limitations of ideology, and concluded cryptically:
Beyond signification, hierarchy, self-reflexivity, closure, and ambiguity, what are other new discoveries in natural forms? To be honest, I am not sure, but this is really a question for poets.

In some respects, asking this is like asking a chemist what new isotope he will discover next. Who knows? However, having mastered the rules of his science, the chemist works to discover new rules, new compounds, and, therefore, contributes to his craft.

Mattix's takedown of ideology is refreshing, and ultimately he seems to be calling for a dimension of freedom that modern po-biz lacks. But his coy refusal to give specific examples of natural form is maddening! Where are these splendid songs that take into account "the inescapability of meaning and significance" and "how people really use language" while recognizing the "inescapability of form" and how the rules of poetry "are the very rules of God, reflected in the material world and existing independently of matter only in God himself"? We do get a third-party quote praising Dante's terza rima for embodying Trinitarian theology, but that's all. I want more.

It is strange to me that Mattix took flarf as his jumping-off point; it just seems like a trendy opening for him to talk about Maritain and poetic form. In fact, I think he has misjudged flarf. He supports his assertion that flarf is just another ideological spasm with a quote from flarf poet Rod Smith about "bad poetry" being just a label that the privileged use to maintain hierarchy. I myself criticized this statement in my little flarf essay. But the flarf movement is not a monolith, and Mattix ignores the opinions of other poets like Sharon Mesmer, who cited, as inspirations for flarf, "a dissatisfaction with certain LangPo products, a crying need for humor, and the creeping realization that American poetry overall was a bit lacking in life," a lack of life stemming from an "over-reliance on theory." Flarf, of course, started life as a juvenile prank that turned into a mailing list. Any theories about its poetics came after the fact. Does Mattix want a poetry that captures the way people really speak? Flarf certainly captures the way people speak on the internet.

The question of whether flarf has form is actually very interesting. Your typical "disjunctive" poem, of the sort that circulates like a smooth, die-cast token of avant bona fides, is marked by relentless change. Every sentence starts a new subject. It's like channel surfing, and my primitive human brain finds it perverse and annoying. A flarf poem, on the other hand, often concentrates obsessively on a word or phrase and develops its obsession using that stodgy traditionalist technique, comic timing! "Pizza Kitty" for instance: it was written using the results of a Google search for "pizza + kitty," and the two words recur over and over as in a sestina. If it had any agenda other than making me snort coffee from my nose, I missed it, sadly. Repetition is, of course, the essence of poetic form. Meter consists of certain repeated rhythmic patterns; rhymes repeat sounds; a sestina repeats the same six words in a fixed order; the Psalms repeat syntax in the figures of parallelism. The fact that flarf cobbles together phrases from the internet isn't remarkable. Collage has been important since the Modernists, and even existed in ancient times: look at the art of the cento, in which poets took lines from Virgil and Homer and rearranged them to make new poems. Sometimes this definitely took a subversive turn, as in the case of Faltonia, an early Christian poet who wrote the life of Jesus using the verses of pagan Virgil.

Flarf is less ideology and more id. Just look at "Chicks Dig War," which, the Constant Critic says, "deserves all the nervous accolades being spilled like martinis onto its open flames." People have been comparing it to "Howl," but to me it also seems like a hyperactive development of "The Naming of Parts," another poem about war, sex, information overload, and Mad-Libbing. (Dylan Thomas reading here) It's queasy and hilarious and horrible, being a sort of vortex created by barbaric YouTube comments and letters to Its guilt-tripping misogyny touches a sore nerve previously stung by Wilfred Owen's "Greater Love," a beautiful, cutting, unfair poem.

In the end, I can't say whether flarf is too "ideological" to count as one of Mattix's natural forms. I can only say that I process it as poetry and experience the sort of psychosomatic feedback which indicates that this is poetry in search of a reader. I can only say that it sticks in my memory, which is the sine qua non of strong poetry. Nada Gordon had this to say in response to a critic, and it's true in my case:
Even so, and even as an insider, my sense is that Flarf poems actually are memorable, although more perhaps because they are "bad" (In the sense of Eartha Kitt's "I Want to be Evil") or obnoxious or funny than because they are “good”: once you have heard titles like “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” “Chicks Dig War,” or “Mm-Hmm” you will have a difficult time forgetting them even if you want to. They are mindworms.
Poems don't achieve mindworm status unless they have "self-reflexivity of sound or meter, some sort of closure, ambiguity, and so forth." Flarf, or at least some flarf, must be legit even by Mattix's standards.


dylan said...

Slightly off topic. Owing to a facebook friend's postings of "poetic youtubes," I've been reading a lot of previously unread-by-me poets these days -- among them, several poets of color -- and am finding innumerable examples of consummate artistry. These poets -- Harryette Mullen, Major Jackson, Cyrus Cassells, Tracy K. Smith, and the poets in Camille Dungy's anthology Black Nature -- are producing work that I shall cherish for the rest of my life. Whether the mode is quirky and experimental (Mullen), or a bit more traditional (Cassells), there is not much that one could call trivial. But there is humor (Kevin Young's "Ode to Pork"). My library card is getting quite a workout!

Meredith said...

Thanks, Dylan! I'll look for the anthology.

some guy on the street said...

Grits with a side of Flarf

I got your side meal ready
in a devil's costume on the field of the West Side.
we have breathed the grits,
Grits are bubblin’ in the pot:
Another side of the do-it-yourself movement,
the Sunday crossword puzzle!

--- s.g.o.t.s and M$Bing.

I have to say, I'm still not entirely clear on what the form of flarf is. Has it rules? Can one tell whether a given composition is not flarf?

If epic poems in blank or rhymed heroics are like tapestries, perhaps sonnets are like needlepoint minatures, villanelles like illustrated frieze borders... and flarf is the lanyard of the world of poetry! Or maybe it's more like a charm bracelet: something made out of found shapes. If so, are we surprised when they don't really fit together? Are they supposed to fit? Of course, there are also the commercial charm bracelets: "express yourself with up to 12 polished cheap metal castings, choose from 549 designer shapes!" Of course, it's more than possible that greeting-cards have long contained commercial flarf in just this way... with a little more polish, for eujointedness.

(I'm more than willing to read a defense of charm bracelets; these are just my latest musings from my own snobbish taste perspective)