The new issue of Poetry Magazine is dedicated to two new “movements” in American poetry: Flarf and Conceptual Writing. I use quotation marks around the word movements because I think the word gimmick is more accurate. Unfortunately, I can’t use the word gimmick. You see, “I” don’t really exist in the strict sense of the word. Words are the software to the hardware of my brain. “I” don’t think. “I” don’t create. Ergo, “I” don’t exist. Instead, “I” am made of the words that other people, who have somehow escaped the cave—blasted technocrats!—have coined. All “I” can do is use quotation marks to let “people” know that “I” am not happy about it. If only I could be like Flarf poets, who accept their imprisonment with such childlike (but also heroic!) giddiness. They are so lucky.
And what is Flarf, you ask? Well, as far as I can tell, it is the use of already formulated, often bizarre, awkward or childish phrases found online to create a poem with as little conscious direction (and concern for aesthetics) as possible–a sort of automatic, kitsch, electronic collage, if you will. According to Kenneth Goldsmith:
Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?
Language, of course, is not just matter. It always says something as well, and there is always an “I” who is doing the saying, no matter how fractured or limited that “I” might be. And what Flarf says, according to Goldman, is that there is no stable “I”:
Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever.
Language, the world, and the self are in constant flux. This is nothing new. And, as numerous critics have noted over the years, it is a self-defeating statement. The very enunciation that the world and the self are in flux implies a fixed position.
Flarf poets, however, at least according to Goldsmith, seem happy to ignore to this fact. And why is that? I am not sure. However, I wonder if it has something do with the fact that if you imagine that you are not a fixed point on a line, it is easier to maintain the fantasy that life is but a series of discrete moments of pleasure and pain. We are not responsible adults anymore who one day must answer to our maker. We are children playing on a playground, caked in snot and sand. In this sense, I think Flarf is a pretty faithful expression of the bareness of Western philosophical materialism.
Yet, there is also an element of tacit acknowledgment in some Flarf poems that modern life is paltry, superficial and painful. In these poems, there is an element of regret that there is not more to life than this. In the poem, “Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas”, Nada Gorden, for example, expresses a childlike desire to escape the violence she finds in the world around her. The escape she offers in the poem, however, is a sort of limp humor. She ends the poem: Unicorn believers don’t declare fatwas. and you know that’s groovy baby!
So worry about something more important
like getting hit in a collision between
a comet being ridden by Elvis, and Hitler
riding a Unicorn. It’s a psychedelic unicorn light show
Unicorn believers don’t declare fatwas.
and you know that’s groovy baby!
It’s as if she is saying ignorance is bliss, which, of course, it often is, even if it is also always far from noble.