Vanessa Place: the Mona Lisa of Flarf?

We never met a Flarfist, but we’re beginning to wonder if Flarf simply belongs to the 20th century avant-garde art & poetry tradition of Asshole-ism.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012), author of The Great War and Modern Memory;  Purple Heart in WW II; PhD, Harvard ’52; essayist who taught at U. Penn, Germany, and London, wrote

Would it be going too far to consider what Modernism derived from the European political atmosphere of its time (I am thinking both of Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933) as a way of suggesting that Modernism in its way is an artistic refraction of totalitarianism?

In our humble opinion, no, it would not be going too far.  We’re talking T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, here, and it goes deeper than just Germany and Russia; British poets (Hulme, Thomas, Brooke) were swept up in male war-mongering before the Great War—Pound associate Ford Madox Ford (who would later rub shoulders with the right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critics in the US) worked for the War Propaganda Bureau during WW I.

Scarriet has already exposed Modernism as a reactionary Men’s Club that bought low and sold high in the art market.  There was nothing freeing or broadening or insightful or revolutionary happening with the 20th century avant-garde.  It was never about freeing the world of capitalism and Edgar Guest.  It was just mean-spirited snaffling. The shabby treatment of Edna Millay by Hugh Kenner and the Pound circle is just one example.  So let’s look at this interesting quote from Amy King’s recent piece in The Rumpus where she talks about one of the critic Edgar Poe’s favorite topics: cliques.  King calls them ” intentional groups:”

First, let me back up to my graduate school days at SUNY Buffalo. I was naïve. I used to wonder why Susan Howe would declare that she “is not a Language Poet.” I didn’t understand why, in each class I took with Charles Bernstein, a certain core of “po-mo” boys were permitted to dominate discussions every semester while new female students would populate the room’s fringes, dropping away after the first week or so. I didn’t understand how intentional groups premised on exploring poetics intent on engaging politically as the “avant-garde,” presumably to destabilize power, might also be complicit in reifying the overall capitalist structure in the process of their empire building, er, institutionalization.

Not until the Flarf Collective came on the scene did I begin to think a bit more consciously about intentional groups. That is, my gut registered aversion to their private, invite-only email listserv, where some poets I knew abandoned ship with sideways notes of exclusivity and pretension, and others I know and like very much remained. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and numerous poets exploring its use value through various means of engagement, I thought about the similarities of Gary Sullivan heading up a group that was collecting poetic techniques and André Breton gathering his all-male cast of Dada members to compose his manifestos. I realized that, akin to Breton’s aims, the Flarf Collective was formulating a list of techniques and engagements that would ‘liberate’ us from the lyric, as they defined it. They were going to show us the error of our lyrical ways.

When I engaged them on my blog regarding some cursory problematics of exclusive membership, specifically in the case of Jennifer Knox who was not a Flarf Collective member but was before-their-manifestation employing techniques now claimed by Flarf, as were others, I was distractedly schooled on my own susceptibility to falling victim to emotional conditioning via a poem penned for me by Sullivan about my grandma’s labia. I am easily distracted. But I still wondered, since many poets were and continue to respond to the Internet and its impact, why did one group, a Flarf Collective, try to own that?

The similarities, and limitations, of Breton’s Dada-cum-Surrealism are worth a side note here for they speak to the risks of supporting and advancing intentional groups of this ilk. In a move towards recruiting additional worthwhile artists for his coterie, Breton laid claim to painters like Frida Kahlo (“’I didn’t know I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore . . . I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”), Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini (“Breton seemed to expect devotion, like a pope, and wanted me to become ‘a sheep in his gang’… I refused the label Surrealist.”). None became official members, and only by association are their paintings now read through the framework of Surrealism, often rendering limited, simplistic interpretations & even preventing the deeper engagement they deserve.

Beautiful.  Amy King is going to get in trouble, because she gets it.  We wish we could give her a hug.

The Flarf Collective think they’re special because they use overhead projectors and do stuff in museums and they can claim to care and not care about poetry as they turn it into conceptual art.

King is right to see Flarf as nothing more than a market ploy to advance a few careers, and this cynical view of hers unfortunately plays right into the hands of the cynical Flarfists.

The madder Amy King gets, the more fun the Flarfists have.

Forget it, Amy King.  They’re assholes.  Let them be.  Shit, they can’t be worse than Ezra Pound.  Let them have their fun.

And Amy will essentially agree with us.  As she puts it towards the end of her 2 part essay, “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz:”

I’m not out to deny anyone institutional participation or access to resources; rather, I want to call attention to the claim these groups purport to block capitalism while intentionally employing capitalist techniques (i.e. media-style sensationalism to garner notice, sound-bite saturation, prolific self-referencing, reducing all other modes of subjective expression to exchangeable equivalences, etc.) to achieve and secure status within the capitalist structure.

We personally think it self-defeating to set oneself up as so anti-capitalist that it backs you into a dour corner seething with both resentments and contradictions; but putting that aside, it’s clear that Amy King, in her critique of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Marjorie Perloff and their Flarfist/Conceptualist mentality? behavior? stupidity? has got these clowns pegged.

We like the remark by Amy King’s friend.  When he heard that Goldsmith read poetry at the White House (with Billy Collins and others) and bragged that his (Goldsmith’s) exaggerated paisley suit was “subversive” because the suit maker was the same worn by the president, who opined he wouldn’t dare wear such a suit, Amy’s friend said, “Whether you’re an American president or an avant-garde poet, Brooks Brothers has a suit for you.”

John Quinn, the modern art collector who made the 1913 Armory Show a reality (Quinn gave the opening address at the show) was Eliot and Pound’s attorney, and negotiated the book deal for Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Walter Arensberg, another modern art collector, funded not only Duchamp but Williams and Stevens.   20th century avant-garde painting and poetry were boiled in the same stew.  The poets are late to the game, as far as conceptualism goes, but that’s only if poetry turns into its cousin, art.  Which really has poetry heading backwards, not forwards.

Perloff, et al, is just a continuation of the Romanticism-hating of Pound and Eliot.

Found Poetry has been around a long, long time, hasn’t it?   And was it really that interesting the first time around?

Originality has always been something to be aimed for in poetry, and it is never entirely achieved.   By definition, the less original a poem is, the less poetic it is.   How original is it?  The question can be maddening, obviously.  And to be entirely mad, one simply gives in to the madness and becomes Kenneth Goldsmith.  He is the monkey in the cage of the problem.

Goldsmith is stupid enough to think that “plagiarism and theft” will “erase the ego.”  But last time I checked, the ego of the criminal is the biggest ego of all.

Flarf is nothing more than Duchamp all over again, except now instead of calling Duchamp-ism “art,” the Flarfists call Duchamp-ism “poetry.”

And that, my conceptualist friends, is the only difference.


  1. Anonymous said,

    July 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Wow, Amy King is a slugger. I will have to go back and read the essay again, because when I got to the point where Goldsmith bragged about wearing an “outrageous suit” as “transgressive” I started vomitting in my mouth and had to stop. I’ll go back and finish, if I can bring myself to. I really pay very little attention to anything in Pobiz, aside what this blog brings to my attention. As bad and obnoxious as I saw things developing at the end of the last century, they have gotten worse, to juge by King’s story.

  2. noochinator said,

    July 27, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    Modernism is Futurism with a human face.

  3. angela said,

    July 28, 2013 at 2:01 am

    Thank you for this post…have not read Rumpus for quite a while, but will have to read King’s essay. What puzzles me is that KG actually accepted the WH gig, it seemed beneath him to perform before such commoners. KG and Perloff have always smelled of ivory tower bs exclusivity (and that comes from one who was never part of the lit scene, just a reader of things). I’m fascinated by process, but do not believe in much of what has been derived from the conceptional movement (as I understand it). That said, I do appreciate where Cage took his art…so, cannot discount it all.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    July 28, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Futurism is, of course, fascism, but there’s a simpler way of putting it; What all these -isms in art, Modernism, Conceptualism, Futurism, finally are is Impatient-ism. They want this–new–future–right–now! A “future” mode that finally does not stand up to scrutiny. I read once that those in prison have the same intelligence as the rest of us; what characterizes the criminal is impulsiveness. Conceptualism wants to shout out the idea, wants to know the ending now and spoil the movie. Conceptualism is finally what Poe’s aesthetic writings warned us of: the Didactic. You have an idea–good for you–but an idea is not the same thing as art. I’m not a big fan of Cage, because to me that’s just more Conceptualism without art, without the beauty patiently brought to life. We get the idea of music, or we get silence, or we get coughing during a concert, but those of us who love Beethoven don’t need Cage to remind us that what is “real” is how long it takes the Beethoven to transpire or when someone coughs during the slow movement of the Moonlight sonata. It’s patronizing to remind us of that, or to assert that Cage is now and Beethoven merely a past that is past, or that Cage and Beethoven are somehow equivalent. Cage is not enlightening. He’s embarrassing. Of course embarrassment is a powerful thing, but like fire, it needs to be kept in the fireplace. That’s finally what Post- modernism is: humor that stems from embarrassment. “Where’s your sense of humor? You old Beethoven loving fuddy-duddy!” As if you can’t love Beethoven and have a sense of humor. Beware the comic tyrant. He will kill us all.

    • angela said,

      July 31, 2013 at 4:46 am

      Thank you for these thoughts on Cage. Your -isms comment reminds me why I find labels so interesting – to the layperson(moi), they mean nothing – to the academic, the mean everything. Yet, in the end, are they anything, but a placeholder to mark a period in time from which the labeled artist will eventually wish to break free…

  5. thomasbrady said,

    July 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    By the way, Jorie Graham was not the first Foet.

    When the lawyer/modern art collector John Quinn negotiated T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land book deal, Eliot was guaranteed the annual Dial Prize ( including a cash award equal to a year’s salary at Lloyd’s bank where Eliot worked) for the Waste Land–while his friend Pound was still editing the manuscript! Other “winners” of the Dial prize: Ezra Pound and his friend W C Williams. Oh and e e Cummings, who later eloped with the wife of the editor– poor old Scofield Thayer, a rich boy Eliot met in prep school and whose uncle wrote “Casey at the Bat.”. Thayer had a nervous breakdown and the new editor was Marianne Moore. She “won” a Dial Prize, too.

  6. July 31, 2013 at 2:57 am

    Although I intensely dislike Amy King’s poetry, what I call word-spew, and I find her prose almost impossible to read, clotted as it is with grad school crit lit jargon, I agree with her assessment of Flarf and the other cynical, self-serving assholes. Theory is NOT poetry. Have you ever read a Kenneth Goldman poem? Flarfists depend on intimidation, exploiting the normal human fear that one is not hip.

  7. Gerald Parker said,

    August 25, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Isn’t “found poetry” more or less the equivalent of “roadkill” for the culinary arts?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: